by Sean McCloud
This week, NPR’s Morning Edition resurrected the October 2012 Pew Poll that suggested that 19.6% of Americans had no religious affiliation, dubbed them “nones,” and described this as a rising trend. The week-long radio series, “Losing Our Religion,” started with a discussion of the poll and then quickly veered into the classic Henry Luce journalism style of attempting to discuss social trends through select personal narratives.
While I was struck (not surprised) how throughout the series the journalists tended to use the same default terms, such as “God” and “faith,” as their interviewees, the aspect I found most problematically interesting were the assumptions behind the concept of “nones” itself, construed in the NPR series title as “losing our religion.” As Steven Ramey aptly noted last October on this blog, the poll and its respondents constructed the category “nones” out of an amalgam of answers and groupings. “The analysis from Pew,” Ramey wrote, “and in response to Pew, creates an illusion of commonality through the construction of this group ex nihilio.” And, I would add, Pew’s and NPR’s construction of “nones” also works in effect to construct “religion” as something institutional and relegated to certain social formations dubbed religion, while other social formations that might look to an outside observer like “religion” get thrown into the “none” category.
In other words, one could offer an alternative reading suggesting that the vast majority of nones are really “somes” who hold to concepts such as a god, gods, powers, and ghosts. Very few of those polled were atheists/non-theists/non-supernaturalists. Like so many other examples of social scientific studies—and journalism—the Pew and NPR discussions of “nones” and “religion” do more than describe things, they constitute them.
Sean McCloud is an associate professor of religious studies who teaches, researches, and writes about American religions and religion and culture. He is the author of Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-93 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009).