Non-theism and the “Nones”: Four Scholars Weigh-In, Part 1


This is a two-part special with the Bulletin featuring religion scholars Joseph Blankholm, Donovan Schaefer, Monica Miller and Steven Ramey on the topic of the “Nones.” In part 1, Blankholm and Schaefer respond to a 2013 American Academy of Religion (AAR) panel discussion featuring Miller and Ramey entitled, “Discussing the Nones: What they say about the Category of Religion and American Society,” which was preceded by a Huffington Post piece they co-wrote, “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty ‘Mathematics’ of the ‘Nones.” In part 2, to be posted this coming Wednesday, Miller and Ramey will offer their replies. This is part of a broader and growing academic discussion on the diversity of non-thiestic belief, which is featured in the 2014 AAR Call For Papers, (now accepting submissions) and is co-sponsored by the Secularisms and Secularity Groupthe Sociology of Religion Groupthe Religion and Social Sciences Section and the Religious Conversions Group.

Scholarly Production of the Religiously Unaffiliated       

by Joseph Blankholm

Sitting in the audience at the “Discussing the Nones” panel, I found myself nodding as the speakers offered their criticisms of the use and misuse of a much-discussed category. It surprised me, however, that the panelists focused mostly on the popular media rather than the work of social scientists publishing in peer-reviewed journals. In an attention economy in which clicks are dollars and “discursive production” is a job at a savvy marketing firm, I confess to having little trust in how reporters, op-ed columnists, and activists interpret complex demographic data.

Though I commend Professors Miller and Ramey for fighting an uphill battle against the reverberating misappropriation that seems de rigueur on the Internet, I feel too insignificant to make the same effort. Instead, I’d like to focus my comments on the scholarly discussion of the “religiously unaffiliated” with the hope of pointing to some meaningful insights.

Miller and Ramey are correct to criticize an assumed “correlation between affiliation/identity, belief/religion and spiritual/not religious.” The so-called “religious nones” are merely those who claim no religious affiliation in surveys. As Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam (2010) show, the “Nones” are a deeply heterogeneous group that includes the spiritual but not religious, unchurched believers, avowed nonbelievers, and those who only intermittently affiliate with a religion.

My own research focuses on organized nonbelievers and secular activism in the United States, and those I study fit within both the “Nones” and the religiously affiliated. Because some nonbelievers are part of organizations that are non-theistic religions, such as Ethical Culture and Humanistic Judaism, they would not be counted among the “Nones.” The same is true for avowedly non-theistic members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, as well as members of other religions who “belong” without “believing.”

So what can we conclude? As it turns out, some pretty interesting things. The “religiously unaffiliated” is far from a meaningless category, and if we approach it carefully, it actually helps us understand the present restructuring of American religion.

The “Nones” are not new (see Glenn M. Vernon’s 1968 article). In 2002, Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer published an article observing that the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation had doubled through the 1990s, jumping from seven to fourteen percent after remaining relatively stable for the two decades prior. They explained this change in two ways: one is demographic, in that more Americans than ever had been raised with no religion. Another explanation had to do with the intersection of religion and politics. They argued that the rise of the ‘Religious Right’ led political moderates and liberals with weak religious attachments to disavow their religious affiliations.

Writing in American Grace in 2010, Robert Putnam and David Campbell agree with Hout and Fischer and argue explicitly that the increasing association of religion with conservative politics spurred a mass exodus from organized religion, especially among young people. In their view, these changes amount to no less than another restructuring of American religion (Wuthnow 1988), in which the new poles of the spectrum are religion and the secular. Campbell’s forthcoming work with John Green and Geoffrey Layman offers further support for these hypotheses using a three-year, NSF-funded survey of “American secularism.” I find these arguments fascinating and compelling, and I look forward to reading what they publish.

Though this short post can offer only a brief survey of recent scholarship on the “Nones,” I hope it can serve as an entry point for a different discussion that focuses on the ongoing scholarly engagement with (and production of) a category that might be no more than a symptom of a broken taxonomy—a measure of “belonging” in an America in which religiosity is more about “belief” and “behavior” than ever before.

Being and Noneness: The Intransigence of Data

by Donovan Schaefer

My response to Monica Miller and Steven Ramey’s recent work on the Nones has been, first of all, substantial agreement: there is no question that the category of the Nones is a construct (though constructed by whom is, as I’ll discuss, less decided) and that it arranges the world according to a certain set of analytic axes. But beyond this, I am less interested in trying to dissolve the category of Nones or prove its “meaninglessness” than I am in asking how this category itself and the group of bodies indexed by it—voluntarily or involuntarily—operates.

As Russell McCutcheon wrote in a recent Culture on the Edge blog post, “just because something is made up — like stopping at a red light, perhaps? — does not mean that it doesn’t have consequences, doesn’t have effect.” The classifications we create may be constructed.  Constructed things—structures—stumble around and bump into things and sometimes start to throw punches of their own.

That said, I’m not persuaded that they do the things we expect them to do.  I don’t buy the suspicious hermeneutic that insists that categories—even those related to religion—are always designed to produce dominations or replicate the interests of dominant groups. Power, as Foucault argued, is multidimensional, and the binary logic of domination is only sometimes the way power works. The very piece of evidence Miller and Ramey invoke for their argument that the category of Nones is constructed—that it has been used by both secularists and anti-secularists to generate narratives—shows that its relationship to the heterogeneous terrain of power is complex.  For instance, I’m not convinced that defining someone as a None reiterates and reifies religion as a central orienting category in American public life. I think that the inclusion of nil in a category has complex, destabilizing effects for that category, even though it may have emerged out of the parameters of that category.

This multilaterality of power surrounding the classification the Nones is also evident in Miller’s fascinating reports of Unitarians and humanists claiming the category designator for themselves. The category was not created by them, but they nonetheless have picked it up and started using it as a flag. A flag, of course, is arbitrary, but that flag is still a thing of power, a thing that magnetizes and rearranges existing power relations.  Classifications, names, terms, and identities function in the same way. To start from the affirmation that the Nones are a “meaningless” mathematical error or that they “don’t exist” I think closes off these questions.

This brings me to my next question: who made this category?  I don’t think that we scholars of religion created (or re-created) the Nones. If anything, it was a byproduct of a strange alchemy of journalistic practices—a squash game between the surveyors at Pew to Heidi Glenn at NPR that sent a new term whizzing off at an oblique angle at high speed. And even if scholars did create this term, I don’t think we would necessarily have the capacity to put it to bed now that it’s stumbling around in the world.

That said, though—and this is the main point that I want to push on: how arbitrary, really, is the category of the Nones? When I look at this Pew Forum survey data tracking back to 1950, it tells a story that reflects something that is happening in the world—a trend in the data that kicks back, that makes its own interventions in our classificatory regimes, even if only by forcing us to take notice. Ramey’s example of the Sikhs in 19th century India is interesting in the same way: if I understand him correctly, the demand for separate status on the part of the Sikhs wasn’t a top-down colonial construct. It was a merger of a colonial power-knowledge apparatus with indigenous power structures and indigenous histories. The Nones may well be the same thing: an intransigent piece of data that starts to demand attention.

So if the first question is “Are the Nones a construct?” the answer is, absolutely, yes: all categories are constructs, all categories blur some of the heterogeneous details of the things in the world corralled by that concept (though I think that, for the record, the NPR report from last January is not being given enough credit for its caution and nuance—Monica Miller’s valuable correction that if we were to have this conversation in terms of race it would look very different notwithstanding). But that doesn’t mean that constructed categories have no relationship to things in the world, that they are nothing but sand castles on the beach.

That’s why the next question is one I think is also worth asking: how does the category of the Nones interact with the world? And to ask this question, I want to put back on the table a word that most scholars of religion (including me) have brushed aside: “spiritual.” In our post-Foucauldian academy, it would make no sense to claim that any site on the spectrum from “spiritual” to “institutional” is separate from power. Let’s not accept the popular assumption that spirituality is “individual” and therefore outside of power. But what if there was a way of typologizing practices according to the spiritual-institutional spectrum and their specific relationships to power? In light of the note, drawn out in the NPR report, that the Nones are often less connected to “organized religion,” can we rehabilitate a pre-Foucauldian question and ask: Is the spiritual-institutional spectrum a useful tool for helping to map power along, for instance, generational, racial, and geographical lines?

Joseph Blankholm is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and his dissertation is an ethnographic study of organized nonbelievers and secular activism in the United States. He is also co-founder and editor of Possible Futures, contributing editor at the Immanent Frame, and co-founder and co-chair of the Secularism and Secularity program unit at the American Academy of Religion.

Donovan O. Schaefer is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities. His graduate work was done through the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and he has taught at SU and Le Moyne College in addition to Haverford. In his research and teaching, he looks at the intersection of religion and embodiment using feminist, poststructuralist, and evolutionary biological approaches. Specifically, his interest is in the relationship between religion, bodies, and emotion.

This entry was posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Scholarship on the Road, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *