Huzzah! In its new report showing that nearly 20 percent of Americans decline to identify with any religion, our friends at Pew for the first time identify this demographic group as "Nones." They even title the report, "'Nones' On the Rise." But you'll notice the scare quotes around "Nones." For all its sex appeal, or maybe because of it, Pew much prefers its old "Unaffiliated." Why?
Scholars of religion in the United States have been using the term “nones” since the 1960s, despite some qualms about its connotations. The term refers to people who answer a survey question about their religion by saying they have no religion, no particular religion, no religious preference, or the like. As sociologist Glenn Vernon of the University of Utah wrote in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1968, “It provides a negative definition, specifying what a phenomenon is not, rather than what it is. Intentionally or not, such a use implies that only those affiliated with a formal group are religious.”
Because of such misgivings, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has used – and will continue to use – “religiously unaffiliated” as our preferred term for Americans who tell us in surveys that they are atheists, agnostics or have no particular religion. “Nones,” however, has become a popular label for the same population, used not only in social scientific journals but also by the media, including on the cover of Time magazine and Page One of USA Today. As a result, in this report we use both terms interchangeably, but we put “nones” in quotation marks to indicate that it is a colloquialism. More importantly, we emphasize that the absence of a religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate an absence of religious beliefs or practices. On the contrary, as the report makes clear, most of the “nones” say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both.
These objections don't amount to much. If "Nones" is to be rejected because it provides a negative definition, then so should "Unaffiliated." If "Nones" originates in the scholarly literature it is hardly a colloquialism. The only real issue is whether the term signifies people who lack religious beliefs or practices. Although, as Pew indicates, it is used by professionals to refer merely to survey respondents who say they have no religion, innocent bystanders may think so (though that's only partially the case).
On the other hand, "unaffiliated" has its own downside. The word, which derives from the ancient Latin practice of adopting a son for dynastic/political purposes, carries with it the sense of formal membership in a group. It is natural to conclude that those identified as religiously unaffiliated just happen not to belong to a particular religious organization at this time. But among the most striking findings in the new report is that 88 percent of them have no interest in finding a religion.
One of the reasons Pew's earlier reporting on "the unaffiliated" received so little attention (as opposed to Trinity College's 2008 American Relgiious Identification Survey), was that they used a term that doesn't signify an absence of religious identity. But we're not talking about folks who are church-shopping or otherwise looking for a religious place to call home. They are the people who when asked, "What is your religion if any?" answer, "None."