Pew’s out with a new portrait of religion around the Globe, and it’s got Mollie Hemingway gnawing on the bone of what to call all those people who don’t, as Pew says in its lede, “identify with a religious group.”
Pew prefers to call them the “unaffiliated,” though in its report on the group back in October it overcame its misgivings and went ahead (sometimes with scare quotes) and periodically called them by what has become the preferred sociological term: Nones.
They’re the people who, when you ask “What is your religion, if any?” answer, “None.” Which means they have no religion, right?
What gives Pew and Mollie the willies about “Nones” is that it may be taken to indicate that those people are unbelievers. Indeed, a headline to that effect was stuck on Kimberly Winston’s RNS story the other day. But as has been made clear since my colleagues Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar discovered the rise of the Nones back in 2001, most of them do profess some kind of belief in God and engage in some kinds of religious practices.
The problem with calling them “unaffiliated” is that affiliation implies a formal connection such as membership. The word derives from the ancient Roman practice of formally bringing a young man into one’s family as a son. Its use by Pew and others harks back to the traditional term “unchurched,” pointing to that portion of the population including self-identified Christians who just didn’t happen to be members of a congregation. But as Pew has found, most of today’s “unaffiliated” have no interest in identifying with any religious body.
It’s really not that hard. The Nones are the folks who say they have no religion. They may be atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, or just unwilling to join any religious club that would have them as members. In America, they are increasingly coming to use the term to identify themselves.
Journalistically, one of the great things about “Nones” is that it fits neatly into headlines. Like Pew’s own “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” And Mollie’s own “The nones on the bus.” They’re Nones. Deal with it.