DIY Faith Opinion

Why we should stop using the term religious ‘nones’

Women participate in an outdoor SoulCycle class. SoulCycle and other “cult” fitness programs are considered by some to serve as a form of church for regular participants. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — On the first Sunday of Advent, I went to a holiday market in Greenpoint, one of Brooklyn’s trendiest neighborhoods, that catered to a clientele mostly in their 20s and 30s. Several dozen stalls were devoted to a wide range of “oddities”: a cornucopia of antique jewelry and risqué fetish-wear; Victorian hair jewelry; animal skulls; even a white taxidermied fox.

But nearly every stall had one – if not several – wares on offer that nodded to the occult. Some were subtle references – pentagrams or alchemically inspired graphite drawings — while others were obvious, like the T-shirt with the slogan “Dykes for Satan.” For customers looking for an easy one-pot spell, there were “Make Your Own Magic” candles for mixing symbolically significant herbs and oils into a candle base.

Not all of the market’s attendees – indeed not all “Make Your Own Magic’s” buyers – might identify themselves as practitioners of magic, or members of some neopagan faith, such as Wicca. Some may have been politically motivated; in the age of Trump, occult imagery, like the aesthetic of “witch feminism,” has become increasingly associated with those who #Resist. Some may have just plain liked the stalls’ vaguely punk ethos of transgression.

But the Oddities Market, as it is called, reflects a point about today’s wider religious marketplace, particularly among young city dwellers: The demarcation between what is and is not religious is becoming increasingly blurred.

A “Dykes For Satan” shirt or a “Make Your Own Magic” candle and the values, ideas and affiliations it expresses aren’t explicitly religious— not in the way that, say, a rosary is. But for an increasing number of Americans, religious identity doesn’t look the way it used to.

About 35 percent of millennials in the United States poll as religiously unaffiliated, as opposed to 24 percent of the American population overall. Whiter, richer, more liberal and more educated than the average population, these “nones” outnumber every other single religious voting bloc in the United States. By contrast, white evangelicals — the most reliable right-leaning voting bloc — comprise less than 15 percent of the voting population.

Yet just because the nones don’t profess a faith doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in spirituality or participating in symbolically resonant rituals.

Seventy-two percent of nones profess belief in some sort of higher power – even if that higher power isn’t necessarily a traditional, major faith deity. A more recent Pew poll found that 62 percent believe in one or more “New Age” principles, including the efficacy of psychics or astrology.

Defining religion has always been a difficult undertaking. Image courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

The millennial nones, too, have pioneered other forms of spirituality. Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thomas have identified “cult” fitness programs like CrossFit and SoulCycle as serving as a form of church for regular participants. Likewise, intense internet fandom communities, say a group of scholars from the University of Leicester in the U.K., foster community through valued texts — from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and shared meaning, like any religious group.

As ter Kuile and Thomas have written, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are simply replacing religion with secular equivalents. Rather, they argue that through a kind of religious “unbundling” elements of existing spiritual and religious traditions are increasingly divorced from their original contexts.

More and more practitioners are “mixing and matching,” finding community in CrossFit while developing a spiritual practice in home yoga or meditation. A Jewish person may engage in divination through Tarot cards. Religious life isn’t ending; it’s becoming increasingly diffuse.

Perhaps that’s only natural. After all, even when we talk about a single religion, we’re talking about not one concept but many — identity, shared goals and values that hold us in community, rituals to affirm faith and an overarching narrative of meaning.

Even theorists of religion have a hard time agreeing what single element, if any, makes a religion a religion. French sociologist Émile Durkheim insisted on a “single moral community,” in which people affirmed their own identities in concord with one another. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw religion as a “system of symbols” that evoked powerful “moods” in its adherents.

The truth is that religion contains multitudes. As religious identity becomes ever more “unbundled” — and the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow in number — we’ll need to develop a vocabulary for talking about the wealth of practices, beliefs, communities and rituals that shape future faith identities, few of which may be easily reducible to a single label.

In other words, most of America’s young religiously unaffiliated are not so much religious nones as they are religious “manys.” They are like shoppers at a holiday market, finding meanings in an object here (T-shirts to candles), a practice there and picking and choosing among elements of religious life that resonate with them. These elements may not look like traditional organized religion — and they may be less cohesive overall — but, nevertheless, they function in much the same way.

From rationalist solstices to SoulCycle classes, from atheist meditation apps to wellness spa getaways, the “manys” explore the different ways that the religiously unaffiliated are approaching, and redefining, the religious.

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

60 Comments

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  • One hopes Mark Silk reads this.

    He has built his career for the last couple decades using the imaginary “nones” as a voodoo doll.

  • “….As religious identity becomes ever more “unbundled” — and the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow in number — we’ll need to develop a vocabulary for talking about the wealth of practices, beliefs, communities and rituals that shape future faith identities, few of which may be easily reducible to a single label.”……

    Ummmm, the term is Pagans. The world is filled with them.

  • Uncaptured, off leash, at large, at liberty, free of mind, unaffiliated, etc. are all better descriptions that “nones”.

    People who mess with occult stuff, however, should be aware that they are NOT any of those things, not at all free of religion as they might imagine themselves. They are just playing around in what amounts to bad ones.

  • No, maybe the term “Hell Bound Heathens” is more appropriate.

    It ain’t no effing religion unless its got the trinity..Mother, Daughter and the Feminist Occult.

  • All supernatural beings / forces / whatevers are make believe.

    There are neither “good” imaginary friends nor “bad” imaginary friends.

  • Nones can be atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” on surveys.

    Some nones may believe in the supernatural, but a significant percent do not.

  • Nah, pagan implies a christo-centric world when Christians are outnumbered. Please don’t lump Nones in with atheists/agnostic. I prefer putting people in two groups – superstitious or not superstitious.

  • I was just thinking that they are still religious nones – that is, they don’t subscribe to the tenets of any religion. But they seek out and practice spirituality in various ways. I think the term religious nones is still a good one.

  • Referring to these people as “nones” is a way that those “in power” can marginalize them. In other words, I have a religion so I am something, but you don’t have what I have so you are a “none.” It’s a hegemonic term. If we call them “religiously unaffiliated,” then that gives them the power. They have chosen not to affiliate. They are not less than someone who adheres to an organized religion.

  • I like the term “religious manys” BUT I think a better term might be “spiritual manys”.

    Spiritual is one of those words that religious leaders tried to claim as their soul domain, an integral part of organized Religion.

    Spiritual however means different things to different folks. I define spiritual as the state of your soul, your spirit, the core of who you are as a human being. A “spiritual” practice in this sense is anything that stirs or awakens or enlivens or enlightens your soul, your spirit your self.

    We talk about a person “being in good spirits”, or about a “spirited horse”. We know we are talking about the essence of their character NOT about them being posessed by some outside demonic force!

  • I think the term “nones” just came from surveys where pollsters discovered people were checking the “none of the above” box. The pollsters didn’t have a way of identifying what people really meant when they checked the box. They have since tried to define what people mean with a box where they can say “they are spiritual but not religious”!

  • “On the first Sunday of Advent,….”
    Was banned at “working preacher” site which is linked. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3892 Gospel relates to Second Coming of Christ. See below.
    Don’t know why they banned me. They did not give explanation only that too many people said comments were “unhelpful” anonymously. I had 7 “likes” & 47 “unhelpfuls” on one comment

    One comment was about double homicide & robbery on First Sunday of Advent. It was about Joseph White Jr & Drake Diner. Google https://www.google.com/search?q=joseph+hodges+white+jr+drake+diner&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS520US520&oq=Joseph&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j35i39l2j0l3.5509j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 Robber said “Merry Christmas”,when he left. White denies crime.

    Mentioned that Jesus compared Himself to “thief in the night” & that he comes not to “bring peace, but a sword”. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+5.2%2CMatthew+10.34%2CRevelation+3.3%2C20%2CLuke+21.24-36&version=NIV

  • Good point! But I like the significance of people saying they are not a religion. It takes the power away from the institutions.

  • I think that people “playing around” with occult stuff could be an indication of two things. One just curiosity wanting to see for themselves if there is anything to it. Many of us played with an Ouija board when we were teens.

    There is another side though and this is what I think Friendly Goat is trying to identify that some people aren’t simply “playing around”, their minds are tending towards a darker side and they are looking for support and confirmation and their explorations might lead them into groups that aren’t good for them.

    I cast the I Ching every morning. I am not looking for a premonition of todays events. I do it as “food for thought” similar to the way some Christians will open their Bibles each morning and randomly put their finger on a passage to contemplate for the day. Some Christians see the I Ching as an occult practice. It isn’t such for me, just words of wisdom to think about.

  • I agree. This is a power struggle and organized Religious leaders are in trouble.

    I also prefer to use the term Organized Religion rather than just religion or I will capitalize Religion in an attempt to distinguish it from religion–which in the broadest sense of the word is simply any system of beliefs (such as environmentalism, trumpism would be a religion in this use of the word).

  • The best part is, these “Nones” are largely disconnected from Atheism.
    Around 40 percent are willing to at least consder and dialogue about a Creator God.

    In football terms, it’s a short-field gig. Not bad.

  • That is cool. If only we could get 40% of religious people to consider and dialogue about the existence of a Creator God! I know at least 40% of atheist do. Personally I have considered the existence of a God constantly as an atheist. I always wind up in the same place, but I definitely think about the possibility. Most atheists I know do.

  • End times theme in Matthew 25 relate also. Jesus equates Himself with those in prison. “When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
    Joseph has been in prison since ’92 for a crime that occurred on “First Sunday of Advent”

    What do you mean by “misappropriated” . Heard University of Iowa humanities professor seminar at Episcopal Church. It was on criminals in arts as Christ-figures. Cool Hand Luke, Cuckoo’s Nest.

    12/3 “Hi Lawrence,

    I’ve continued to receive complaints about your posting on Working Preacher and am going to ask that you refrain from commenting on the site moving forward.

    Back in September I reviewed Working Preacher’s commenting guidelines with you; yet you continue to post comments that attack others in a way that has been interpreted by our readers as racist and inconsiderate.

    In short, your comments have not been helpful to our readers, and as a result we’re removing your commenting privileges.”
    12/6 email to Ben from me: “”Back in September I reviewed Working Preacher’s commenting guidelines with you; yet you continue to post comments that attack others in a way that has been interpreted by our readers as racist and inconsiderate”

    Could you give specific examples?. Of “attack” that is “racist”, “inconsiderate”. Recent censored comment was about black male that I was advocating for. He did tell me I was “racist”. It is often used term to discount those we don’t like.

    What would you say about John the Baptist using terminology like “vipers”?

    I had seven “likes” on recent censored comment. I am feeling “attacked” & censored by your site anonymously without explanation.

    Why was recent comment on chronology of John the Baptist removed?

    Lawrence”
    Ben’s reply:”
    Ben McDonald Coltvet
    Dec 6, 2018, 10:36 AM (8 days ago)
    to me

    Hi Lawrence,

    We host comments on Working Preacher as a courtesy to site participants in an effort to enrich their thinking about the commentaries presented on the site.

    I wish I had time to go through point-by-point how your comments have stepped over the line, but it basically boils down to a question of respect.

    Are you, in the words of Martin Luther, “coming to [the neighbor’s] defense, speaking well of them, and interpreting everything they do in the best possible light”?

    I found in the 150-plus comments that we’ve moderated since 2016 that this is not the case. In numerous instances, you have posted judgments of others that are not charitable, that don’t provide context, and that are in general not clearly related to the text at hand. Hence, we’ve decided to remove your commenting privileges.”

  • Believe this was one comment. Think some of them may still be at their website under Lawrence Valin http://www.workingpreacher.org/search/Default.aspx?cx=001947499050786061073:fplx-aun2rq&q=lawrence%20Valin&cof=FORID:10&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&search_domain=WWW

    “”paradox” “The Promise of Paradox, “The way we respond to contradiction is pivotal to our spiritual lives.” Paradox requires “both/and” instead of “either/or” thinking. One dictionary defines paradox as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth….
    The fact that more is going on than meets the eye is precisely why we must “watch” (21:34) and “stay awake at all times” (21:36)” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3892 My comment below was removed.

    “The Son of Man comes like a “thief in the night”.

    First Sunday in Advent ’92.

    Joseph had turned 17 a little over month earlier. He has been in prison ever since December ’92. His Black Panther ex-marine father had been shot in back by police & killed before Joseph turned 1 year old. The policeman was confirmed with me.

    University of Iowa humanities professor led seminar at church. Theme was criminal as Christ-figure in arts.

    ” “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51), yet when he returns, he declares, “Peace to you!” (24:36). Both division and peace. On a theological level, Christians affirm paradox all the time: Jesus’ crucifixion led both to death and to new life. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. More is going on than meets the eye.”

    Have thought that this is one of verses that might have gotten Jesus diagnosed as “borderline” by modern psychiatrists.

    Hanging on the cross between Heaven & earth, THE HOLY ONE of Israel becomes a curse.

    “The Jews who heard these words were again divided. 20 Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”

    21 But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?””

    ““Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of other professionals with the patient. The responsibility for the dissension among the staff is then attributed to the patient, who is said to have split the staff; hence the term “staff splitting.” (M. Linehan, Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, Guilford Press, 1993)””

  • The word “nones” is a non-descriptive inaccurate word like “assault weapons” and “African-Americans” coined by people with an agenda.

    Some people have made a career using it.

  • “Many of us played with an Ouija board when we were teens.”

    That explains quite a bit.

    “I cast the I Ching every morning.”

    And that explains even more.

  • Pale Blue Dot didn’t say those who believe in supernatural were atheist or agnostic. Although one could conceive of someone believing there might be a unifying force that put the universe in motion but that that force is not an all-knowing god in the judeo-christian sense so they consider themselves atheist. Also, maybe someone believes in a spiritual unity among peoples and nature or whatever. They might consider themselves atheist in that they do not believe in a god.

  • Larry, I only replied to you because I misunderstood your first comment, thinking you had been banned HERE, yet appearing here. I don’t know anything about the other site, what goes on there or why they didn’t want your comments.

    I’m an old man who does not venture much into the “far-out”, or muse much upon criminals, their motivations or various psychiatric curiosities in either patients or their counselors. It’s true, I imagine, that Jesus was called “mad” by some who wanted to reject his religious claims compared to what they preferred in the religious climate of their time and place. But, allowing him to soften our hearts 2000 years later is not a mad thing at all, it turns out.

  • The universe is the place (everywhere) where everything is. The place
    can’t be destroyed or created or put in motion. An example would be that
    the Earth could be formed and destroyed but the place where the Earth
    exists or existed would exist whether or not the Earth was in it. The
    place has permanence. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the big bang
    was the beginning of all beginnings, but rather a change in at least the
    limited one part of the universe that we can so far observe. What
    exists and occurs naturally is what we can call nature and can be found
    everywhere we look, including all life, stars, planets, and all
    environments. Human nature is part of nature and includes our capacities
    for imagination, invention, engineering, esthetics, compassion and
    love.

  • ” None ” is usually a box checked on a line of a form, or survey, of some sort which is prefaced by the word ” Religion “. The choices are something like:

    RELIGION (check only one) : Christian Jewish Muslim Buddhist Hindu None

    The religious read their own bias into the ” None ” choice, and try to imbue that choice with their own religious meaning, such as ” spiritual ” or ” belief ” in a ” (higher) power ” of some sort.

    Instead of ” RELIGION (check only one) ” the term was ” PERSONAL IDENTITY (check only one ) ” and one of the choices was ” Human “, we would find the percentage of people checking that box considerably higher than the number presently checking not only ” None “, but the religious choices offered also.

    But that would terrify the religious, wouldn’t it….

    Especially since they’re keenly aware that their God’s domain is irreversibly shrinking….

  • Calls to mind the words often misattributed to GK Chesterton:

    ““When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    This aphorism is apparently derived from similar sentiments expressed by Chesterton, such as:
    “You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.” (Taken from “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)).

  • Gods domain is infinite.
    It’s comes as no surprise that in the man-centric world we live in, that the faithful are few.

  • One of the assumptions about God is that humans are made in the image of God. That leads to the conclusion that God is a human-like persona, and isn’t it human self aggrandisement (man centric) that all of nature which is naturally occuring owes its existence to a human-like persona.

  • Christians should use a fair amount of caution when applying practices from other religions. Its good to learn and be aware and an interfaith dialogue is important for understanding, however the main thing is not to loose /lose site/sight of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

  • God can be taken as the perfect man so the two are in effect one and the same, and man is just a flawed god aspiring to be perfect just like his imaginary, fictional god.

  • We can call them nones without calling them ‘religious’ nones, because ‘religion’ has a specific definition and not all beliefs fit that definition. Gods of nature are natural gods of rain, storms, mountains, sun gods, fertility gods, etc. The christians god is supposedly a ‘supernatural’ god or a god of/over all the natural gods (although YHWH started out as a local mountain/storm god in Egypt).

    As we get older and smarter we can learn the christian god kills 158 times in the bible, codifies slavery and rape, and wipes out whole populations of people at once, and was invented from nothing by abraham and moses. We might be looking for a new ‘higher power’ that seemed more real and less violent. That sense we get that we are all connected by something confuses us into thinking it is god, but it is neurology.

  • So you are an atheist who honestly believes in the existence of an immaterial human soul or spirit?

    Then YOU ain’t gonna last much longer as an atheist, honestly. Scam Atheism needs Scam Materialism to survive.

  • You correctly referred to ” Gods ” in the plural.

    There are/have-been some 3000.

    Thanks for proving my point.

    Good one.

  • No Floyd your soul is NOT immaterial, it is the core of your personality. It isn’t an entity unto its self. Once your body dies so does your soul/spirit. it lives on only in the memories of those you touched.

    Atheism isn’t a Religion or religion in the broadest sense of the word since there is no defined doctrine. Atheism is simply the belief that there are no god/s/ess/esses or other supranatural entities.

  • “When men choose not to believe in God Santa Claus, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    “When men choose not to believe in God Unicorns, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    “When men choose not to believe in God Allah, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    “When men choose not to believe in God Quetzalcoatl, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    “When men choose not to believe in God Elves , they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

    The ones capable of “believing anything” prove it by believing in imaginary friends in the total absence of evidence.

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