02/28/2013 05:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

Nones, Somes and the Combinativeness of American Religious Practices

In January, NPR's Morning Edition resurrected the October 2012 Pew Poll suggesting that 19.6 percent of Americans had no religious affiliation, dubbed them "nones" and described this as a rising trend. The week-long radio series, titled "Losing Our Religion," started with 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 with how the journalists tended to use the same default terms, such as "God" and "faith," as their interviewees, the aspects I found most interesting were the assumptions behind the concept of "nones" itself.

Simply put, Pew's and NPR's envisioning of "nones" constructs "religion" as something institutional. Conversely, 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, supernatural powers and ghosts. A minority of those polled identified as atheists/non-theists/non-supernaturalists and, as Steven Ramey noted in a recent HuffPost Religion blog, about 55 percent of those put into the "nones" category even described themselves as either "religious" or "spiritual." Like so many other examples of social scientific studies -- and journalism -- the Pew and NPR discussions of "nones" and "religion" did more than described things, they constituted them.

This is not surprising. After all, devising categories and then analyzing them is part of what scholars and journalists do. But if we acknowledge that conceptions of "religion" are always constructs that focus on certain things to the exclusion of others, then it becomes apparent that focusing on religion solely as an ecclesiastical (i.e. "churchly") institution prevents us from recognizing that modern American religious practices could just as easily be described in other ways. For example, one could stick with polling data (and stick with defining religion narrowly as somehow involving "supernatural" powers, beings and things -- many definitions of religion are much broader than this) to argue that American religious practices are as present and vibrant as they have ever been (versus losing out to "nones") and are visibly "combinative."

"Combinative" sounds a bit jargony, but in using it I take a cue from the American religion scholar Catherine Albanese and am referring to how many Americans pick and mix ideas and practices from a variety of religious traditions, and then further combine these things with other cultural, folk and popular traditions concerning the supernatural. Such activity is a noticeable part of the findings revealed in contemporary polling from institutes such as Pew, Harris, Gallup and others. In other words, one could argue that "combiners" are more of a story than "nones." One December 2009 Pew Poll was titled "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths." While this poll, like the recent "nones" survey, was covered in national media as strikingly unique, its findings replicated previous studies that had been conducted as far back as the early 1980s. The Pew Center wrote that "many ... blend Christianity with eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology, and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects." A particularly interesting example of such combining is reincarnation. In the last decade, Harris Polls suggest that anywhere from 14-40 percent of different age cohorts and 20-27 percent of all Americans said they believed that when they died they would be born on earth again as a human being to live another life. Even the lowest number is a much higher percentage than the small number of Americans -- probably at most 1-3 percent -- who belong to religious traditions (such as many forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and Neopaganism) that have historically included reincarnation theologies. The same goes with ghosts. While 42-51 percent of Americans in these Harris Polls say that they think ghosts exist, very few religious institutions in the U.S. have any official creeds that acknowledge or permit such entities.

And lest we imagine that combinative religious practices are something new on the American religious landscape, one need only look to the New England Puritans -- those mercilessly caricatured Calvinists -- for early modern examples. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 17th century Puritans consulted astrologers to determine their fates, used talismans and charms to heal their pains, and waved their Bibles over fields while speaking sacred prayers to spur crop growth.

Most Americans pick, mix and combine a variety of religious and cultural idioms to find what works for them in their everyday lives. This includes a majority of those categorized in recent polls as "nones." For those interested in neat categorizations and institutional definitions of religion, recognizing that most nones are somes makes things a bit messy. I don't point this out to suggest that focusing on the combinativeness of American religions necessarily provides a more accurate description than studies that narrow "religion" to a conventional set of churches and traditions. Both, of course, are scholarly constructs that allow us to concentrate on certain issues and trends. But I do suggest that, in terms of a broad public discourse about "religion," to focus on it solely as an "institution" that is losing ground to "nones" has the unintended consequence of promoting views that 1) narrow the boundaries of "American religion" to a predictable set of dominant, mostly Christian groups and 2) provide a well-worn and statistically dubious story about how Americans are "turning away from God" (whatever that last term may mean for the speaker). But surveys and fieldwork studies suggest that any simple conclusions made about something out there that we call "religion" relate as much to how we define that term as to what Americans might actually be doing.