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What Happens When We Name the Nones

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The "Nones" did not exist -- until society named them. Of course, individuals who do not designate a religious affiliation have existed for centuries, but a coherent group labeled Nones is a new creation. Most of the individuals who do not designate a religious affiliation would not identify themselves as Nones or see themselves as part of a distinct group based on their response to a single survey question. Although some scholars have used the label since at least the 1960s, the ongoing discussions about Nones have popularized this new identity out of nothing. These discussions have increased in response to survey results such as the October 2012 report from the Pew Center, which declared that 1-in-5 adults in the United States are Nones. Creating this new group has significant potential to influence society.

Since the label has basically no content, arising from a negative answer to one question, various people and organizations have attempted to present characteristics to define the group. The report from Pew charted a range of characteristics that illustrate the diversity among those now labeled as Nones. While those who identify no religious affiliation tend to be more politically liberal, including a significantly higher percentage favoring pro-choice and marriage equality policies, they do not differ from the general population significantly on several other points, including the size of government, beliefs in astrology and reincarnation, and expressing a connection with nature. More than two-thirds have some belief in the divine, while more than 55 percent identify themselves as either religious or spiritual.

Despite this diversity, various discussions have produced homogeneous images of those who answer "no religious affiliation." Discussions of the Nones in the New York Times include associating them with phrases like "secularly inclined" and "humanist," while an NPR series forefronted the terms "atheists and agnostics" when introducing those designating no religious affiliation. An upcoming conference at Georgetown University also associates Nones with secularism. This new group is already being stereotyped with the characteristics that only a minority of those who answer "no religious affiliation" claim.

The process of constructing this group operates well beyond the realm of description, as commentators and various spokespeople for different organizations work to leverage Nones as a group, thus bringing in a range of political and institutional interests. While some church leaders replied to the report with alarm, as they saw further confirmation of the declining position of many institutions, others argued for a new vision of how these institutions can serve the needs of unaffiliated individuals. Referring to the presidential election analysis that showed 70 percent of Nones voted for Barack Obama, commentators have identified the Nones as potentially "a counterweight to the evangelical base," if Democrats can mobilize them effectively. Leaders of secular organizations, including the American Humanist Association and American Atheists, identify the increasing numbers of this group as an opportunity for their organizations to gain greater visibility and ostensibly social and political influence.

Individuals increasingly have claimed their own identification as Nones. Michelangelo Signorile, in a HuffPost commentary in October 2012, for example, self-identified as a None, asserting that he had been a None for a long time and referencing others whom he also declared to be fellow Nones. Others have used the label for several years, but the frequency of use appears to be increasing.

The influence of the public construction of the Nones as a group will play out in front of us. Will the designation of the Nones help some organizations gain greater prominence and power, taking the mantle of representing the Nones? Will these self-declared representatives of Nones and the stereotypes applied to Nones increase social pressure to conform to a particular image, such as holding an atheist or secular worldview? Will some change their response from "no religious affiliation" to a specific affiliation because they do not perceive themselves as fitting this stereotype of the Nones?

Social groups and identities are never static, as the construction of the Nones illustrates, and the processes of constructing new group identities are not unique to our contemporary situation. Some scholars suggest that the British Indian census in the 19th century influenced the formation of pan-Indian communities of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Census-takers determined who belonged with which community, and community leaders used the census process and published statistics to maximize their community's position. We cannot predict how these processes will play out now, but we know that the act of creating an identity for those who do not designate a religious affiliation can have potentially lasting implications.