I’d feel most comfortable assigning myself to the category of people who prefer not to be assigned to categories,” a fifty-something, Silicon Valley entrepreneur joked when I asked him how he’d describe his religious identification or affiliation. “But I suppose ‘none’ will do.”
For more than a year, I’ve been interviewing self-identified Nones—people who answer “none” when asked with what religion they affiliate or identify—across the United States. Lately, the people I’ve talked with have embraced the designation “None” more pointedly as a label for those straining to resist labels. This has been particularly the case since the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its “‘Nones’ on the Rise” report in October and the November presidential election brought to the fore the voting patterns of the “religiously unaffiliated”—a designation some Nones also find distasteful because it makes religious participation the basis for identification rather than… rather than what?
“Even ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist’ carry a lot of cultural baggage that I just don’t want to take on,” explained an undergraduate at a liberal arts college in Ohio who periodically joins fellow students at a Friends meeting across from campus. He reports that he prays “sometimes” when he’s faced with a difficult decision or is concerned about a family member or friend. Still, this student, who was not raised in a religious household, doesn’t think of himself as religious “at all.” When I asked if he would see himself as “spiritual but not religious,” he rolled his eyes and groaned dramatically.
“I don’t want you to be thinking of me in terms of spirituality or religion,” he continued. “Not my religion—if I have one—not your religion. These designations just should not be part of how we relate to each other no matter what we believe.” So, he eventually concluded, “You can go ahead and call me ‘none.’ But only if you know I really mean ‘none’ by that.”