A label I’ve had a big issue with since I first heard it a few years ago is “nones.” It derives from the response some people give for their religious affiliation on census forms and other demographic questionnaires: If they don’t fit any of the listed categories, more and more people are checking the box for “none.” This is an alternative to “other,” because “other” implies a person does practice a religion that simply isn’t listed. “None” makes it clear the person has either a completely customized spiritual practice, or no spiritual practice.
When I see the term “nones” anywhere from mainstream news and opinion articles to the Interfaith Leadership Council’s e-newsletter, I know there is not necessarily ill intent or conscious prejudice behind its usage. As someone who used to be classifiable under this label, however, and who still has many friends who are, I find “nones” to be highly problematic and inappropriate as a demographic designation for several reasons.
For one, it lumps people who don’t represent a unified demographic at all into one category. The whole point of declaring themselves as religiously-unaffiliated is that there simply are no categories for them, period—Such people only represent themselves. Assigning them to a category anyway negates the validity of their individual spiritual needs and perspectives.
Second, calling all religiously-unaffiliated people “nones” is as disparaging as putting everyone who is not a white male into the category of “women and minorities.” The latter is offensive because it seems to imply that only white males have distinct needs and are worthy of their own category; everyone else on earth is treated as a unit in opposition to white males. “Nones” poses the same problem: If people are not classifiable according to an established religious group recognized by the mainstream, they are assumed to all represent the same spiritual, cultural, and even political mindsets.
Making “nones” even more problematic is counting “atheists” and “agnostics” in the same category with people who do have spiritual beliefs. Since categorizing a group of people together implies they have something core in common, putting those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” in the same category with those who are unsure about or who outright reject spirituality can only create confusion and make it that much harder for them to be accepted and respected as they are.