Friday, January 6, 2017

"Nones" is the new "women and minorities": Creating a catch-all category for the religiously-unaffiliated is as problematic as assigning everyone who isn't a white male to the same category

The common thinking about labels is that they help us better understand things about ourselves and each other. In many instances, however, despite the intentions behind them, labels are less likely to help foster understanding than they are to promote dismissal of certain people for causing discomfort to the majority by not fitting into pre-defined demographic categories. 

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. 

Yet another problem of treating all these people together as a unit is the implication that their beliefs are less valid since they aren’t tied to a socially-endorsed religion. It’s like being rejected by the in-crowd: If the in-crowd doesn’t know what to make of some people, it relegates them to a catch-all fringe category that the in-crowd itself made up based on its pre-conceived notions about people who believe differently than it does. 

The only way to understand the real needs and beliefs of religiously-unaffiliated people is to dialogue with them individually, and seek to understand them in the context of their own personal spiritual experiences rather than in the context of some pre-defined category. 

Since what currently passes for mainstream media in this country doesn’t seem to have the capacity to do this, we must conduct these dialogues ourselves. 

Regardless of if we identify with a religious group or not, in the end we can all really only represent ourselves anyway. So, let’s make the best representation we can of whatever we stand for—regardless of if we are standing in a group or standing alone. 

Image: “Unstruck Sound Current” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker 

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