Who’s the Master of None?


The misfits ticking off ‘none’ when asked about religious affiliation. An unrecognised chunk of diverging identities: It’s time to ask how the non-religious are recognised in state, law and politics.IMG_8025

How does the state deal with the considerable portion of the population whose practises, beliefs, identities and belongings are other than religious? How is the phenomenon of non-religion (mis)recognised in different religious, social and cultural contexts on national level across the world today?

The emerging research field of non-religion seems to have become an established part of the sociology of religion and other disciplines addressing the varieties of identities associated with what has become to be known as ‘the nones’ within religious studies of various kinds.

In the Anglophone world ‘none’ denotes a survey option declaring ‘no affiliation’ with listed worldviews, e.g. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist etc. For obvious reasons, the category of non-religion covers a vast variety of identities that one way or the other are hallmarked as ‘other than religious’ to quote Lois Lee’s minimum common denominator for recognizing the nonreligious.


Image: The Descrier / Flickr

The None Next Door

The lion’s share of available research on nones has been focused on the construction of non-religious identities from below: For instance how individuals come to identify as non-religious. American research in particular has predominantly conceptualised this through apostasy; how people break the chain of memory and join the socio-cultural deviance of having no religion.

As a culturally contingent phenomenon, non-religion is often understood in its dialogue and conflict with the dominant formats of religion in society, hence William Stahl argues that Catholic nones and Protestant nones are different. In addition, non-religious identities appear less defined in societies where religiosity is not socially expected or widespread according to Phil Zuckerman who argues that Scandinavian nones are less prone to identify as atheists when compared to the US, or Greece for that matter.

While apostasy indeed is interesting, it is not a key concept of non-religion in the Nordics where most nones in general are likely to have been brought up without religious guidance and live their everyday lives without expectations of belonging, believing or practicing religion. They are to a large extent what Zuckerman describes as indifferentIn Norway, a large share of the non-religious population is ‘unaffiliated’, i.e. they are not registered in an officially recognised worldview community (e.g. The Norwegian Humanist Association). The unaffiliated is the second largest group in Norway and counts 14% of the population (2012). The largest group are the members of the Church of Norway, which count about 70%. For quite obvious reasons it is difficult to tell what faiths, worldviews, beliefs and identities that are contained under the category of ‘no affiliation’.

Members Only

Interestingly – that can also be said about the members of the Church of Norway, which is largely based on a system that allows automatic enrolments and passive memberships, and more notably a number of involuntarily memberships. First, new-borns are registered as members of the church if at least one of the parents are registered and will remain so from cradle to grave unless opted out by parents as minors or on their own initiative after turning 15. A new online system for registering with and opting out of the church was implemented in 2016. Up until then opting out was a tedious affair involving written letters and the bureaucratic goodwill (sic!) of the local parish. However – for reasons unknown– such procedures have proven to be futile as there is way too many who regardless of their opt-out have remained registered members of the church. According to the Norwegian newspaper VG, as much as 75 000 were involuntarily members of the church in 2005. In the aftermath of the online registration and opt-out form in 2016 more than 41 000 cancelled their memberships, while 3147 persons registered as members of The Church of Norway. During my own interviews of Norwegian nones, conducted in 2017/2018, several of the interviewees (3/10) discovered that they were involuntarily members of the church. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a significant share of the Church of Norway’s members is so without consent.

Another reason for scholars to engage with the membership number in critical fashion is the fact that membership to the Church of Norway has no practical impact on the individual: Not financially; you cannot opt out of the church tax (which you can in Sweden) and there is no other implications of being a member – you are not reminded about such affiliations through newsletters etc. and church magazines, journals and pamphlets are distributed evenly and regardless of the house’s status as members or not. In other words, you can easily be a member throughout your life completely unaware of it.

The only practical difference is that members of the church are entitled to vote in the church elections, which are held simultaneously as general elections in Norway. One of my informants revealed that the ability to push the church in a more liberal direction through the elections was an incentive to remain member despite her general lack of belief and sense of belonging to the Church of Norway. Her passion for equality (sex, gender and ethnic) was instrumental for that choice. We cannot draw solid conclusions from such trajectories, but they nonetheless underscore the suspicion that official membership stats are not reliable sources when mapping religious de facto practice, belief and belonging. The reasons for why nones remain members are diverse, but the main point here is the observation that they sometimes do, whether it is out of indifference, ignorance, or potential of political impact or utter unawareness.

Turning the tables

While acknowledging the importance of the dominant socio-cultural and religious structures for nones ‘on the ground’ it is interesting to turn the tables and ask how they are perceived from above. Emphasising research of non-religion from above is not to say that the perspective from below is ruled out or wrong in any sense. Instead I argue that the numerous ethnographies of nones make a solid foundation for developing research on other societal spheres, such as within law, politics and institutions. This is the intention of the upcoming conference Formatting non-religion in late modern society – Institutional and legal perspectives, which takes place in Oslo September 26-27, hosted by the GOBA project (University of Oslo) and the international research network Eurel.

When establishing knowledge about sociocultural forms of non-religious identities (from below), it is politically and academically interesting to ask how such social formations are recognised, represented and perhaps negotiated from above. Now, this is however not quite straight forward as it sounds, because nones are to a certain extent an academic construct. That is, nones are not necessarily formally recognised as a worldview category, possibly due to the lack of formal organisation. Meanwhile, the lack of such is completely natural as the group consists of a variety of ways of being ‘other than religious’, the diversity amongst nones means that certain fractions may not want to be associated with each other. For example consider the significant difference between the ‘spiritual not religious’ group and New Atheism. The diversity of non-religious identities and group formations might be a challenge for non-religion to be substantially recognised in governmental bodies, law and politics. However, that does not make research on ‘non-religion from above’ less important if we think about the significant number of people who are not formally represented through officially recognised membership to faith and worldview communities.

This is both significant in societies where the minority of nones are persecuted such as Pakistan as well as in the UK where nones form a possible silent majority or even in Norway despite the impression of 70% church membership gives. Both contexts – where nones are numerous and not – make interesting research phenomena of the state’s handling with these identities in politics and law. We can for instance ask how different forms of secularism facilitates politics to serve nones, religious majorities and minorities alike? How non-religious worldviews are considered in public religious education and other institutions where the state is expected to facilitate for freedom of belief and thought? Or what happens with citizenship and sense of belonging when the state supports an established church in a country with an increasing non-religious population?

Non-religion is arguably an academic construct derived form English survey-lingo, which perhaps is difficult to recognise at first glance. Including ‘nones’ when mapping the religious landscape of late modern societies definitely broadens our horizon. As with the example from Norway, including the unaffiliated and critically examining the possibility of nones formally affiliated with the Church of Norway, changes our perception of the religious demography. It would be worthwhile to conceptualise this complexity further in research of politics, law and institutions. Regardless of the lack of fixed definitions, institutional representation and widespread acknowledgement in scholarly discourses and beyond, ‘non-religion’ is an analytical tool that cannot be overlooked by researchers, politicians, state officials and others who seek to understand, facilitate and marshal contemporary plurality of faiths and worldviews.


This blog has been co-published with Religion Going Public.


Erlend Hovdkinn From Doctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.PhD Project: ‘From Protestant to Post-Religious? Researching nones in Oslo’.

My academic interests are within sociology of religion, and more specific – nonreligion and secularity. My PhD project addresses nonreligion in the Norwegian context. How does the religiously unaffiliated relate to Norway’s cultural heritage of protestant Christianity? Moreover, what constitutes Norwegian nonreligion, politically, socially, existentially and culturally?

My position as PhD candidate is part of the project Good Protestant, Bad Religion (GOBA, funded by the Research Council of Norway, 2014-2018).

I am one of the editors of the collaborative scholarly blog Religion: Going Public (2016->), and I am writing for the Norway section at EUREL, a database of socio-legal data on religion in Europe.


3 thoughts on “Who’s the Master of None?

  1. It is fascinating to read your description of the situation in Norway and contrast it with our situation in Canada where “nones” are indeed recognized from the very top. The Canadian Charter Rights and Freedoms (our constitution) promises Canadians freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. There was of course resistance to the concept of freedom of conscience from those concerned with maintaining the perception that Canada was a Christian country but ultimately, our high courts ruled in favour of the “nones”. In 1985, the case known as Regina v. Big M Drug Mart https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/43/index.do became the landmark decision in guaranteeing freedom of conscience (and therefore freedom FROM religion).

    This recognition of the legal rights of “nones” and freedom from affiliation comes from the longer term history of religious pluralism from the start of colonization and the necessity for secularization to create a functioning political system. Of course the spiritual and religious systems of the indigenous people were actively suppressed but the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches were authoritative in the colonial project. The Roman Catholic church held enormous sway in the French speaking province of Quebec, particularly when the government of France surrendered the colony to English control. The Roman Catholic emphasis on procreation ensured a critical mass of francophones to maintain Quebec’s identity as a French nation within the English colony that would become Canada. Later (in the 1960’s), Quebec experienced what is known as “The Quiet Revolution” when the church lost its hold on the people of the province. (Buchardt: 2017)

    While in Quebec secularization has meant the transition from religious authority to the overthrow of that religion, the history is different in Ontario and spreading west. Upper Canada (now Ontario) experienced religious pluralism from its early days when the English protestants simultaneously imported and waged war on the Irish Catholics in an unsustainable manner. Ultimately, peace came (in part) through the establishment of separate Roman Catholic and public (read mixed Protestant) education systems, each funded through taxation. While the tax is mandatory, citizens of Ontario decide for themselves which system their taxes will support. The public system provides reasonable accommodation of religion through curriculum exemptions and release from class to perform religious rites but there has been no prayer in classrooms since the 1970s. Practical religion is never taught in the public system and Religious Studies is rarely offered as a discipline in the public system..

    This hard-won “freedom from religion” is precious to many Canadians. Even the faithful appreciate their freedom from the religion of others. “In Canada, one notes quite a low level of what one might call religious aggressiveness… culturally it seems, it is generally considered rather impolite and to that degree unacceptable to promote- ‘push’- one’s religion, or even to be too open about showing it” (Beyer 2013c, 303). Indeed, while the statistics suggest that religious “nones” are only a quarter to a third of the population, for most practising religious people in Canada, their public presentation would be that of no religion at all. This sense of religion- or lack thereof as a matter of individual conscience is represented in both culture and law and allows for a diversity of practice that includes government legitimation (indeed protection) of “nones.

  2. I was really interested to read about nonreligious people in the context of political discussions, specifically the question of how nonreligious worldviews are incorporated into the world of state, law and politics. I think the diversity of nonreligious people is essential in the discussion of their presence in politics. This diversity stems from the opposition in which one’s nonreligion is, the reasons for one’s nonreligion or one’s previous experiences with religion. As referenced in the original post, there is much research about how people come to identify as nonreligious and many nonreligious people were raised “without religious guidance and live their everyday lives without expectations of belonging, believing or practicing religion”. This viewpoint is labelled as indifference. In Klug’s description of indifference, he points out that it is not “an intrinsic characteristic of people” (2017, 224) and depends on their circumstances. Although indifference is only one reason that people identify as nonreligious, there is still variability within religious indifference. It’s difficult to think about solutions to the lack of nonreligious opinions in politics because of the diversity of people who fall under this umbrella term.

    One could try to group nonreligious people together in order to give them a voice in the political realm. This would be useful in situations where people are arguing for freedom from religion. For example, during the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, radical secularists supported the removal of the crucifix from above the seat of the speaker in the National Assembly (2017). In a case similar to this, having all nonreligious people come together as a group would display how many people were for or in opposition of an idea. This would make representation of opinions easier to understand. However, this raises problems within the group of nonreligious people, as there is such a wide diversity of opinions and belief systems. As mentioned above, certain subsets of nonreligious people may not want to be associated with each other. In putting all nonreligious people together to give them a voice, this in turn silences the differences between people in the group and gives the impression that they are all the same.

    On the other hand, hearing all sides of each nonreligion seems extremely inefficient. As referenced earlier, non-religion is often understood through its conflict with a dominant format of religion. Since there are so many dominant formats of religion, including people from each religion as well as their counterparts could make for an unproductive discussion. This could also create more of an opposition between religious groups and people who identify as nonreligious. William Stahl’s argument mentioned in the original post that Catholic nones are different from Protestant nones would support this. The differences between nonreligious people would make it very difficult for them to come to conclusions together, especially in a political setting.

    I’d be interested to hear other suggestions about how nonreligious people could be incorporated into political discussions!

    Klug, Petra. “Varieties of Nonreligion: Why Some People Criticize Religion, While Others Just Don’t Care.” Religious Indifference, 2017, 219-37.
    Burchardt, Marian. “Is Religious Indifference Bad for Secularism? Lessons from Canada.” Religious Indifference, 2017, 83-99.

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