Subtypes of Religious Nones in the United States and Canada

In this post Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme updates us on their 2 year project which aims to answer what the difference is between ‘nones’ in the US and Canada.

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Last April, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and I released the first of four planned blogs on our book project in progress, The Religious “Nones” of North America: Understanding One of America and Canada’s Fastest Growing Demographics. Since then we have written half of the manuscript (hence the delay in another blog sooner!), and importantly, secured a book contract with New York University Press as part of their Secular Studies series. The plan is to complete the manuscript draft by this November. As part of that plan, we are both looking forward to meeting up for a mini writing retreat this spring at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society.

In this second blog post, we want to “soft launch” our framing of the diversity found among nones, with plans to unpack these ideas, along with empirical findings on each subgroup of nones during our presentation at the NSRN Conference at King’s College London in July. Consider this an invitation to offer your candid feedback. Is our framing accurate? Is it useful? How might you change or strengthen our thinking?

In the sociology of religion, scholars think of religiosity as a multidimensional spectrum where individuals can be anywhere from actively religious and faithful to non-religious (non-believing, non-belonging and non-practicing). Being a religious none refers to not belonging to any religious group or tradition. In other words, nones share in common their non-belonging. Although nones typically find themselves closer to the non-religious end of the continuum on all its dimensions, recent literature highlights diverse beliefs and practices among nones such that we might think of nones at various distances from that pole. For example, attention has been given to those who “believe without belonging”,[i] are “spiritual but not religious”,[ii] or who are actively involved in atheist, humanist, or secular organizations.[iii]

As we reviewed that literature, as well as our own interview data and existing national survey data in the United States and Canada, we started to think about how we might helpfully describe the range of nones, accounting for different points on the believing and behavior continuums? We see five main subtypes of religious nones overall (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Subtypes of religious nones along believing and behavior spectrums

joelandsarah

Involved seculars include non-believers who participate in organized atheist, humanist and secularist communities (e.g. Sunday Assembly). Inactive non-believers do not believe in God or a higher power (including agnostics), consider themselves as slightly or not at all spiritual, but are also not involved in any atheist, humanist or secularist organizations. Inactive believers do believe in God or a higher power, but attend religious services less than once a month and consider themselves only slightly or not at all spiritual. Spiritual but not religious define themselves as very or moderately spiritual persons, but attend religious services less than once a month. Church involved believers do believe in God or a higher power and do attend religious services at least once a month, but do not feel they belong to any one religious group or tradition. We find all of these five subtypes among religious nones in North America.

We see two main advantages to this framing. First, we think this builds on a growing body of literature which aims to develop a more substantive understanding of those who are non-religious.[iv] In the new subfield of non-religion and secular studies, researchers want to understand the non-religious not by what they are not (religious), but by what they actually are; to move away from simple “subtraction stories” as philosopher Charles Taylor names them.[v] Second, these subtypes include a robust continuum that yield more precise and accurate descriptions and analysis of nones.

Once more, we welcome feedback on our ideas as we collectively hone our understanding on the emerging diversity among nones. Our goal is that we would provide descriptive and analytical tools that are accurate and useful for scholars. And, we encourage you to join us in London this July to hear more about these subtypes, including the measures to delimit each category of nones, the proportions of nones who fit into these categories across North America, as well as trends of these none subtypes between regions, over time and across generations. Until next time!

Visualizing our ideas along the way!

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[i] Davie 1994, 2000

[ii] Ammerman 2014; Chandler 2008; Drescher 2016; Fuller 2001; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Houtman and Aupers 2007; Roof 1999; Stark, Hamburg and Miller 2004

[iii] Cimino and Smith 2007; Garcia and Blankholm 2016; Guenther, Mulligan, and Papp 2013; LeDrew 2013; Zuckerman, Galen, and Pasquale 2016

[iv] Beaman and Tomlins 2015; Bullivant and Lee 2012; Cimino and Smith 2014; LeDrew 2015; Niose 2012; Smith 2011; Taylor 2007; Zuckerman, Galen, and Pasquale 2016

[v] Taylor 2007


Ammerman, Nancy. 2014. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Beaman, Lori and Steven Tomlins, eds. 2015. Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts. New York: Springer.

Bullivant, Stephen and Lois Lee. 2012. “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-Religion and Secularity: The State of the Union.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27: 19-27.

Chandler, Siobhan. 2008. “The Social Ethic of Religiously Unaffiliated Spirituality.” Religion Compass 2: 240-56.

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68 (4): 407-424.

–. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism & Community in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

–. 2000. Religion in Modern Europe. A Memory Mutates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Drescher, Elizabeth. 2016. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Oxford University Press.

Fuller, Robert. 2001. Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Garcia, Alfredo and Joseph Blankholm. 2016. “The Social Context of Organized Nonbelief: County-Level Predictors of Nonbeliever Organizations in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (1): 70-90.

Guenther, Katja M., Kerry Mulligan with Cameron Papp. 2013. “From the Outside In: Crossing Boundaries to Build Collective Identity in the New Atheist Movement.” Social Problems 60 (4): 457-75.

Heelas, Paul, and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Houtman, Dick and Stef Aupers. 2007. “The Spiritual Turn and the Decline of Tradition: The Spread of Post-Christian Spirituality in 14 Western Countries, 1981-2000.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46 (3): 305-20.

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74 (4): 431-53.

–. 2015. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Niose, David. 2012. Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Jesse M. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion 72 (2): 215-237.

Stark, Rodney, Eva Hamburg and Alan Miller. 2004. “Exploring Spirituality and Unchurched Religion in America, Sweden, and Japan.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 20 (1): 3-23.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen and Frank L. Pasquale. 2016. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.


Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He is currently working on three collaborative projects. One centers on religious nones in North America, another on Millennials in Canada, and one on flourishing congregations in Canada. Dr. Thiessen obtained his MA and PhD at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She completed her DPhil in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.

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2 thoughts on “Subtypes of Religious Nones in the United States and Canada

  1. Joel and Sarah,

    Two comments.

    First, I’m wondering about your labeling of the vertical dimension. You called that “behavior” but it seems to combine both behavior and identity (or belonging). Are you distinguishing between self-identified affiliation and behavior or not?

    Second, are you treating the two dimensions you have laid as continua or discrete categories? If they are discrete categories, that may not be an accurate reflection of what I think is happening. Let’s say you have someone who is a nonbeliever who does not attend a secular group but is a member of several atheist/humanist/secular groups on Facebook, follows some of the main secular groups on Twitter and some of the prominent secular voices (e.g., Richard Dawkins), and is a regular contributor to the atheist subreddit. Are they an “involved secular” or an “inactive secular”? Or, is this a continuum and online behavior counts? Or are you only interested in physical behavior?

    I welcome your thoughts. (Or, we can discuss this over coffee or drinks in London!)

  2. Joel and Sarah, thanks for this, this is great. I did have one question: why use attendance “less than/more than one month” as the criterion delineating SBNRs from Church Involved Believers?

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