I’d like to thank Christian Piatt for his kind mention of the Pew Research Center, but we cannot take credit for originating the term “nones,” which has been around for decades. As we said in the preface to our October 2012 report,“Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation:
Scholars of religion in the United States have been using the term “nones” since the 1960s, despite some qualms about its connotations. The term refers to people who answer a survey question about their religion by saying they have no religion, no particular religion, no religious preference, or the like. As sociologist Glenn Vernon of the University of Utah wrote in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1968, “It provides a negative definition, specifying what a phenomenon is not, rather than what it is. Intentionally or not, such a use implies that only those affiliated with a formal group are religious.”
Because of such misgivings, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has used – and will continue to use – “religiously unaffiliated” as our preferred term for Americans who tell us in surveys that they are atheists, agnostics or have no particular religion. “Nones,” however, has become a popular label for the same population, used not only in social scientific journals but also by the media, including on the cover of Time magazine and Page One of USA Today. As a result, in this report we use both terms interchangeably, but we put “nones” in quotation marks to indicate that it is a colloquialism. More importantly, we emphasize that the absence of a religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate an absence of religious beliefs or practices. On the contrary, as the report makes clear, most of the “nones” say they believe in God, and most describe themselves as religious, spiritual or both.
Associate Director, Research
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life