Newly elected Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema isn’t a believer in God, which is not news. But now it seems that she’s not a nonbeliever either. Intellectuals prick up their ears when informed that a logical dichotomy, such as “believer or nonbeliever,” is in fact a false dichotomy. Let philosophers rethink where logic fails. We need to rethink how labels work in the secular world of the “Nones.”
As researched by blogger Hemant Mehta, Sinema denies being any sort of atheist. According to her spokesperson, “Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist, or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character. She does not identify as any of those.”
Since she isn’t announcing that she does believe in God either, what are we to make of this development? One obvious conclusion is that the rise of the Nones, that explosive growth of people unaffiliated with any religion, has brought with it an independence of mind. No longer will those among the Nones complacently accept categorizations or labels from egghead atheology philosophers or ideology-driven atheist organizations. For whatever personal reasons—a matter of private choice, public politics, etc.—there’s no way to assume that a preferred label for their lack of belief will be automatically and gratefully accepted. People should be allowed to speak up about labels put on them. The Nones are growing up right before our eyes.
Congresswoman Sinema has no problem—as far as anyone can tell—with her placement among the Nones, since she’s been open about her nonaffiliated status. And she hasn’t refused the label of “secular,” because she is obviously a secular person by choice and defends secular values in politics. Those are just demographic classifications that are shared by a large and growing percentage of Americans. But any labels that enter the territory of self-identification, such as “atheist,” are an entirely different matter. Labels about one’s self-identity, how one is perceived, and how one perceives oneself, are, in a word, personal. And when it gets personal, people demand and expect control.
Demographers and sociologists who study the secular world have long understood how this works. That’s how the Nones were detected in the religious survey data—more and more people weren’t choosing the offered labels of Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and so on. The Nones were rejecting the offered identities and picking out where they “belonged” in the religious world. Now there are Nones clearly rejecting the labels offered them from the secular world.
This phenomenon is nothing new. The rise of the agnostics against the atheists over a century ago was just the start. Recent decades have seen the rise of the igtheist, the nontheist, the faitheist, and the apatheist. Those alternatives had mostly to do with figuring out one’s stance with regard to religion. Now we are dealing with a novel yet inevitable development: discontent with accepting religion’s God has evolved toward discontent with accepting secular labels. I suspect that Sinema has plenty of company among the Nones. Unlike the apatheists, who can’t care enough about God or religion to even utter a word of choice either way, she represents a different attitude—of caring just enough to renounce any label. Congresswoman Sinema has already positioned herself with respect to belief. Now she has every right to position herself with respect to nonbelief.
To conclude with a tone of irony, let’s call these nouveau Nones the “evatheists,” because they prefer to evade the whole issue. They are the Nones of the Nones, and they are here to stay. But don’t you dare call one of them an “evatheist” to his or her face—although a quick denial would only prove how well this label fits.
We can only hope for a future where more secular people can control their identities as they wish, without worrying about religious or nonreligious labels.
John Shook is director of education and a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is a coeditor of three philosophy journals, and lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.