Researchers and ‘No Religious Affiliation’: 
How Terms Such as Spirituality and Sacred Mask Atheism

Mark Kolsen

In 2011, the Canadian National Household Survey discovered that 24 percent of its sample chose “none” when asked about religious affiliation. According to Pew Research’s analysis of the Canadian data, “Young adults, males, single adults and college graduates” were “more likely to be religious ‘nones’ than older adults, females, married people and those with less education.” Pew says that since the 1980s in Canada and since the 1990s in the United States, “both countries have seen a rapid increase in adults who say they have no religious affiliation.”

However, Pew also states that while the category of “no religious affiliation” includes atheists and agnostics, “surveys in the U.S. and Canada find that most ‘nones’ have some religious beliefs and practices. … Therefore, the term ‘none’ should not be equated with ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious.’” Given that the Canadian National Household Survey and Pew Research are often cited as evidence for the growing secularization of the western hemisphere, one is left to wonder: To what degree are nations such as Canada and the United States populated by true unbelievers? What does no religious affiliation really mean?

The same question arises from recent studies of the Pacific Northwest, considered the most secular region of both Canada and the United States. In 2011, 44.1 percent of British Columbians claimed no religious affiliation and, thus, according to Tina Block, British Columbia “retained its distinction as the most secular of Canadian provinces.” Today, for reasons delineated by both Block and Lynne Marks (Infidel and the Damn Churches), British Columbia is easily the most secular province or state in North America.

Yet after reading Block’s 2017 book The Secular Northwest, one is still left wondering about the nature of this “secularism.” Unlike Pew, Block conducted interviews that permitted her to probe the nature of British Columbians’ “religious” beliefs. Her interviewees urged her “to take their irreligion seriously,” and she concludes that compared to other Canadians, Northwesterners are “more likely to reject, ignore, or ‘live against’ religion, particularly in its organized forms.” She further states that “growing numbers” of Northwesterners are “turning away from religion and towards more secular ways of understanding and experiencing the world.” However, Block also says that “the growth in ‘nones’ is not straightforward evidence of religious decline as most ‘nones’ claim some form of religious belief.” “Living against” religion—yet religious? What does that mean?

In Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, Pacific Lutheran University professor of religion Patricia O’Connell Killen makes an even more bizarre statement. She says that the Northwest’s Nones comprise not only “a minority of atheists and agnostics” but that “the overwhelming majority of people in this category exhibit religion beliefs similar to those of individuals who identify with a denomination or religious traditions.” The Nones to which she refers were not Canadians but citizens of Washington, Oregon, and Alaska surveyed by CUNY’s Graduate Center in 2001 (aka the American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS).

To make some sense of these claims about the Northwest’s many Nones, two phenomena must be critically examined: first, how researchers and Nones understand the terms religious and atheist and, concomitantly, what most respondents mean when they call themselves spiritual. Such an examination, I posit, will reveal that most Nones may, in fact, be atheists.

In her book, Block equates atheism with “unbelief,” consistent with a 2000 Angus Reid poll in which only 75 percent of British Columbia residents, when asked “yes or no?,” professed a belief in a god. Her definition of atheism is simplistic but reasonable, given her definition of religion as “the beliefs, structures and practices associated with the supernatural, the sacred or the otherworldly.” Here, although not precise, the line between atheism/religion—natural vs. supernatural—is relatively clear.

What creates problems is that Block also defines religion as those beliefs, structures, and practices that her interviewees, “quite simply … understood to be religious.” She does this in recognition that “there is no fixed definition of true religion against which individual levels of religiosity can be reliably measured.” However, when her interviewees talk of their spirituality, a term which Block calls “fluid and imprecise,” she often seems to equate spiritual with religious. This is very odd given that since the 1960s, it has been—as Block points out—an increasing trend for people to call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” More importantly, by not drawing a clear line between the religious and the spiritual, Block can claim that any “spiritual” person is “not really” an unbeliever—that is, not an atheist.

Consider, for example, Anne, an interviewee who described herself as both an agnostic and “very spiritual.” When Block asked her to describe her “spirituality,” Anne merely talked about walking into the mountains, which were “majestic” and “much bigger” than herself and having her spirit lifted by the beauty surrounding her. Block later called her a religious “eclectic,” yet nothing that Anne said suggested any belief in the supernatural. In fact, Anne’s words could have been spoken by many atheists I know.

Block is somewhat less sloppy when she speaks of the “golden rule Christianity” that “characterizes the spiritual lives of many Northwesterners.” In contrast to sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who claims that golden-rule Christians are not secular because they “have not given up on transcendence,” Block says that “a significant minority” of these golden-rule Christians insisted that “living a good life had little to do with transcendence,” a word Block appears to equate with “supernatural.” Her admission, however, seems to result not from her own probing and adherence to her own definitions but from interviewees such as Charles, who said that treating others as yourself is a “spiritual” thing, but that he was both “spiritual” and an atheist (“with a small a”).

Among the forty-four persons Block interviewed, fifteen called themselves atheists. Several, wanting to remain in the closet because of its social stigma, eschewed the label. Others, however, spoke words consistent with nonbelief. The problem is that Block apparently never asked the reluctant to explain themselves. For example, Block interviewed one Olympia resident—Mary—who said she’s “never been an atheist” because “that means there’s no god of any kind.” Mary says, “Something created us … whether I came out of the sea as an amoeba or whether some huge something or other was responsible … .” Mary’s “something” could be “the sea” or “Nature”—or a supernatural god. However, instead of asking whether Mary believed this “something” was either supernatural or natural—an answer that would firmly establish her religiosity or unbelief—Block asked Mary if she had ever been a Christian and proceeded to talk of those who “believe without belonging.”

  Mary was not an anomaly. Some of Block’s other interviewees were classified as religious after speaking of a “force,” “unknown power,” or other factor larger than themselves. Yet speaking of a power greater than the individual hardly means you believe in the supernatural. Two years ago, I interviewed several Cubans who used similar language when I asked if they believed in a god. When I asked them to talk more about their “god,” they often used words such as nature, humanity, and even (in one case) love. Nothing supernatural here; in fact, one person who waxed eloquent about the universe felt insulted when I asked if his concept of a god included the supernatural. “Cubans are educated people,” he snapped.

Similarly, when Block’s interviewees talked about praying during times of crisis, she spoke of the “blurry line” between the sacred and secular, as well as the “indecisiveness” of the Nones. But as one interviewee told her, “We all utter those same words (i.e., ‘oh good lord’ or ‘god save me’), even those who are not religious.” When another interviewee—David—talked of praying during a crisis to “get in touch with any unknown power that might be able to help you,” Block apparently never asked David to speculate about that “unknown power”—nature? Government? A supernatural god? Perhaps David was an atheist who wishfully called for supernatural intervention only when frightened. As one Cuban sarcastically told me, “Cubans pray only when they want something.”

In Chapter 5 of Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, sociologist Mark A. Shibley, using ARIS data, repeats the claim that Northwestern Nones are “secular but spiritual.” He defines spiritual as “an individual’s experience with sacred things (e.g., God, a divine being, a transcendent reality) and the beliefs and practices that express this experience.”

But like Block, Shipley does not adhere to his own definitions. While Block associated “the sacred” with religion, Shipley begins to use sacred as a synonym for anything people greatly value. He thus can claim every spiritual belief or behavior is religious and implicitly torpedo the concept of atheism into nonexistence. For example, those Northwesterners who hike and garden, “worshipping” in the “outdoor temple,” are, by Shipley’s account, practicing “nature religion … because their rituals and beliefs distinguish between things sacred (wilderness) and things profane (all else, often including people),” and because these environmentalists are also “sometimes dogmatic and moral.” Do you know any atheist who doesn’t fit that description?

Shipley may have a stronger case with “New Age spirituality,” given that New Agers engage in “metaphysical” practices such as spiritual channeling and the use of crystals for healing or psychic consultations. Seeking to empower “individuals over dominant institutions and ideologies,” New Agers, he says, emphasize “the sacredness of the natural order as a whole” and preach that “Everyone is God. Everyone.” Their beliefs are rooted not only in the 1960s (as Shipley notes), but in nineteenth-century Transcendentalism, a philosophy that, Emerson emphasized, does not believe in a god separate from the world itself. Rather, the universe comprises nature and the “oversoul” to which all people should connect.

But in elevating the individual and focusing on his or her need to connect to the greater whole of nature, even New Age “spiritualism” does not necessarily conceive of “sacred things,” as Shipley defines spirituality. Everything depends on how a New Ager views human nature and its connection to nature. A deeply felt sense of awe for nature’s power and beauty is often expressed by scientists—usually atheists—who encourage others to observe, say, the stars and share that feeling of awe. Even Emersonian talk of “the soul” depends on how one defines it. Richard Dawkins, in Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, talks of the human “soul,” defined not as “some internal spook that survives bodily death” but “the useful illusion of personal identity, an ‘I’ apparently residing just behind the eyes, an ‘agent’ taking decisions by free will, a unitary personality seeking goals and feeling emotions.”

In 2017, CROP, a Canadian research firm based in Montreal, conducted a poll with specific questions more researchers need to ask. Like other studies, CROP reported that 35 percent of Canadians do not believe in a god, with British Columbians leading the way in reporting that religion is not important to them. But—more revealingly—20 percent of its Canadian sample said they believe life is a “purely biological construct,” an answer that surely suggests an atheistic worldview. CROP did not respond to my query about the percentage of British Columbians who viewed life as “purely biological,” but given the trends in all polls, it’s safe to assume that compared to all Canadians, a much higher percentage—say, at least 30 percent—of British Columbians subscribe to that concept. It’s a percentage that, in my view, provides strong evidence that sociological studies such as Marks’s and Shipley’s are masking the true number of Northwestern atheists. And before they and other sociologists continue to argue that Nones are “religious,” they all might want to chew also on CROP’s own conclusion that “the gap between the tenets of organized religion and the reality of most people’s lives has widened to an abyss.”

Mark Kolsen

Mark Kolsen lives in Chicago and has been a regular contributor to American Atheist Magazine.

In 2011, the Canadian National Household Survey discovered that 24 percent of its sample chose “none” when asked about religious affiliation. According to Pew Research’s analysis of the Canadian data, “Young adults, males, single adults and college graduates” were “more likely to be religious ‘nones’ than older adults, females, married people and those with less …

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