The rise of the a la carte ‘nones’

A growing number of people in countries like Ireland and the US say they don’t belong to any religion. When filling out a census form or responding to an opinion poll they might tick the box marked ‘none’. But is this the same as saying they have no religion at all? Funnily enough, it doesn’t mean that by any means because many ‘nones’ do believe in God, or at least in some kind of ‘higher power’.

A new survey from the Pew Forum asks a sample of more than 4,000 Americans whether they believe in God, and if so, what sort of God they believe in.

About a quarter of respondents fall into the ‘unaffiliated’ category, which is to say they do not belong to particular religion. However, 70pc of this group believe in God (17pc) or a higher power (53pc). Weirdly, 18pc of self-declared atheists say they believe in the God of the Bible, which probably means they didn’t understand the question!

When Census 2016 was conducted, 10pc of people ticked the ‘none’ box in the religion section. Some people were quick to claim them as atheists. But that is far too hasty, as we can see from the poll quoted above.

You might say that is America and this is Ireland. Our ‘nones’ are genuine ‘nones’. An RTE exit poll conducted on the same day as the General Election of three years ago shows otherwise. In that poll, 14pc said they don’t belong to any religion, but just a third of these said they were atheists or agnostics and the rest said they were ‘spiritual’.

In other words, this is complicated. When a person tells a pollster they are ‘Catholic’, or ticks that box on the census form, those people cannot automatically be claimed as faithful, practicing Catholics. They might rarely go to church and could often disagree with Catholic teachings on a whole range of fundamental issues. That is to say, they are ‘a la carte’.

But by the same token, lots of the ‘nones’ are ‘a la carte’ as well. When a person ticks the box to say they are Catholic or Christian, we can’t make too many other easy assumptions about them. Likewise, we can’t make too many easy assumptions when a person ticks the ‘none’ box either.