None of the Above

Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada

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Joel Thiessen, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme
Secular Studies
  • New York: 
    New York University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious nones—“those who say they do not belong to any religion”—are the fastest-growing “religious” group in the US and Canada (1). In None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada, Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme explore the growth and diversity of those who identify as religious nones and describe trends relevant to religious studies, sociology, and North American cultural studies. None of the Above uses survey data and thirty qualitative interviews to argue that the rise in nonreligious identity both reinforces and contradicts the “secularization thesis” that religion will decline as modernity progresses. Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme demonstrate that while organized religion may be in decline in North America this does not necessarily entail “the disappearance of all things religious and spiritual” (5). Religious nones in the US and Canada display a surprisingly wide range of attitudes toward religion and their identities are deeply influenced by factors such as region, social upbringing, generation, race, and politics.  

Rather than adopt a single explanatory model for the growth of religious nones, the authors explore three theoretical frameworks: stages of decline, individualization, and polarization. The section on stages of decline frames the growth of religious nones in terms of a “long-standing, progressive, and generational religious decline over time” (17); individualization focuses on a change in religion from a more public institutional form to an increasingly private and spiritual one; and polarization highlights the “widening gap” between the actively religious and religious nones. None of the Above asserts that these three frameworks “though distinct, are in some ways extensions of one another” as they each explain different aspects of secularization and non-religious identity (23). The authors’ theoretical approach builds on the work of Steve Bruce, Peter Berger, and José Casanova, among others, taking seriously the idea that secularization cannot be reduced to either decline, privatization, or separation, but is in different contexts any combination of such processes.

A significant strength of None of the Above is its explication of the diversity of religious nones. Approaching religion through the “three B’s”—belief, belonging, and behavior—the authors create five subtypes of religious nones: involved seculars, spiritual but not religious (SBNR), involved believers, inactive nonbelievers, and inactive believers. None of the subtypes belong to religious organizations but they all challenge the assumption that religious nones do not or cannot have belief or behave in ways that appear religious. The authors note that SBNRs and involved secular nones receive the most attention in scholarship on secularism (79). While research on religious nones has mostly focused on those who participate in communities that share their beliefs, there is a need for more research on non-religious identity outside of organized community contexts.

Importantly, nonreligious identity correlates with positions on political issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gender inequality, environmental regulations, government aid to the disadvantaged, and immigration. The authors show where different subtypes stand, on average, across various issues. Overall, religious nones tend to be found “more at the left or liberal end of the current-day political spectrum in both the United States and Canada” (112). Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme are careful not to paint a causal relationship between nonreligious identity and political position, but nonreligious identity is a strong indicator of various stances on political issues. Understanding “nones” is thus clearly important for explaining concomitant social and political changes in North America.

Chapter 5 compares the US and Canada most explicitly. The authors arrive at three conclusions: atheists are viewed more favorably in Canada than the US (147); the group with the “most reservations towards atheists” in both countries are evangelicals (148); and the “boundaries” between evangelicals and atheists extend to other religious groups and significantly characterize conversations around religious nones in general. The comparison between the US and Canada reveals that trends in nonreligious identity in Canada differ from the US (where “nones” arose later, more slowly, and in greater tension with religious groups) in part because of the proportion of evangelicals in America and their perceived proximity to politics and public culture. Further, “exposure to representations of evangelicals in American media” contributes to the growth and relative tolerance of atheism and other nonreligious identities in Canada (155). Although scholarship often focuses on secularization at a national level, None of the Above’s comparison of Canada and the US sheds light on international factors that influence the development of nonreligious identity, demonstrating the benefits of comparing trends in secularization between nation-states as a way to illuminate their individual contexts.

None of the Above makes sense of a great deal of data pertaining to the growth of religious nones in North America. In doing so, Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme provide helpful vocabulary for the diversity of religious nones and point to how further qualitative research could help explain the trends observed throughout the book. None of the Above supports the idea that a simple regression does not explain the dynamic interplay of religiosity and secularity in North America. Future research questions that the authors pose—for example, “How salient is the religious none identity and substantial secularity for those in question?”—challenge us to consider why and when we might frame the study of the secular as a decline in religiosity as opposed to a growth in secularity (191). None of the Above thoughtfully presents ample empirical data that helps those interested in questions of nonreligious identity think about where to go from here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shakir Stephen is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age and co-author of The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada.

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.



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