Ships Passing in the Night

Michael Metzger

Few Christians have a close friend who is a religious “none.” Few Nones have a close friend who is a Christian. Nones and Christians are ships passing in the night.

I recently addressed a large group of denominational leaders, asking if any could define a religious “none.” No hands went up. Not good. When it comes to current faiths, Nones are the fastest growing group in the U.S. Ironically, they check “none of the above” when surveying religions. Few Christians know this since few know a None.

A similar lack of awareness is found in Nones. The more influential Nones report they don’t have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. Nones and Christians are headed in opposite directions, a situation reminiscent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1784 poem The Theologian’s Tale:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness.

So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Nones and Christians are ships passing in the night. Nones are increasing. Christians are decreasing. Nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten US adults said they had no religious affiliation. They were called religious “nones.” By 2009, Nones accounted for 20 percent of the US population. Now it’s 25 percent. By 2030, they’ll likely be 50 percent of the population. Heading in the other direction, Christians are declining, both as a share of the U.S. population and in total number.

Jeanette Winterson is a None. Growing up in the Pentecostal church, she planned to become a missionary. At six, she was evangelizing and preaching. At 16, she came out as a lesbian, felt rejected by Christians, and left the faith. Winterson became a None. But in her 2005 book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, she confesses, “I miss God.”

That’s been my experience with Nones. I know many Nones. I also know a great many Christians. The two groups are heading in opposite directions. Two examples.

Nones head toward spirituality but not religion. Christians head toward religion but are not very spiritual. Susanna Schrobsdorff is a None. The Chief Strategic Partnerships Editor and a columnist at TIME writes, “I check the ‘spiritual but not religious’ box. People like me are on the rise.”[1] Schrobsdorff has taken up Buddhism and yoga. She’s done immersion yoga weekends and learned the Sanskrit names. She seeks spirituality but not religion.

This is why Nones are attracted to Buddhism. It’s not a religion but it is deep into spirituality. Buddhism is a practice, requiring physical disciplines. Christians are generally headed in the other direction. Few practice the spiritual disciplines. Most have a faith grounded in the Enlightenment. It engages the brain, rarely the body. The result is an information-rich religion that’s not very transformational. A friend of mine, a pastor, sees this. He’s an exile. He describes his church as a “mile wide and an inch deep.”

Nones are heading left. Christians have long been headed right. In 2002, two University of California, Berkeley, sociologists—Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer—suggested that part of the increase in “nones” cane be viewed as a reaction against the Religious Right. In their recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of Notre Dame cite evidence from various surveys supporting this. Churches populated by Boomers and GenXers have, for too long, viewed the Republican Party as most closely aligned with the faith.

Not good. Christians should recognize that the Christian tradition is both conservative and liberal. It’s not either/or. There is a small but growing group of believers who believe this. Ross Douthat calls them religious dissenters. You won’t find them in most evangelical churches, according to Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of The End of White Christian America.

Christians and Nones could head in the same direction. In Oranges, Winterson’s writes, “I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line.” Circles, or spheres, reflect the ancient Christian tradition. Churches depicting God (and the gospel) as a sphere are more likely to resonate with Nones. Otherwise, after these two ships pass each other, we might be left with only darkness and silence.


[1] Susanna Schrobsdorff, “My Life As a ‘None’ and Other Tales from the Ranks of the Unaffiliated and the Agnostic,” Time, September 15, 2016.


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  1. Thank you Mike. Needed saying out loud. I note the movement in your modifiers of Christian….from “evangelical Christian” to “Christian”. This is hopeful. As a so called “liberal Christian” I grow weary of the burden of label explaining, disclaiming, qualifying, with both my brothers and sisters in Christ on the “the right” and apologizing, defending my identity in faith with my “none” friends on the “left”….one of whom happens to be my bride. The world is afire, there is way too much of His work to do than to spend time arguing over belief credentials of the folks needed in the fight.

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