Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity by L. A. Taunton
When a Christian foundation interviewed college nonbelievers about how and why they left religion, surprising themes emerged.
by Larry Alex Taunton
“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”
I have known a lot of atheists. The late Christopher Hitchens was a friend with whom I debated, road tripped, and even had a lengthy private Bible study. I have moderated Richard Dawkins and, on occasion, clashed with him.
And I have listened for hours to the (often unsettling) arguments of Peter Singer and a whole host of others like him.
These men are some of the public faces of the so-called “New Atheism,” and when Christians think about the subject — if they think about it at all — it is this sort of atheist who comes to mind: men whose unbelief is, as Dawkins once proudly put it, “militant.”
But Phil, the atheist college student who had come to my office to share his story, was of an altogether different sort.
[The author discusses how he frequently talks with and debates atheists, and asks them, especially the ones who used to be believers,]
What led you to become an atheist?
Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective: one invokes his understanding of science; another says it was her exploration of the claims of this or that religion; and still others will say that religious beliefs are illogical, and so on. To hear them tell it, the choice was made from a philosophically neutral position that was void of emotion.
… To gain some insight, we launched a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS).
These college groups are the atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade: They meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize.
They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.
…Using the Fixed Point Foundation website, email, my Twitter, and my Facebook page, we contacted the leaders of these groups and asked if they and their fellow members would participate in our study. To our surprise, we received a flood of enquiries.
[The author listened to Phil the former Christian, now atheist, discuss why and how he had become an atheist]
….As the narrative developed, however, it became clear where things came apart for Phil. During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
An hour deeper into our conversation I asked, “When did you begin to think of yourself as an atheist?”
He thought for a moment. “I would say by the end of my junior year.”
I checked my notes. “Wasn’t that about the time that your church fired Jim?”
He seemed surprised by the connection. “Yeah, I guess it was.”
Phil’s story, while unique in its parts, was on the whole typical of the stories we would hear from students across the country.
Slowly, a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge and it would challenge all that we thought we knew about this demographic.
Here is what we learned:
They had attended church
Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.
The mission and message of their churches was vague
These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern:
“The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.”
This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world.
Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc.
Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions.
Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics.
Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”
…The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:
“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.
I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? “No,” Meredith explained. “I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.”
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism
When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.
/// end snippet ///
As to this portion of the article:
Ages 14-17 were decisive
One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.
/// end snippet ///
I don’t dispute that author’s findings, but, in all my reading on deconversion stories, I’ve noticed that the vast majority (including people who accepted Jesus as Savior while children and who were quite devout) leave the faith when they are age 40 – 49, not in their teens.
I myself am currently in my 40s, I was a devout Christian for years, accepted Christ as my Savior prior to age ten, yet in my 40s, I find myself wandering away from the faith and doubting it.
So I am not sure how to take the author’s point that most of the Ex Christians he met were atheists by the age of ten or age fifteen. That has not been my experience at all, anecdotally.
As to this portion of the article:
They [ex Christians who are now atheists] expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn’t try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: “Because you believe it.”
Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.
Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”
As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think.
It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
/// end snippet ///
I also find this quite odd.
Most non-believers I’ve run into get antagonistic with you if you try to share your faith with them – they get offended – so why bother?
Secondly, even when I was 100% on-board with the Christian faith myself, in spite of the fact I believed (and still believe) that there is an afterlife, I did not (and do not) want to argue or debate with anyone about any of this.
I am not usually going to try to cram my religious views down your throat.
I’ve always had a pretty much “live and let live, let’s get along in spite of our differing views” type personality, regarding most beliefs.
Further, I’ve always been a reserved, introverted person who does not relish confrontation and controversy, so it’s not in my personality type to march right up to people I don’t know (or even ones I do know) and start giving a “Jesus spiel,” where I try to sell Christianity to them.
I’ve never cared all too much if someone wants to accept Christ or not; I’ve always been wired this way. I recognized at a young age that an atheist (or other non-believer) cannot be argued into believing in Christianity, so there is little point, (unless the individual approaching me is sincerely inquiring about my faith and wants to truly know why I believed what I did), in debating or discussing the faith with them.
Jesus said don’t toss your pearls before swine – there is a category of atheist out there that does not give a rat about Christianity.
That type of atheist merely loves intellectual stimulation and debate for its own sake (or to feel superior to people of faith), and they hate Christians, so they love trying to make any Christian they converse with appear to be a backwards idiot – and that is what prompts one category of atheist to chat about the faith with believers, not a sincere desire to learn, exchange ideas, or to reach the truth.
A lot of atheists I’ve observed online have a lot of intellectual pride.
That is why, when I used to be a lead moderator at a heavily- visited Christian board, the moment I sensed an atheist visitor was at our forum just to argue with Christians, I would refuse to debate them.
I simply did not care if they believed or not, I respected their choice to disbelieve – and this would annoy, shock, or infuriate certain types of atheists.
So I am not sure what to say to this category of atheist who act like Christians who aren’t hell-bent to convert them are somehow wrong or insincere; I think it’s quite the opposite.
As to this portion towards the end, I agree with this:
That these students [who left Christianity and are now atheists] were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable.
I again quote Michael:
“Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
/// end snippet ///
I can echo Michael on that. That definitely played a role in my drift from the faith.
After my mother’s death, I had my eyes opened. Most Christians I went to in my time of need, when I was in grief, weren’t living out the faith; they didn’t care to actually walk with me through that grief.
(My mother, by contrast, actually lived the faith; she didn’t just talk about it. She would offer practical assistance to people in need, such as, she would drive frail elderly neighbors to their doctor appointments.)
Many of the Christians I went to for help (as in, emotional support) after my mother’s death are the types of Christians who attend church, they read the Bible daily to weekly, and they pay the faith lip service, but they don’t actually practice the faith (see James 2:16 and Romans 12:15).
I have also regularly visited spiritual abuse blogs in the last few years and have noted a pattern in churches – when dealing with victims of domestic abuse or child sex abuse, most Christians victim-blame the victim and defend the abuser, which is the opposite of what the Bible teaches.
Christians who have depression or other mental health issues are also shamed by Christians – they are not empathized with, or, they are told if they have anxiety or depression, that they must “never have truly been saved” to start with.
These churches seldom provide actual help to victims (such as paying for them to receive counseling, putting abused wives up in apartments for free as they divorce their abusive husbands, etc).
And how often do these spiritual abuse sites, and secular news ones, report on pastors (who are self professing Christians) who are caught having affairs or manufacturing or looking at child pornography? It happens quite often.
If Christianity were true, I’d expect to find 99% of its adherents actually living clean lifestyles and helping (not condemning) victims of abuse and ministering to those in grief and so on, but I don’t see this. I usually see the opposite.
(And note, I did not say I expect absolute perfection from all Christians at all times, but to see most of them, 99% of the time, living clean lifestyles. But that’s not what I’m seeing. I’ll give any Christian a pass for the occasional fail here or there, but not for consistent and persistent sinful lifestyle choices and habits.)
I’m not sure the one percent who ARE living the faith consistently cancel out or “make up for” the 99% who are not.
The one percent are a big aberration in my mind at this point.
I see most Christians either ignoring the wounded, or feeding them platitudes to brush them off as quickly as they can, or else, many Christians shame the wounded.
I’ve not seen how Jesus Christ has actually made a difference in the lives of most self professing Christians I’ve run into in real life, or who I’ve read about online.
At any rate, you can read the that article in its entirety here, on The Atlantic
Follow-up to this post: