Why do young people become atheists?

Transcript Why do young people become atheists?

About two weeks ago in The Atlantic magazine, Larry Taunton, who is a Christian, wrote an interesting column on why young people become atheists.[1] I thought I would share some of this thoughts with you this morning. He says,

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.

And here is what they learned. He shares seven items of the profile of these students.

They had attended church.

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity.

So most of these students were once church going folks.

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.

This makes me think that the students predominately came out of mainline churches, non-evangelical churches, where you have the emphasis on doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or being involved in bringing about God’s Kingdom through social justice and aiding the poor, and being a good person. If that is the case, you can understand why they would see this as just utterly irrelevant to belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible. What these churches are preaching is just a sort of polite, warmed over humanism with Christian trappings. And obviously you don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ or even God in order to be a good person, be involved in social justice, or try to love your neighbor as yourself. So it is no wonder they saw the message that the church was giving them as irrelevant to the person of Jesus Christ and to God.

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.

This, to my thinking again, just underlines the importance of what we are doing in Defenders in trying to grapple with and address these serious questions in a responsible way.

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

. . . 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?”[2] 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.”

I think it was Mohandas Gandhi who once said that “If I really believed what you Christians believe, I would crawl on my hands and knees to tell the rest of the world about this.”

Ages 14-17 were decisive

. . . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

So, it wasn’t in the university environment, it was already in the context of the local church while in high school.

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.”

So she decided to become an atheist to get rid of her father!

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore similar childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn't answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.”

So you can see in these stories deeply emotional factors that contribute toward unbelief. But, of course, that is not socially acceptable so one will often mask or characterize one’s transition to unbelief as something that is purely intellectual because that elevates you in the eyes of your peers. You are a thinking, reflective person who follows reason unflinchingly to its end thereby masking some of the deep emotional reasons that might actually lead to unbelief.

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.

This underlines the importance of those of you in this class who are involved in these sorts of forums and even posting these kind of videos on YouTube. This is a tremendous ministry, I think, that reaches the twenty-somethings and younger who are frequenting those sites.

Taunton, reflecting upon the results of his unscientific survey, says,

. . . these students 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.”

Taunton says,

There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:

"I thought you didn't believe in the Gospel," someone asked.

"I do not," Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, "But he does."

And so Hume was attracted to that preaching because of its conviction. This is a reminder to us, I think, to live lives of conviction in a secular society uncompromisingly and yet graciously as we bear witness for Christ.[3]

[1] Larry Alex Taunton, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity”, The Atlantic, June 6, 2013. See http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/ (accessed August 27, 2013).

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhG-tkQ_Q2w (accessed August 27, 2013).

[3] Total Running Time: 10:42 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)