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Gen Z Atheism

April 27, 2020
Gen Z Atheism


Dr. Craig examines a claim that atheism is increasing in Gen Z.

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, there! Come on in. It’s Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. You know, we had no idea what was coming when we recorded these podcasts. Just to give you a little behind-the-scenes. What we do is we take two or three days and record a bunch of podcasts and then get them all produced out for you. When we recorded these podcasts we had no idea that a pandemic was about to sweep the globe. We will be talking more about that in the coming days. We want you to know that Dr. Craig and his wife, Jan, are doing well. Reasonable Faith staff are doing well. We appreciate your prayers in this very important time in our history. People are looking for answers. People are looking for God. It is crucial that we keep the work of Reasonable Faith going. I know it is probably pretty tight at your house as far as your budget. Any gift large or small that you can give to keep Reasonable Faith happening in times like these is greatly appreciated. Just go to and click on “Donate.”  Today we are going to talk about Generation-Z. Are they becoming more atheistic? Stand by.

Bill, from time to time we talk about how there seems to be a decline in Christianity among young people. These surveys wax and wane. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s a little bit down. We’ve got an article here from an atheist, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism, who says, “Why are there so many Gen Z atheists.”[1] He says he likes to talk about this because he sees an evacuation of the younger crowd from Christianity. He quotes Michael Brown here writing in the Christian Post his answer why there are so many Gen Z atheists.

DR. CRAIG: Before we look at Brown’s attempts to answer the question, I noticed that Adam Lee never offers an answer to the question. He doesn't tell us why people in Generation Z are more atheistic. He assumes that that's true, but he never gives any account explaining it. I think we should keep in mind that this is a sociological question that is neutral in terms of one's religious commitments. It's not as though Christians have one answer to this question and the secularist has a different answer to the question. We ought to be able to agree as objective observers of our current culture and scene if this is happening then what are the sociological factors that go into this? Yet the way Adam portrays it this is a battleground issue for him where he doesn't like Michael Brown’s reasons and so criticizes them, but then has none of his own to offer in their place to explain the reason why so many Gen-Z’ers are atheists.

KEVIN HARRIS: He’s quoting a Barna study from 2018 which dubbed the up-and-coming Generation Z the least Christian generation in American history. As I recall that Barna study – I'll have to look at it again – I don't know if that meant there are more atheists; but it could mean there are more of these “nones” who want to identify as spiritual but not religious – “I love the Lord but I'm not religious” kind of people.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. What Adam Lee doesn't tell his reader is that the percentage of atheists – genuine atheists – still remains around 3% or 4% or less, and that these “nones” are not in fact atheists by and large. They're just not affiliated with a church denomination or a particular religious group.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says Michael Brown says,

In my view, the problem is not so much with Gen Z as with the way Gen Z was raised.

First, many of these young people have been raised in superficial Christian homes. Their parents embraced a lightweight, me-oriented, prosperity-type gospel, which is a far cry from the real Gospel of Jesus.

There's number one. The second one is:

. . . Gen Z’ers have not been called to leave everything and follow Jesus.

They have not been challenged to make a serious commitment. Consequently, they do not recognize the value and weight of the cross.

…Social justice calls on young people to make radical choices.

Climate change challenges them to take urgent action.

But the church? Religion? Jesus? What’s the big deal? Where’s the urgency? What is the cause?

Third – it's all Richard Dawkins’ fault!

Generation Z’ers were born between 1999 and 2015… That was when authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens came to national (and international) prominence with their frontal assaults on the Bible, God, and the Christian faith.

And while Christian intellectuals were able to counter their arguments with relative ease, those answers, for the most part, did not reach the man or woman in the pew, let alone their children.

Then fourth,

Fourth, Gen Z has grown up in the midst of LGBT activism, which, in turn, has done a terrific job of portraying Christians as hostile, primitive, bigots. Who wants to associate with them?

DR. CRAIG: Now, I think those are four very responsible attempts to name some sociological factors for why Gen Z is the least religious generation. I think particularly the fourth one that talks about the huge cultural changes that we've undergone in the United States that would make younger people more hostile to Christianity is particularly persuasive. So while there may, and certainly probably are, other reasons, I see no reason to think that Brown is completely off-base here. These do seem to be some plausible suggestions for increasing secularism.

KEVIN HARRIS: He's really big on apologetics and wants that to get to the people in the pew and their children. I applaud Michael Brown on that. All right. What are the responses that Adam Lee has to each one? He says,

“The young people aren’t being taught the right things, they’d stay in the faith if they knew what real Christianity was,” is a perennial apologist excuse. The problem, of course, is that of the hundreds or thousands of squabbling Christian denominations, every one thinks they possess the true path and all the others are pretenders who are misrepresenting the teachings of Jesus.

Contrary to this argument, the decline of Christianity in America is across the board, not limited to a single denomination or place on the political spectrum. And as I noted last year, people who know more about evangelical Christians like them less, suggesting that deconversion is rooted in accurate perception and not ignorance.

DR. CRAIG: Here he is simply sociologically mistaken. The decline of Christianity in America has not been across the board. It's largely in the old mainline denominations that were prominent in the 1950s: the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the United Methodists, the Catholics. Those old mainline denominations are bleeding memberships. Their doors are closing. Their seminaries are merging. Those denominations which no longer faithfully preach the Gospel are having difficulty in getting people to wake up on a Sunday morning in the dark and the cold and come to church when you don't really believe in Jesus or the God that you're supposedly worshiping. But the most recent statistics I've seen is that evangelical Christianity in the United States is growing along with the population. It's keeping up and is around 25%. So groups that are faithful to the Gospel, faithful to Christianity, are not experiencing this sort of freefall and attrition that the old mainline denominations are. So here I think that Adam is simply ignorant of the current demographics in the United States.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says as far as Brown is saying that Gen Z’ers have not been called to leave everything and follow Jesus, that social justice and climate change and racial inequality, these are big causes that they're invited to take part in, Adam Lee says,

I’d agree with that. It’s a rare, albeit probably unintentional, admission that nonreligious people can have their own views about morality that differ from what religions preach.

DR. CRAIG: That's a red herring. It's not relevant to whether this is an important sociological factor in the decline of religiosity among Gen Z’ers.


But notice how he frames it: as if these burning issues are in competition with Jesus and the gospel.

DR. CRAIG: That's false. It's not what Brown is doing. He's not saying these are in competition with Jesus. He's saying here are examples of where young people respond to a big vision to something that calls them to sacrifice and to work for a cause, and he claims the church hasn't presented this vision of commitment to Christ in his kingdom with the same sort of passion and urgency. That could well be the case. We’ve focused on entertainment and emotional worship services among young people instead of calling them to this high calling.

KEVIN HARRIS: You're stepping on some toes now.

DR. CRAIG: Brown is not saying these are in competition or that we shouldn't be involved in taking up these causes. He's saying that the success of these causes shows that this younger generation is not an apathetic, lazy generation; that when challenged and given a vision they will step up, and we need to do that, too. I don't see anything the matter with that.

KEVIN HARRIS: The third point is that it's Richard Dawkins fault – that this rise in New Atheism has affected Gen Z. While Christian intellectuals such as yourself have responded, it hasn't gotten down to the pew.

DR. CRAIG: Now, I would think Adam Lee would be delighted with the admission by Michael Brown that New Atheists have been so successful in influencing our culture. I would think Lee would take this as a great compliment on Brown’s part that you folks have done a powerful job of influencing our culture in the direction of secularism. But he doesn't. Rather, he makes fun of Brown again.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, he does make fun of him. He says,

What a pity. If only there were some way for Christians to get their message out in America! Other than, you know, their megachurches, their TV channels, their radio stations, their websites, their publishing companies, their mass mailings, their private colleges, their billboards, their neon signs, their streetcorner proselytizers, their Jesus-fish bumper stickers, their cartoon tracts left at bus stops, their presidential executive orders…

DR. CRAIG: Yes, it certainly is true that Christians (and Reasonable Faith in particular) are doing all that we can to try to get the message out. But anybody who's gone to a Sunday School class, an adult Sunday School class, or to a conference will be aware of how blissfully unaware the average Christian layman is of this material, of the intellectual part of the body of Christ which is engaged in these apologetic issues. Now, certainly there's been a great renaissance in Christian apologetics over the last 15, 20 years, I think sparked in part by the New Atheism and the need and thirst that it's created among the laity for training and equipping. But still it's just a fact that that's a minority of people. I think all of us who work with Christian churches know that fact.

KEVIN HARRIS: I was asked the other day if there was such a rise in Christian apologetics in the 90s (when you did that Willow Creek debate that everybody saw), then why did the New Atheist movement start in the 2000s? Why didn't that counteract that, in other words? Didn't God know what he’s doing? I'm thinking, he knew exactly what he was doing. Think of what it would be like in the 2000s if that had not happened in the 90s.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. It's so hard to measure the cultural impact of these things. As someone who wants to make an impact on our culture for Christ, I'm often frustrated at our seeming lack of influence and yet when you step back and look at what has been accomplished I think that a great deal has been done to prevent our culture from going totally down the secularist’s drain in the way it has, for example, in Germany, France, and other European countries. So while we can do better and while we have, I think, effectively answered the arguments of the New Atheists (whether Adam Lee thinks so or not), these New Atheists are generally scorned among intellectuals because their arguments are so bad. It's among the popular masses that they've had such influence. We can do better than this than we have, but nevertheless I think that we are responding and that Brown is certainly right in saying that the New Atheists have had a profound effect on our culture.

KEVIN HARRIS: Without a doubt. Adam Lee says,

Here’s the most interesting part of his column:

Fourth, Gen Z has grown up in the midst of LGBT activism, which, in turn, has done a terrific job of portraying Christians as hostile, primitive, bigots. Who wants to associate with them?

This is why I decided to write about Brown’s article, because he does something that Christian apologists virtually never do: he acknowledges that the church’s views and teachings might, maybe, just possibly, have something to do with the exodus of younger generations.

DR. CRAIG: I would say to that that Christian thinkers and apologists have always acknowledged that the church's views on certain moral issues are going to be culturally unacceptable and offensive to some people and will alienate them. Brown is not saying anything radical or new here. The church's stand for pro-life, for the sanctity of marriage and against same-sex marriage, for the immorality of the gay lifestyle – these are all issues that mean that Christians are going to be living counter-culturally. As someone who grew up in the 60s in which it was praised to be counter-cultural rather than to be a conformist, I rather delight in the fact that as a Christian I run in a different direction than our culture. I would say that if there is a Christian listening to this podcast who does not feel estranged or alienated from American culture then he is insufficiently sensitive in his Christian conscience because our American Western culture is deeply anti-Christian in many ways. The Christian will be called upon to take unpopular stands particularly with respect to the legitimacy or the morality of homosexual relations.

KEVIN HARRIS: At the end of the article he says,

Brown circles back to the same place that Christians who discuss this inevitably end up – which is “we need to do the same things we’ve always been doing, but more”:

Thankfully, the solution to all this is simple.

…we get back to the biblical gospel, without dilution or mixture.

…we get equipped in basic apologetics, using the many terrific resources available today.

…we run to the front lines of the culture rather than from them, proclaiming that God has a better way.

DR. CRAIG: I agree with all of those things. I think that's exactly what needs to be done, and running to the front lines of culture will mean having Christians involved in the arts (in the music industry and the film industry in particular) to try to bring a Christian perspective in these cultural areas, as well as taking university professorships and positions of influence in our cultural educational institutions. There's a lot to be done, and I think those are all good pieces of advice. Adam Lee thinks that evangelical Christianity in America is, “on the brink of demographic collapse.” He says, “they seem determined to cling to it even as they plummet off the edge.” That is so false and so contrary to the sociological data that exists that say evangelicals are nowhere ready to go away. We're going to continue to be at the forefront of the culture wars when they impinge on issues of religion and ethics, and that is right where we ought to be.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 18:59 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)