Listening to young atheists…

The Atlantic

“What led you to become an atheist?”


Members of the Secular Student Alliances and Freethought Societies were asked this question in a survey conducted recently at a varied group of schools—Stanford University, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Northwestern University, Portland State University.


The purpose of these in-person interviews was very simple:  Listen to these young atheists talk about their journey to unbelief.  The story of a young man named Phil is typical of the host of students who responded.  Once he got going, Phil talked for three hours.


“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.” ….


Now the president of his campus’s SSA [Secular Student Alliance], Phil was once the president of his Methodist church’s youth group. He loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”


Listening to his story I had to remind myself that Phil was an atheist, not a seminary student recalling those who had inspired him to enter the pastorate. 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.”


Several of the conclusions from this informal survey are summarized in the current issue of The Atlantic, Listening to Young Atheists:  Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.”  Here are the bullet points of the summary sketch.


·         They had attended church.


·         The mission and message of their churches were vague.


·         They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.


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


·         Ages 14-17 were decisive.


·         The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one.


·         The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.


Several other key points from the Atlantic article are worth highlighting:


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. …


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. …


That 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.”


Listening to Young Atheists” was written by Christian apologist Larry Taunton, the founder and Executive Director of Fixed Point Foundation.  Mr. Taunton is a columnist, author, and cultural commentator who has engaged and debated some of the most prominent intellectuals of our day, such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer.  More on Larry Taunton and Fixed Point Foundation can be found here.




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One Response to “Listening to young atheists…”

  1. Good article Mike. While these young atheists are telling us that they are repelled by a weak Christianity, one where the adherents only gather to discuss, but don’t let the teachings influence their day to day lives, our politicians are expecting Christians to NOT allow their beliefs to influence our day to day lives. What a paradox, pickle and predicament!!