Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity

fixed_point

Recently, the Atlantic Monthly had a fantastic article by Larry Alex Taunton, Executive Director of Fixed Point Foundation.  Mr. Taunton led a study of atheists at college campuses.  The results are fascinating and I strongly encourage you to read the entire article which can be found here.  Here is a summary of the key findings, together with my comments in [red, bold brackets]:

1.  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. [Comment: Although it was not asked in the article, I am very curious whether there was any significant difference among denominations].

2.  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. [Comment: Obviously, these are good attributes. However, Christians need to draw the connection between the ontological reason for these actions and the inherent belief that they are “good”.  Mother Teresa is an ideal role model here.]

3.  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. [Comment:  This is a strong challenge to both understand our faith and not be afraid to ask the big questions such as the existence of God, the purpose of life, the nature of evil.  I believe that Christianity offers the most viable intellectual answers to these tough questions, but believers need to wrestle with the questions and present answers in a way that non-believers can relate to]. 

4.  They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.  Without fail, former church-attending students expressed positive feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. 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.”  [Comment:  I agree that a muscular Christianity is more attractive than wimpy Christianity.  However, it needs to be tied to reason, science and an appropriate understanding of the Bible.  This is one of the primary attractions of Catholicism].

5.  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. [Comment: As a father of two boys 9 and 6 this is interesting.  It is a message to continue to be active in the faith formation of my children.]

6.  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.  [Comment: This highlights the need that beyond being able to promote Christianity on an intellectual basis, Christians need to exhibit the joy of living the Gospel]. 

7.  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.  [Comment:  Christians need to have better quantitative and qualitative web presence that reaches out to non-believers].

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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4 Responses to Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity

  1. Thanks for linking that article – it made for an interesting read. Many of the thoughts expressed by those interviewed mirrored my own experiences. However, I can’t help feeling that the article minimized something important. Namely, many atheists have had very positive experiences with religion in their past but still have left religion to seek out new communities such as the Secular Students Alliance.

    In the story of Jim, the man who was previously very engaged in his Methodist church, the story seems to have been presented in a way that suggests that Jim’s journey to unbelief was motivated partly by a bruised ego as a result of being replaced in his leadership position. His anger or disappointment with his church could have provided a push towards unbelief but could just have easily propelled him to a different church, one more in keeping with his focus on the scripture. That he abandoned religion entirely suggests to me that there were a number of other things going on.

    Speaking for myself, I had some very positive experiences with Christianity in college. For two years I was a Christian and being part of that community was very rewarding for me. However, my intense study of scripture combined with my life long interest in science began to errode my faith. I vividly recall one Bible study where we were discussing Judas. To me it seemed ridiculous that he would be punished for playing a key part in the crucifixion, a necessary event in Christian theology. To me, it seemed clear that the Bible was written by all-to-human hands, complete with prejudice towards Judas, women, as well as non-Jews (old testament geocide). The more I inquired into the text, the more I began to question values that came as part and parcel of my Christian identity. Why is premarital sex wrong? What about gay people? Why should I live my life as a good person in return for a future reward, shouldn’t I just be a good person? How were people in India or America or New Zealand suppose to be saved if Jesus only showed up in Israel?

    Is it more likely that religion is a purely human invention?

    I respect that many people deeply believe in Christianity and that it is a force for good in their lives. In that light it makes perfect sense to focus on marketing it to a wider audience (while not diluting its substance). However, it is important to recognize that there are many people who will remain unconvinced, even with optimal marketing.

    Thanks again for the interesting posts and please keep it up.

    • Dear Patrick:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Some additional thoughts are below.

      [I can’t help feeling that the article minimized something important. Namely, many atheists have had very positive experiences with religion in their past but still have left religion to seek out new communities such as the Secular Students Alliance.]

      Good point.

      [Speaking for myself, I had some very positive experiences with Christianity in college. For two years I was a Christian and being part of that community was very rewarding for me. However, my intense study of scripture combined with my life long interest in science began to errode my faith.]

      I am always interested in learning the stories of others, as I inevitably learn something. Feel free to share as much as you are comfortable with.

      [I vividly recall one Bible study where we were discussing Judas. To me it seemed ridiculous that he would be punished for playing a key part in the crucifixion, a necessary event in Christian theology.]

      The case of Judas is very interesting. I am not a theologian, but while my faith tradition believes in the existence of hell (defined as eternal absence from the presence of God), it does not take any position on whether anyone (including Judas) is in hell. Some Christian theologians even posit that hell (absence of God) is annihilation of existence at death. Perhaps Christians and atheists are both correct on the afterlife:-). My tradition does affirm that a lot of people are in heaven though. Catholics have a lot of Saint feast days:-).

      [To me, it seemed clear that the Bible was written by all-to-human hands, complete with prejudice towards Judas, women, as well as non-Jews (old testament geocide).]

      While I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, there is no doubt that the human authors injected their own prejudices in the writings. I view the Bible as a fascinating collection of stories, historical accounts and other literary genres that all point to the overall theological narrative of there being a loving Creator God, that desires a deep and personal relationship with human beings. God speaks to us where we are, and like any other literature, I believe that the Bible needs to be read in light of the cultural context in which it is written to distill the inspired truths contained therein.

      [The more I inquired into the text, the more I began to question values that came as part and parcel of my Christian identity. Why is premarital sex wrong? What about gay people?]

      There is nothing wrong with being gay. Extramarital sex is a much more complex issue, and one in which I am not in 100% accord with my Church (although my differences are fairly minor).

      [Why should I live my life as a good person in return for a future reward, shouldn’t I just be a good person?]

      I agree. The core question for me is why I should be a good person? Is there some biological reason that I should be a good person? Or is there something else embedded in the nature of being human? I spent a decent portion of my early adult life under the influence of Ayn Rand so I have a unique perspective on this.

      [How were people in India or America or New Zealand suppose to be saved if Jesus only showed up in Israel?]

      A unique thing about Christianity is that it is universal. My tradition believes that if you are unaware of Christ, salvation is still available depending on the life you lived.

      [Is it more likely that religion is a purely human invention?]

      That is certainly a plausible explanation. I personally believe both the existence of religious beliefs (which do not have any unique biological advantage) and the similarities of beliefs across cultures (e.g. the Greek logos and the Chinese Tao) point to something larger.

      [I respect that many people deeply believe in Christianity and that it is a force for good in their lives. In that light it makes perfect sense to focus on marketing it to a wider audience (while not diluting its substance). However, it is important to recognize that there are many people who will remain unconvinced, even with optimal marketing.]

      Absolutely. I enjoy atheists because most of them are very sincere in seeking the truth and wanting what is best for both themselves and for humanity.

      [Thanks again for the interesting posts and please keep it up.]

      Thank you for your always insightful comments.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  2. Frederick says:

    There are now more Christians (and Catholics) in the world than ever before both in total numbers and as a percentage of the human population.
    There is more Christian propaganda of all kinds in both electronic and paper forms -including the Bible
    More Christian churches, schools and universities. More Christian websites and blogs. More Christian missionaries than ever before.
    And yet the human world is becoming more and more insane every day. Indeed some of the leading vectors of this now universal insanity are “muscular” Christians, both Catholic & Protestant.

    • There is no doubt that institutional Christianity has been part of great abuse over the past 2,000 years. It is because it is run by human beings with all of the beauty and flaws that humans have. G.K. Chesterton summed it up best: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Humanity has also had the recent experience of the past several centuries of relying solely upon human rationality to arrange its affairs. While some progress has been made, ultimately the destructive wars and ideologies of the 20th century (communism, fascism) have proved this to be a dead end.

      I believe we are in a unique time in history, a beginning of a Second Axial Age due to the deep interconnectiveness brought about by technology. The internet has been foreshadowed by Teilhard de Chardin in his description of the noosphere. The fact that you and I are able to have this conversation and learn from each other virtually instantaneously despite being physically separated by half of a globe is nothing short of amazing and will a deep impact on our understanding of the metaphysical connection among all of humanity and all of creation. This period will bring about an authentic form of religion and interconnectiveness that will help move humanity forward.

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