What We Can Learn From Young Atheists

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Recently The Atlantic posted an article entitled, “Listening to Young Atheists, Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.” In it, Larry Alex Tauron, the article’s author, reports the results of a survey he conducted to figure how, why, and when young atheists decided to become atheists (“Tell us your journey to unbelief.”). Taunton states that he expected to find Hitchens, Dawkins, and the other New Atheists at the forefront of these young people’s minds—but instead, they rarely mentioned any specific names of atheist apologists. He also found that, “Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reactionto Christianity.

So what drove them from the church into the arms of the New Atheists?

Taunton names several reasons that he saw repeated many times in the stories of the young people he interviewed. I think that the main threads, however, can be drawn into two themes:

1)   Theology matters

Three of Taunton’s main reasons for young people leaving the church have to do with the relative robustness and seriousness of their churches’ teachings: 1) The message their church taught was vague, 2) churches didn’t dig deeply into life’s big questions, and 3) many of their leaders and pastors didn’t take the Bible and Christian doctrine seriously enough.

Taunton’s first subject, Phil, became an atheist during his junior year of high school. Once the president of his youth group, who “loved” his church, pastor, and youth leader (Jim), Phil is now the president of the Secular Student Alliances (SSA) group at his college. He had great respect for his youth leader and enjoyed studying the Bible with him: “He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions.” What changed? The youth leader he loved left the church, largely due to (presumably) well-meaning church leaders who encouraged the youth leader to “teach less and play more.” In less than a year, Phil had left the youth group, the church, and his faith behind.

Taunton offers another example:

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.

In other words, these young people found their churches to be shallow and intellectually unserious. They were dissatisfied with the culture of “youth groups” and longed for deeper, more meaningful discussions. When they didn’t get that in Christianity, they turned to atheism as a place where they could be “rational.”

Taunton’s survey shows that tackling theology, orthodoxy, and the “Big Questions” in churches is vital for retaining young people. But as FF writer Lee Farnsworth wrote in the Spring Issue, “Educated Christians… often fall into the trap of over-intellectualizing the faith… Working out problems related to ethics, free will, justification, sanctification, social interactions, and more can be so interesting and absorbing that Christianity can become more about crafting a coherent worldview than about the person of Jesus.”

This leads to the second broad trend in Taunton’s conclusions:

2)   Relationships are vital

Deep connections with other people seem to make or break young people’s decision to leave the church—perhaps even more than lack of thoughtful teaching. For instance, when leaders in his church asked Phil’s youth leader to “dumb down” his youth group, Jim was eventually forced to leave the church. When Taunton questioned Phil about the time frame of his becoming an atheist, he asked, “’Wasn’t that about the time that your church fired Jim?’ He seemed surprised by the connection. ‘Yeah, I guess it was.’”

While Phil’s youth group did get larger in the wake of Jim’s departure, it failed to take into account the needs of the members it already had. Jim was important to Phil, and he lost not only his connection to more rigorous teaching in his church, he lost an important person in his life—his mentor, and his friend.

Relationships are deeply vital for our development as individuals, and no less so for the development of our faith and religious lives. Taunton notes that he found young people respected those who truly believed in Christ’s teachings—and demonstrated that to the young people around them. He adds to this strain of reasoning that,

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?”

In other words, the “emotional” reasons students had were linked to orthodoxy, but also to their ability to sense that pastors, leaders, and other Christians truly cared about them as individuals. When deprived of a deep connection with other Christians as well as serious study and exploration of Christianity and its relationship to the world, young people were left adrift—and drifted away.

The church, then, needs friendship, community, and rigorous orthodoxy.  This might make it smaller in some places: remember, Phil’s youth group got larger when play was substituted for teaching. But it will make it stronger everywhere, and help retention.

Sarah Clark

Sarah Clark lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with her husband Charlie. An alumna of Dartmouth College, she is editor of Murfreesboro Magazine and owner of Scale House, a letterpress print shop. Sarah is a founding editor of Fare Forward.