What We Can Learn from Young Atheists

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 reaction to 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.

[Image of Greek word for atheist from Wikipedia]

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  • Asking opinion will get you opinion but not always motive factors. Often the real cause of our behavior is below consciousness and we give reasons for behavior that have nothing to do with why we do things.

    Recent research by behavioral economists and neurologists show this in wonderfully clever experiments. Surveys are cheap and easy compared to experimentation and are easier to explain away when they conflict with theology.

    To answer the questions posed here would take a much more than a survey and require an ability to go beyond belief.

  • ortcutt

    I wouldn’t take these results too seriously. They seem to have been cherry-picked to confirm the narrative that Taunton wished to draw. Most of the atheists that I know rejected the claims of religion because they didn’t see any evidence that they were true. The claim that Jesus was resurrected on the third day was perfectly clear and precise to me, I just didn’t believe that it happened, any more than I believed that Odysseus blinded a cyclops.

  • Sven2547

    Growing up, I put the things I learned into three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and the-stuff-they-taught-us-in-Sunday-School… which reads like fiction, but they said it was true. I don’t mean to be offensive when I say this, but attempting to reconcile the differences between the Bible and the real world was a primary factor leading to my dismissal of Christianity altogether.

    So when I see “rigorous orthodoxy” as a suggestion, it may help in some cases, but in other cases it will only push people away faster. “Rigorous orthodoxy” causes people like Galileo to be punished for telling truths that conflict with that orthodoxy. If the church does not bend, then the contrast between the world-told-through-the-Bible and the world-explored-by-science becomes all the more stark.

  • Thin-ice

    What about an old fart who de-converted after 46 years as an evangelical and several as a missionary? The claim that the theology was not robust enough or that the fellowship was not high enough quality, are BOTH the opposite of the reasons I de-converted. My newly-joined small fellowship anonymously gave us over $3000 when I lost my job, and had open heart surgery in my new job, but before my sick time had kicked in. I loved the church family and quality of fellowship. And the doctrine of hell and it’s avoidance was plenty strong and robust, so much so that it proved to be the trigger to my de-conversion. Sounds just like hard-core conservative Republicans who blamed the last elections’ losses on the fact that their platform wasn’t conservative ENOUGH!

  • Pofarmer

    As an old guy just turning atheist, who has read as much of the bible as anybody, and then started reading the historical criticisms, you might want to check out if young people aren’t leaving because they are figuring out the rest of the story. There was a reason the church used to burn people for heresy.

  • kalimsaki

    letter to atheist

    One time two men were washing in a pool. Under some extraordinary influence they lost their senses and when they opened their eyes, they saw that it had transported them to a strange land. It was such that with its perfect order it was like a country, or rather a town, or a palace. They looked around themselves in complete bewilderment: if it was looked at in one way, a vast world was apparent; if in another, a well-ordered country; and if in another, a fine town. And if it was looked at in still another way, it was a palace which comprised a truly magnificent world. Travelling around this strange world, they observed it and saw that creatures of one sort were speaking in a fashion, but they did not understand their language. Nevertheless, it was understood from their signs that they were performing important works and duties.

    One of the two men said to his friend: “This strange world must have someone to regulate it, and this orderly country must have a lord, and this fine town, an owner, and this finely made palace, a master builder. We must try to know him, for it is understood that the one who brought us here was he. If we do not recognize him, who will help us? What can we await from these impotent creatures whose language we do not know and who do not heed us? Moreover, surely one who makes a vast world in the form of a country, town, and palace, and fills it from top to bottom with wonderful things, and embellishes it with every sort of adornment, and decks it out with instructive miracles wants something from us and from those that come here. We must get to know him and find out what he wants.”

    The other man said: “I do not believe it, that there is a person such as the one you speak of, and that he governs this whole world on his own.”

    His friend replied to him: “If we do not recognize him and remain indifferent towards him, there is no advantage in it at all, and if it is harmful, its harm will be immense. Whereas if we try to recognize him, there is little hardship involved, and if there is benefit, it will be great. Therefore, it is in no way sensible to remain indifferent towards him.”

    The foolish man said: “I consider all my ease and enjoyment to lie in not thinking of him. Also, I am not going to bother with things that make no sense to me. All these things are the confused objects of chance, they are happening by themselves. What is it to me?”

    His intelligent friend replied: “This obstinacy of yours will push me, and a lot of others, into disaster. It sometimes happens that a whole country is laid waste because of one ill-mannered person.”

    So the foolish man turned to him and said: “Either prove to me decisively that this large country has a single lord and single maker, or leave me alone.”

    His friend replied: “Your obstinacy has reached the degree of lunacy, and you will be the cause of some disaster being visited on us. So I shall show you twelve proofs demonstrating that this world which is like a palace, and country which is like town, has a single maker and that it is only he who runs and administers everything. He is completely free of all deficiency. This maker, who does not appear to us, sees us and everything, and hears our words. All his works are miracles and marvels. All these creatures whom we see but whose tongues we do not understand are his officials.”


  • “…more rigorous teaching…rigorous orthodoxy…”

    Rigor: strict, severe, harsh, cruel, stiff.

    Whether a church ignores the Pauline corruptions* of Christianity, or strictly enforces them onto people, folks are rejecting the corruptions, the rigor mortis, of the impostor** Paul. And then throwing out Jesus too.


    * “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be…” ~Thomas Jefferson

    ** “Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” ~Thomas Jefferson

  • Aspieguy

    Young people want more theology? What, more stories about how women should cover their heads in church?
    People leave religion and embrace atheism because they discover that the theology is false, the bible is completely fallible, and that religion offers no answers to any of their questions. The idea that leaving religion only for emotional reasons is laughable.