Reasons for Atheism

From Larry Alex Taunton, at The Atlantic (HT: TG):

Someone with plenty of experience conversing with those who have left the faith for atheism, Taunton lists the results of some research on why folks walk away. Worth your read and response.

It has been my privilege to address college students all over the world, usually as one defending the Christian worldview. These events typically attract large numbers of atheists. I like that. I find talking to people who disagree with me much more stimulating than those gatherings that feel a bit too much like a political party convention, and the exchanges with these students are mostly thoughtful and respectful. At some point, I like to ask them a sincere question:

What led you to become an atheist?…

To gain some insight, we launched a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). These college groups are the atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade: They meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize. They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.

Using the Fixed Point Foundation website, email, my Twitter, and my Facebook page, we contacted the leaders of these groups and asked if they and their fellow members would participate in our study. To our surprise, we received a flood of enquiries. Students ranging from Stanford University to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, from Northwestern to Portland State volunteered to talk to us. The rules were simple: Tell us your journey to unbelief. It was not our purpose to dispute their stories or to debate the merits of their views. Not then, anyway. We just wanted to listen to what they had to say. And what they had to say startled us….

They had attended church

The mission and message of their churches was 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

"Note what that NPR article says; he's no longer president of the university, but they ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"I am glad the article was prefaced by "This is a statement that needs more ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Steve, you speak of loving both God and others well, so I would like to ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"Becky, yes, you're right. When I wrote this, I didn't yet know of the recordings. ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • PJ Anderson

    This is what I’m seeing too, though I would add that the develop and exploration of one’s sexuality and the lack of a significant father figure both are contributors to the move towards atheism.

    What has been amazing, in my conversations, has been the amount of emotional energy loaded in for so many atheists. Their objections to theism in general and Christianity specifically (I rarely meet former Muslims who are atheists) comes from a deep seated emotional decision. We must be careful and merciful in our conversations.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    So helpful and interesting.

  • Jakeithus

    “The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one”

    Not surprising at all. In my online debates with atheists, I’ve noticed they like to paint the reasons they believe what they do only in rational terms, but it’s clear that it is always a combination of rational and emotional reasons that go into determining this.

  • ortcutt

    Taunton fails to distinguish between two things.

    (1) Accepting that you are an atheist causes an emotional response.
    (2) An emotional response causes you to become an atheist.

    The decision to become an atheist may be an emotional one in that it raises emotions in someone without it being caused by an emotional response. It’s often an emotional thing to realize that you might disappoint your parents, grandparents, etc… by rejecting beliefs that are important to them. In my own experience, I didn’t have any negative experience with church at all and my realization that I don’t believe was an unemotional one. Church was a dull way to spend a Sunday morning but nothing more. I realized I was an atheist when I heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection and just didn’t think the evidence was very good. People can write down whatever they want, but that doesn’t make it so.

  • Abib14

    Read the last chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and the last 2 chapters of John. They detail Jesus’ Resurrection. Also realize that the Book of Luke is an uninspired book, see Luke 1:1-4. Have a notepad and take notes of all the differences in the Resurrection Accounts. Can the pulpits explain why Matthew has Jesus in a red robe while the others a purple robe?

    My experience in conversations with atheists, is that they have read the Bible, perhaps several times. And throughout the Bible there are differences, such as how can man be created on the sixth day of the Genesis 1 narrative, and on day 1 of the Genesis 2 narrative or the Resurrection narratives mentioned above..

    Atheists are intelligent people, they read these differences in the Bible narratives and want answers. And here’s the big thing, few if any answers emanating from the pulpits, answer satisfactorily these differences. When the answers go unresolved, then at a point in time, the former want-to-be believer, deems Scripture to be a collection of faery tales and worship our Lord and Savior to be a waste of time..

    They turn their backs on Christianity, some mock believers for believing what they deem as faery tales, and any conversation attempted with them results in seemingly rantings of who’s right and who’s wrong and why. Not interesting conversation in the least.

    My advice to atheists is that they still can be saved even though they apparently blasphemy God, just be sure not to blasphemy the Holy Spirit.

  • John Evans

    I am an atheist myself – though in my case I was raised largely without religion, I didn’t leave a faith. From my own conversations with other atheists, who did leave faiths – often ones they were previously fervently devoted to – I am not surprised with the idea that their leaving was a combination of reason and emotion. My perception is that it is very hard to divorce emotion and reason – they play on one another. A gut reaction leads us to investigate something rationally, and our findings trigger an emotional response. Many of the other atheists I’ve spoken to have spoken of a haunting sense of loss when their first glimmerings of doubt emerged. A frantic, panicked struggle that this NEXT line of reasoned inquiry and religious scholarship MUST be the one that will assuage those doubts and prove, once and for all, the religion’s truths. A melancholic paralysis when their thoughts turn to the idea that no, the doubt only increases. And then, often, fury. A sense of deep betrayal and hurt that the people they most love, most trust, have been – in their perceptions – lied to and have passed on those lies, all their lives. Have been deeply hurt socially, in opportunities lost, and even physically, by holding the faith’s beliefs. I often feel like an outsider among them, because being raised without religion, I have never known that kind of struggle.

  • AHH

    It should be recognized that this is not a representative sample of atheists.
    I expect that those who are more heavily “into” atheism, enough that they participate in organized atheist groups, might differ quite a bit from the person for whom atheism is just one aspect of life (maybe the only way of life they have known) but not something they dwell on a lot. For example, I would speculate that these groups contain a disproportionate number of former churchgoers who are strongly rejecting their past.
    Not that we should ignore what these people told Taunton. Churches that can’t or won’t deal with tough questions is certainly a problem, for example. But for the wider cross-section, including the many in society for whom church is a completely foreign place, insights such as those in the book Unchristian are probably needed alongside these.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    “the develop and exploration of one’s sexuality and the lack of a significant father figure both are contributors to the move towards atheism”


    Correlation / causation and all that? Some awful assumptions and statements you are making there.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The rise of the religious right/televangelism can’t be discounted. It spawned such a ‘parody-worthy’ brand of Christianity that it became a running gag in common cultural conversation, and more seriously advocated such a sanctimonious, bigoted, judgmental and partisan strand of the faith that people who were on the cusp were effectively driven away through disgust with what they witnessed. I know many people who grew up religious but left as teens and young adults because they’d had it with the cherry picking and judgmentalism.

  • That’s been my experience too: Too many preachers claim the bible has no inconsistencies, no contradictions, no errors, and is a factual account of creation. And when people discover the inconsistencies (i.e. an emphasis on grace in one story, an emphasis on justice in another), the contradictions (i.e. the stories of Jesus’s resurrection), the seeming errors (i.e. Mark 1.2 quoting “Isaiah” when it’s really Malachi), the paradoxes (i.e. Jesus is the Son of God; Jesus is God; Jesus is one person of the Trinity) and an account of creation which doesn’t jibe at all with modern science, the preachers’ response is usually, “No no no. Ignore your skepticism. Reject your doubts. Trust us. Believe.”

    Believe based on what? These are honest questions. “Turn off your brain” is not an acceptable answer. Rebuking the questioners for objecting to over-simplistic answers is not an acceptable defense.

    And (just one of my pet peeves as a Pentecostal) for the most part these preachers are doing it wrong. Jesus said, “Follow me,” not “Believe without seeing.” (Yeah, “blessed are those who believe without seeing”… but Jesus said this after he granted Thomas’s wish to see him.) Preachers must encourage people to actually follow God, and in so doing actually encounter and experience God. Instead, we too often try to make people believe without seeing; to reduce God to a set of formulaic doctrines which need to be accepted as a whole, and accept this as a valid substitute for the Holy Spirit. It’s not, Doctrine and experience work together; separately they work anemically at best. Give ’em God-experiences, and we’ll see a lot fewer atheists.

  • Susan_G1

    I’m not sure how to say this without sounding supercilious, so please forgive me.

    I’m frankly surprised there aren’t more atheists. What a sad example we are as believers – we still commit all the ‘sins’ they do, many of us are ridiculous and obnoxious people who don’t follow Jesus’ Great Commandment. We are, in fact, simply human, with the wide spectrum of behaviors common to us all.

    I came to Christ at 29. Until that time, I didn’t want to worship a God who created people He knew would spend eternity in Hell. I was angry that evil existed. I thought that damnation was an unfair price to pay for free will. After becoming a Christian, I hated Bible studies, because I didn’t like the average Christian; I thought they were elitist snobs, with their, “oh, they can never know true happiness without Jesus” crap. I swore I would never use the jargon that so identified us as special, I would never discuss “my walk with the Lord”, or say “God told me…” or “lay my burdens at the foot of the cross”. I actually pitied them. I don’t know how they saw me, and I’m glad. I would have been taken down a notch or two.

    I think I was afraid to trust God. That leap of faith that I took was extremely difficult to me, but for reasons I’ll not bore anyone here with, I knew God was real. It took me 14 years to give in.

    It would do us good to look at ourselves through an atheist’s eyes and recognize how silly we sometimes appear. I know there are wonderful Christians, loving, godly people, and lots of them. But the above reasons given are real and often painful for observers. We are called to spread the gospel. Being sincere, loving, welcoming, willing to engage, willing to share, to be vulnerable, to admit what we don’t know… it would help, I think

  • Westcoastlife

    Matthew was blue/yellow colour blind? 😉