Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity
When a Christian foundation interviewed college nonbelievers about how and why they left religion, surprising themes emerged.
by Larry Alex Taunton
“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.”
I have known a lot of atheists. The late Christopher Hitchens was a friend with whom I debated, road tripped, and even had a lengthy private Bible study. I have moderated Richard Dawkins and, on occasion, clashed with him. And I have listened for hours to the (often unsettling) arguments of Peter Singer and a whole host of others like him. These men are some of the public faces of the so-called “New Atheism,” and when Christians think about the subject — if they think about it at all — it is this sort of atheist who comes to mind: men whose unbelief is, as Dawkins once proudly put it, “militant.” But Phil, the atheist college student who had come to my office to share his story, was of an altogether different sort.
Phil was in my office as part of a project that began last year. Over the course of my career, I have met many students like Phil. 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?
Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective: one invokes his understanding of science; another says it was her exploration of the claims of this or that religion; and still others will say that religious beliefs are illogical, and so on. To hear them tell it, the choice was made from a philosophically neutral position that was void of emotion.
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“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”
Christianity, when it is taken seriously, compels its adherents to engage the world, not retreat from it. There are a multitude of reasons for this mandate, ranging from care for the poor, orphaned, and widowed to offering hope to the hopeless. This means that Christians must be willing to listen to other perspectives while testing their own beliefs against them — above all, as the apostle Peter tells us, “with gentleness and respect.” The non-profit I direct, Fixed Point Foundation, endeavors to bridge the gaps between various factions (both religious and irreligious) as gently and respectfully as possible. Atheists particularly fascinate me. Perhaps it’s because I consider their philosophy — if the absence of belief may be called a philosophy — historically naive and potentially dangerous. Or maybe it’s because they, like any good Christian, take the Big Questions seriously. But it was how they processed those questions that intrigued me.
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.
This brings me back to Phil…
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