What Drives Young People to Atheism?

Minnesota Atheists in the 2012 Pride Parade (click for credit)

Minnesota Atheists in the 2012 Pride Parade (click for credit)

I have written about Larry Alex Taunton before (here, here, and here). I don’t think I had heard his name until I read his book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. I enjoyed his writing style and his intellectual approach to Christianity, so I read another one of his books, The Grace Effect. I have since moved to his works found on the internet, and I ran across an excellent piece entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.” I strongly recommend that you read it.

In the article, he discusses the results of a project created by his organization, Fixed Point Foundation. The project’s participants simply asked young atheists to tell their story. They wanted to hear what caused these young people to become atheists. What they learned was no surprise to me, but I think it is worth discussing, especially for those who do not have a lot of experience with atheists.

In my opinion, the most important result that came from the project was:

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. (emphasis his)

This is certainly consistent with my experience. Most of the atheists I know were raised in the church and became atheists in reaction to what they perceived as the church’s failings. What were those failings? I suspect that most Christians will be surprised to learn them.

According to Taunton, the most common complaint was the superficial nature of what was presented in church. He highlights a young man (Phil) who was once the president of his church youth group. At the time the article was written, he was the president of his college’s Secular Student Alliance. What caused this shocking turnaround? Based on Taunton’s discussion with Phil, it seemed to be the result of a conscious decision by his church to remove a Bible-focused youth minister who was intent on teaching the youth about Scripture to a young, hip youth pastor who attracted a large number of teens to the church but knew very little about the Bible. As Taunton puts it:

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.

There are two lessons I think the church can take from the results of this project:

1. You do not further the cause of Christ by diluting His message. Christ’s message is not easy to hear:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

When we dilute that message so it becomes “more palatable,” we drive people away from Christ.

2. Pastors must be able to answer serious questions posed by serious-minded people. This includes questions about origins, sexuality, why someone should believe the Bible, etc. No pastor can be expected to be able to answer all such questions, but the church should have members who can. Pastors need to know who those members are so they can direct people with questions to those who can help them find the answers they need.

In my humble opinion, if the church can address the two points listed above, there will be significantly fewer atheists in the world.

14 Comments

  1. Jacqueline says:

    Yes pastors should be able to answer these questions. However, parents should know the answers as well. Study to show yourselves as approved workmen.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Excellent point, Jacqueline!

  2. K. J. says:

    You forgot number 3:

    Christians are not ‘better’ than anyone else. They seek God and a group of believers because they realize they are sinful and cannot fix their sin on their own.

    Many churches seem to encourage an “I’m better than the unbeliever” attitude. This is a huge turn off to many who see Christians as hypocrites when the Christian is not ‘perfect.’

    “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23

    This message needs to be repeated to all.

  3. Melinda S. says:

    I have also seen, both in my own friends years ago and in my kids’ friends more recently, that ungodly behaviors by parents, especially abusive discipline but also things like parents who watch pornography, are huge factors in young adults abandoning Christianity.

  4. Lawrence Dol says:

    I completely agree.

  5. Jake says:

    I didn’t look incredibly hard, but why the name Fixed Point Foundation? Though the theological connotation is obvious, could it be from math? Or even the renormalization group?

    (I will get back to you eventually about the second law of thermodynamics; I asked my cadre of condensed matter physics grad students the question, and we couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.)

    1. Jay Wile says:

      In his book, Pensées, Blaise Pascal says:

      Men of unruly lives assert that they alone follow nature, while those who are orderly stray from her paths; as passengers in a ship think that those move who stand upon the shore. Both sides say the same thing. There must be a fixed point to enable us to judge. The harbor decides the question for those who are in the vessel; but where can we find the harbor in morals? (The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, M. August Moliner, trans., George Bell and Sons 1889, p. 63)

      That’s where the name comes from. They assert there must be a fixed point from which to judge things. That fixed point, of course, is God’s Word.

  6. Jake says:

    Oh, and that reminds me: one of my favorite things from your chemistry course was learning the method of successive approximations. Is it common to teach that in high school chemistry?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      You really liked that? Most students find it annoying. It is rarely taught in high school chemistry, but you learned it in Advanced Chemistry in Creation. Between that book and Exploring Creation with Chemistry, 2nd Edition (or Discovering Design with Chemistry), all topics on the Advanced Placement Chemistry syllabus are covered, and successive approximations is on the Advanced Placement Chemistry syllabus. So it is typically taught in all Advanced Placement Chemistry courses.

  7. Sj says:

    What I’ve found key to keeping my children’s faith is to stress the legitimacy of a historical interpretation of Genesis from both faith and reason, while being sure that they understand the standard evolutionary-old age model. They aren’t required, as I was as a student, to compartmentalize supernatural occurrences to the New Testament, and to interpret the supernatural events of Genesis as being simply allegorical, leaving the old earth-evolutionary scenario as the only rational explanation for the origin of life and the universe. For me, this disconnect helped to lead me away from orthodox Christianity, and it was only a conversion experience that brought me back to faith, and eventually to a conversion to creationism as well.

    I think the creation-evolution/young earth-old earth analysis that I make my kids do has led to a critical thinking mindset that doesn’t accept explanations simply based upon majority opinion. My kids aren’t perfect, but all my post-collegiates are still practicing Catholics, and since all work either in the health field or for energy companies, their creationist teaching obviously hasn’t hindered their careers.

    And thanks, Dr. Wile, for the Apologia resources that helped to further their education–we’re going to be using your Biology again next year for the most recent crop of high schoolers!

  8. John Chaikowsky says:

    Here is an article at Uncommon Descent on “Why Atheists are Delusional”

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/11-reasons-why-atheists-are-delusional/

  9. Bob Kroepel says:

    IF The Universe Was Never Caused Or Created

    Introduction

    If the universe was never caused or created it would then be independent of causer-/creator-gods.

    Then causer-/creator-gods would never have existed.

    Among those causer-/creator-gods are the biblical and koranic gods/allahs, which means all gods/allahs supposedly related to those gods, including Jesus as Jesus Christ = God/Godman/Godghost = One-and-Only Dying-Rising Savior-God.

    Fact: Physical evidence exists that is conclusive proof the universe has always existed and therefore (1) the universe was not caused/created and (2) the biblical/koranic type of causer-/creator-gods/allahs never existed in the past, do not exist now in the present, and will never exist in the future.

    Infinite = Having no spatial, temporal, physical, or mathematical limitations or boundaries.

    Finite = Having spatial, temporal, physical, and/or mathematical limitations or boundaries.

    The Physical Evidence The Universe Was Not Caused Or Created

    Bob Kroepel
    Copyright @ 2016
    Lakeside Studios
    New Durham NH USA

    The universe consists of space, time and matter-energy and it provides conclusive evidence it was not created:

    (1) The infinite volume of space proven by the use of the extrapolation principle for the extrapolation of the observable/measurable finite radii of finite volumes which have surfaces and shapes and therefore boundaries to the infinite radii of the single infinite volume which has no surface and no shape and therefore no boundaries and which by its infinite size eliminates any possibility of the existence of any space, time, matter-energy, people, objects, gods, events, or universes beyond or outside or in addition to the single infinite volume of the single universe.

    The finite radii of finite volumes each have endpoints one of which is a point of origin (originpoint) within the finite volume and the other is the endpoint that defines a point on the finite volume’s surface. The accumulated finite radii surface endpoints define the finite volume’s shape. The finite volume’s surface and shape define the finite volume’s spatial and physical limitations and boundaries.

    The infinite radii of the single infinite volume have only one endpoint: the point of origin (originpoint) within the infinite volume; the infinite length of an infinite radius has not endpoint. The fact that the infinite volume’s infinite radii have no endpoints is physical evidence that is conclusive proof that (1) the single infinite volume has no surface and no shape, (2) that nothing exists beyond the single infinite volume, (2) that nothing could cause or create the single infinite volume,(3) that the single infinite volume has always existed on the past, exists now in the present, and will always exist in the future and therefore it is infinite in existence and in duration over time, and (4) causer-/creator-gods never existed in the past, do not exist now in the present, and will never exist in the future.

    The infinite size of space and therefore the universe is proof that there never was anything existing beyond the universe that could have caused or created the universe.

    The infinite size of space is physical evidence that (1) no entity existing beyond/without it or within it could have caused or created it and (2) it has always existed (it is infinite in existence and it is infinite/eternal in duration over time).

    (2) Time is the use by mankind and machines of chosen durations (cycles, periodic motions) as time-intervals for the measurement of other durations including the durations between the occurrences of multiple events, the durations of single events, and the durations (ages) of people and objects (mankind and machines) at all scalar levels, in all reference frames (single and multiple reference frames), and on all reference bodies (single and multiple reference bodies).

    From any chosen present timepoint (T0) on the continuum of time (the timeline of time), timepoints can be infinitely counted backwards into the past and forwards into the future.

    The Continuum Of Time

    Past Infinity – … – T-2 – T-1 – T0 – T+1 – T+2 – … – Infinity Future

    The continuum of time is physical evidence that is conclusive proof (1) time – the possibility of using a duration to measure other durations – has always existed in the past, exists now in the present (T0), and will always exist in the future and (2) time was never caused or created and therefore (3) causer-/creator-gods/allahs never existed in the last, do not exist now in the present (T0), and will never exist in the future.

    (3) The indestructibility of matter-energy as proven by …

    (A) Antoine and Marie LaVoisier inre chemistry circa 1777,
    (B) Sadi Carnot inre thermodynamics circa 1824,
    … and …
    (C) Albert Einstein inre e = mc2 and m = e/c2 inre matter-energy circa 1905.

    The indestructibility of matter-energy is proof that m-e has always existed and was never caused or created and that the universe has always existed and was never caused or created.

    Observers have never observed anything causing or creating itself.

    The universe did not cause or create itself.

    The indestructibility of m-e, the infinite duration of the continuum of time, and the infinite size of the universe together serve as physical evidence that is proof the universe has always existed and therefore had no cause or creation and therefore no gods caused or created it.

    Thus, the physical evidence that the universe was never caused or created proves that causer-gods/creator-gods never existed, do not exist now, and will never exist in the future.

    Lesser-gods as beings (I) who/which might exist within space, endure over time, and be comprised of m-e, (II) who/which may have greater knowledge than mankind (1) of the natural causal relationships (NCRs) inre space, time and the people, objects and events who/which exist in space, endure over time and are comprised of matter-energy (m-e) and who/which as causes cause as effects (A) changes of the physical states including inertia and momentum of pre-existing people, objects and events or (B) new people, objects and events from pre-existing m-e and (2) of the natural proximal relationships (NPRs) inre people, objects and events who/which are co-located in space, endure over the same time – the same timepoints and timeline – and also are comprised of m-e but do not causally interact with other people, objects and/or events, and (III) who/which may have greater capabilities than mankind for causing effects mankind currently cannot cause but until we can confirm their existence by direct or indirect observations or measurements and by demonstrations of their knowledge of the NCRs and NPRs, their capabilities for causing effects mankind currently cannot cause including the regeneration of missing limbs, the making whole of deformed individuals, and perhaps the raising of the truly dead, and their descriptions of and explanations inre what are the NCRs and the NPRs of which mankind is not currently aware, then we are not obligated to believe they exist.

    Problem: The lesser-gods might range from mortal beings including space aliens of greater knowledge and capabilities than mankind to immortal beings of greater knowledge and capabilities then mankind.

    Problem: The lesser-gods might be beings who cultivate other beings including mankind for food.

  10. Bob Kroepel says:

    Inre IF The Universe Was Never Caused or Created

    Bob Kroepel
    Copyright © 2016
    Lakeside Studios
    New Durham NH USA

    IF you dispute my conceptualizations of space, time, matter-energy, and the universe, then answer these questions …

    Q1: What physical evidence do you claim Is conclusive proof that space, time, matter-energy, and the universe did not exist prior to a Big Bang?
    A1: _____ (?)

    NOTE: An appeal to authorities does not constitute physical evidence of any kind.

    Q2: What physical evidence do you claim is conclusive proof that my conceptualizations of space, time, matter-energy, and the universe are 100% false, invalid, unverified, etc.
    A2: ______ (?)

    Q3: What physical evidence (polls, surveys) is conclusive proof that 100% of all scientists agree/believe/conclude space, time, matter-energy, and the universe did not exist prior to a Big Bang?
    A: _____ (?)

    NOTE: Q3 is a question inre polling and survey data and is not a question inre physical evidence that is conclusive proof the universe did/did not exist prior to a Big Bang.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I would have to disagree with you, Bob. First, science cannot prove anything. Thus, there is no way to have “conclusive proof” about the nature of the universe. However, one can build up scientific evidence for or against a given proposition, and I think the scientific evidence strongly points to a universe with a distinct beginning.

      A1: (Once again, recognizing that there is no such thing as conclusive proof in science) The strongest physical evidence that spacetime and matter did not exist at some point in the past is given by thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Thus, the total energy content of the universe is constant. However, the Second Law says that the amount of energy available to do work must decrease over time. This means that as you go backwards in time, the amount of energy available to do work increases. If you go far enough back in time, you will reach a point where all of the energy in the universe is available to do work. At that point, you cannot go back farther, unless you want to postulate a complete change in the laws of thermodynamics. Thus, at that point, you have reached the beginning. There is no way spacetime can exist before then and still conform to the first two laws of thermodynamics.

      There are, of course, other ways science can provide evidence for a universe with a beginning. This paper gives a mathematical proof that the universe had to have a beginning, based on our current understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity. Also, the redshift of light from distant objects tells us the universe is expanding. Once again, if you go backwards in time, the universe gets smaller. At some time in the past, you reach a point where the universe can get no smaller. That’s when the universe began. Neither of these two arguments by themselves is as strong as the argument from thermodynamics, but they certainly “add to the pile” of evidence that the universe began.

      A2: (Once again, recognizing that there is no such thing as conclusive proof in science) The redshift of light from distant objects and its dependence on distance indicates the universe is expanding. The way that redshift changes as you go farther into the observable universe indicates that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. This is consistent with a “flat” universe. In other words, Euclidean geometry works throughout the universe. So far, that’s all we can tell. Well, Euclidean geometry can work in a spatially infinite universe, but it also can work in a spatially finite universe. Thus, we really don’t have enough evidence to say whether or not the universe is spatially infinite. Even if it is spatially infinite, however, as discussed above, it cannot be temporally infinite and conform to the laws of thermodynamics.

      A3: I am not sure you can get 100% of scientists to believe in much of anything. There are always some contrarians out there. I, in fact, am one of them on several issues. Thus, I am not sure you can find any survey in which 100% of scientists agree. If the survey is out there, it probably has something to do with a very fundamental aspect of nature, such as the laws of thermodynamics.