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How the church creates atheists

How the church creates atheists

When Larry Alex Taunton interviewed college nonbelievers about how and why they left religion, he discovered how it was the churches that drove young people to unbelief.

He writes in The Atlantic:

Phil’s story, while unique in its parts, was on the whole typical of the stories we would hear from students across the country. Slowly, a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge and it would challenge all that we thought we knew about this demographic. Here is what we learned:

They had attended church

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.

The mission and message of their churches was vague

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. 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.

They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

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. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn’t try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: “Because you believe it.” Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. 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?” Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ages 14-17 were decisive

One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:

“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.

I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? “No,” Meredith explained. “I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.”


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Harriet Baber

I’m curious about why you didn’t publish my comments: they may have been cranky but were’t obscene or, I think, overly offensive.

I’d also be interested in some specifics about what younger people find objectionable about what “older Episcopalians” like myself enjoy. I enjoy elaborate ceremony and high art, mysticism and what I think of as “metaphysical thrills.” I hate popular culture, and hated it even when I was young. It bores and irritates me. I want the fanciest, most sensual, most snobbish possible stuff–that’s what being Episcopalian is all about. Ultra-aestheticism–Church completely removed from the real world–a mystical-sensual-aesthetic fantasy, an intense thrill, an escape.

What I didn’t want when I was young and don’t want now is the sex segregation–women doing altar guild and catering, or the sentimentality, the sermons, the moralism, the goody-goody volunteer work and canned food drives, the boring “community” and boring people. The more I read about the current quest for the youngest generation, the more I get deja vu.

I’m on strike from the Episcopal Church too, and have been since 1999, because the jerks who run the Church have taken away the metaphysical thrills, made church dull, destroyed mysticism, wiped out religious experience. If I don’t get that, why should I bother?

Weiwen Ng

I actually emailed the editors to suggest they include this article (but the editors may have found it on their own).

I am not an atheist. As I’ve discussed, I am on strike from the Episcopal Church because the music is (imo) terrible.

When interpreting this article, you do need to be cautious that this is not a random sample of atheists. It’s a sample of atheists in college who are members of atheist groups who wanted to talk to Christians. Nonetheless, it offers lessons.

What I miss about church is this:






Church offers all the above within the framework of Jesus. In fact, I would venture that religion’s unique contribution to the world is that it offers all the above in one package. That package can be very compelling.

Some people, perhaps, are meant to be atheists. We should not force them to stay.

But many of these young adults’ criticisms have something to tell us about how to do church better, at least in areas where there are a lot of college educated kids. That would be a lot of urban churches.

The piece didn’t discuss this or even hint at it, but personally, I also wonder if there is a generational gap. Among the age groups that currently dominate church, there’s a great value for tradition (on average, and in my observation).

Among younger generations, it’s different. We do not despise tradition. But a lot of us may not have the same attachment to it as older Episcopalians. A lot of us would appreciate greater experimentation. Or, among older Christians, it may simply not be the done thing to speak frankly about difficult issues, whereas many young adults need or would appreciate frank talk (this one they did allude to in the article). Older Episcopalians may (imo) need to engage more frankly with younger adults, and they may need to be willing to change some aspects of the way things are done in church, as I have very very often been saying on this blog. That’s what I take away from this article.

Harriet Baber

Ennui–yes. “I learned everything I needed…I don’t need this [church] to be a good person”

Of course. No one needs religion to be a good person or to make sense of life. If that’s all church offers it’s pointless. More generally, if churches just offer what the secular world offers–opportunities for do-good work, “values,” “community” they’re worthless. And that’s all that most mainline churches are offering. And why they’re dying.

T. M. Luhrmann’s study of Evangelicals in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a group that’s doing a lot better than the Episcopal Church in When God Talks Back, is illuminating. The Vineyard provides emotionally intense religious experience. Members are serious about mysticism–Luhrmann was in a group that were going through The Spiritual Exercises.

The Episcopal Church, like other liturgical churches, has the potential to provide a much more intense religious experience, much more mysticism than the Vineyard or any other pentecostal/evangelical church. Liturgy done is the high style is much, much more intense and pleasurable. But the Episcopal Church took that away from us when they forced through the detestable 1979 Prayer Book, and the change in liturgical style that went along with it–making church dull, prosaic, quotidian–promoting “community” and the “horizontal dimension.” Flattening out emotion. And endless moralizing–every grain of incense was bread from the mouths of the poor. Mysticism, religious/aesthetic experience was self-indulgent and “escapist.” REAL religion was working in the soup kitchen, marching in the demonstration, working for “justice, freedom and peace.” Ugh. We’ve been beaten over the head with this moralism for decades. Who wants it!

If church isn’t a thrill, if it isn’t exotic and marvelous, if it doesn’t provide aesthetic pleasure and intense religious experience, if it isn’t a window into another world, why bother? I don’t. You want to bring in people? Give them give them intensity, give them mysticism.

Emma Pease

I do note a few problems.

1. “They [Most] did attend church”. He did the study in the US; most US children attend a Christian church of some sort. In addition I suspect atheists of Christian background are more willing to talk to an overt Christian looking for atheists.

2. “Ages 14-17 were decisive”. Again this may be a side effect of methodology; he is interviewing college students so the bulk are likely to be between 18-21. I also suspect that most new atheists are still processing ideas and won’t volunteer to be interviewed by an overt Christian until they feel more confident. In other words people who become atheists in college may not be open to his type of interview until after they’ve graduated.

3. He talks a lot about impressions but seems short on statistics. What is the actual age graph of becoming atheist? What are the stats on how long they had been atheists? What is the breakdown in denomination (or checklist of beliefs/practices) of their previous religion(s)? Given the nature of his study lots of statistics can’t be expected but do his impressions match studies that do (e.g., some by the Pew Forum)?

4. Are his impressions shaped by his own beliefs on what is worthwhile in a church? My impression of his impression seems to be that strong evangelical churches with the “answers” shouldn’t lose people to atheism and yet studies show they are losing people (perhaps not as atheists though).

Eric Bonetti

Another issue that is a problem for many young people, in my experience: We take our volunteers for granted. Over the years, I’ve seen numerous situations where we don’t respect it when someone politely declines a volunteer opportunity, but instead try to push the person to do the job. Or we ask someone to do something, they say yes, and we then rescind the invitation, whether due to interpersonal or other issues, while still assuming the person is going to be willing to keep coming back for more.

In short, relationships within the church need to focus less on power dynamics and more on love.

Eric Bonetti

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