Study of young atheists suggests strategies for evangelism

This is posted in the left-leaning Atlantic, of all places. (H/T J. Warner Wallace)


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.”

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore similar childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn’t answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.” After a moment’s reflection, she appended her remarks: “Either that, or maybe he is [real] and he’s just trying to teach me something.”

The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

Reading this, it makes me think that the church should be making sure that young people between 12 and 20 in the church are regularly engaged by Christians who have been trained in apologetics. That’s what we should do if we want to get serious about building people up to have a lasting faith rooted in reason and evidence.

7 thoughts on “Study of young atheists suggests strategies for evangelism”

  1. Wow thank you for this…this is sobering and puts Youth Ministry in perspective: Be more biblical and more rational rather than silliness and games!


  2. And it sounds like we (the church) should be answering the questions/points attempted by our local atheists in the local newspaper/internet forum etc…not allowing atheists to take center stage with their arguments without being challenged with some probing questions.


  3. None of this surprises me. It’s exactly what my husband and I have gathered from talking to atheists and reading deconversions stories. It’s exactly the sort of thing that happened to my brother-in-law (and would have happened to my husband if he hadn’t waited until college to make a decision and then gotten the answers he needed there).

    The typical church isn’t answering the questions young people have about life. It doesn’t teach a comprehensive Biblical worldview and barely addresses apologetics. So when young people reach the age where they wrestle with the big questions of life, the church isn’t giving answers, and thus these young people come to see the church as irrelevant.

    In seeking to become more friendly and non-combative (in order to attract more people), the church has given up on the “difficult” parts of Christianity (like apologetics) and left many without the answers they are seeking. What the church fails to understand is that those who think deeply can’t believe the core teachings of Christianity (sin, faith, redemption, heaven, etc.) in a vacuum. They need a complete, comprehensive worldview that is internally and externally consistent. The “non-essential” stuff (like creation, Biblical inerrancy, God’s plan for sexuality, Biblical apologetics, and more) is essential to these people if they are to believe any of it.


  4. Most of these things are superficial, albeit mostly true. Or maybe they are valid for those youths only. I am a bit older.

    “The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one” This is the most laughable. In fact it cites a couple of girls.

    “They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions” This is the most true, since childhood I witnessed the battle science vs religion. Christianity was piece by piece dismantled by science. Evolution, Earth not still at center of universe, epilepsy and not devil possession and so on.

    Why should people listen to you if tomorrow you could tell a totally different thing depending on latest scientific discovery?

    “The Bible has to be ‘interpreted'” you say. What hypocrites. Paradox, people who believes creationism or flat earth deserve more respect.

    I am not saying I am atheist or God doesn’t exist. I call bull only on Christians (and Muslims and stuff).


  5. I see that Captain Capitalism linked to this post:

    And here was an interesting comment from one of his readers:

    I would never claim your experience was anecdotal. It is far too common. I don’t think my experience becoming a Christian at 28 is anecdotal either.

    Most churches suck. They’re ruled by old people, and by a limited range of preferences. I used to go to a church that routinely sang fewer than 12 hymns over the 8 years I was there, most of them from before the Civil War. I got so bored with what I call “somber, joyless, old people music”.

    I’ve been at churches where people left in a fit of anger over the use of Power Point. Yeah, the Devil’s tool. Or by the introduction of music from after the Civil War.

    I was talking to the elder of a church I used to go to. The leadership was getting really frustrated with the elderly, who threatened to leave and take their tithes with them every time something happened they didn’t like. Usually little stuff, like a new song, Power Point, or a new coloring book for the children’s classes. He said “This isn’t the ‘greatest generation’. It’s the Greediest Generation!”

    An AWANA missionary I knew told me him and his wife got thrown out of a church for bringing in a children’s book that used the NIV for Bible quotes, rather than God’s Own King James.

    I used to go to a church that believed since the New Testament doesn’t mention instruments, then they shouldn’t be used in church (but they’re OK at camp, or for Saturday night stuff). Some people in that movement actually believe I’m not saved anymore because I go to a church with a band now.

    On the other end of the spectrum, churches are so concerned with appealing to teenagers and the unchurched that they lose all meaning.

    Most Christians know almost nothing about the Bible. If you stood up and said “Open your Bibles to the book of Habakuk”, you’d get a lot of empty stares. In a small group I meet with, the leader started a study on Joseph. We had one person who had never heard of Joseph, and another who confused him with the parable of the Prodigal Son.

    Many that do have somewhat of a grasp on their Bibles interpret everything in light of 21st century American culture, rather than the ancient Middle Eastern cultures in which the entire thing occurred. This is how we end up with stuff like “The Obamessiah is the Anti-Christ”.

    This is Churchianity at its finest. I could go on for hours, but I don’t think I need to. Your experience isn’t unique or anecdotal at all.

    I usually don’t tell people I’m a Christian. I don’t want them to think I’m like this. Plus, I subscribe to the philosophy of “If you want to know a man’s religion, you don’t ask him. You watch him.”

    The trouble is that I think that most pastors have no idea what non-Christians are really thinking and what they expect Christians to say and know when it comes to explaining and living out Christianity. There seems to be a genuine hostility among pastors to linking up the claims of the Bible to the real world wherever the Bible overlaps with historical evidence, scientific research, peer-reviewed studies, and so on. But if people in the church are isolated from evidence by pious, fideistic pastors, then they will not act like Christians since they do not know – objectively speaking – whether anything that the pastor says is actually true.


  6. Interesting about the internet. For myself, the internet was instrumental in my religious resurgence. I would probably be a noncommittal secularist right now if not for the internet’s existence. The internet is the only place I’ve ever experienced any robust defenses of any Christian tradition. I wouldn’t have even heard of e.g. Chesterton if not for the internet. It’s really quite astonishing when you think about it, how completely unengaging the everyday world is to the mind and how the internet has completely filled that void.


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