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Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a stronger Christianity

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June 25, 2013 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a stronger Christianity

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Why do some Christians decide to become atheists? Many of them will tell you it was a purely logical decision—that the claims of Christianity simply stopped making sense when examined critically. But a new study from the Christian nonprofit Fixed Point Foundation, in which college-aged members of Secular Student Alliances around the country were interviewed about their faith journeys, revealed that a surprising number of Christians who convert to atheism do so for reasons that even they seemed to find surprising.

A recent article in the Atlantic has the full story.  We encourage you to read it and share your thoughts in the comment section below!


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Lou Jost - #81454

June 29th 2013

In my case, nobody died, no traumas, had nice experiences with religion. Wanted to be a priest. Then in high school I learned about the Sumerian and Babylonian origins of some the bible stories, and learned about other religions, and realized they were all cultural constructionss, no one of them more likely to be true than the others.

Eddie - #81493

June 30th 2013

Hi, Lou.

See my previous note on the Polkinghorne thread regarding tacit knowledge claims.  For what you wrote above:

“I ... realized they were all cultural constructions ...”

I would have written:

“I ... concluded they were all cultural constructions, no one of them more likely to be true than the others.”

The latter formulation leaves open the possibility that your reasoning might have been faulty, and therefore the latter formulation is more epistemologically sound and more academically modest.

defensedefumer - #81624

July 4th 2013

In 2003, I had two good friends in my pre-university days, one was a Roman Catholic and the other was a Presbyterian. I was an atheist (I still attended church to please my parents).

In a strange turn of events, I converted to Christianity in 2007. But along the way, my two friends became non-believers.

This puzzles and saddens me. We came from roughly the same background, the same school and even attended church. How did our beliefs change along the way?

Nick Gotts - #81957

July 21st 2013

If anyone here is interested in what atheists say about their deconversion, without the filter imposed by the preconceptions of Christians, have a look here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/category/testimonial/

Nick Gotts - #81961

July 21st 2013

This is a response to  comment #81959 by Eddie on the"Aplogetic Issues in the Old Testament 3” thread, because it fits much better here.

which were you, a “cradle Christian” or a Christian by educated conviction?

I was brought up in the UK, where there was a significant amount of Christian indoctrination at school: daily assemblies and prayers, regular lessons on “Scripture” or “Religious Education”. My parents were fairly nominal Christians (and later deconverted), but sent us to Church and Sunday School. I never considered churchgoing hypocritical. I did increasingly find it a boring waste of my time, and at about 10 asked if I could stop going, to which my parents agreed. I became an atheist at 12.

Generally speaking, people raised as Christians in the latter sense stay that way, whereas people of the former type tend to drift away and not raise their own kids as Chrsitians.

Do you have any evidence for that claim? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I know plenty of atheists who were brought up in the way you claim leads people to remain Christian - you’ll find quite a few, I think, in the threads listed on the page I linked to.

Eddie - #81980

July 21st 2013


My upbringing was very similar, and indeed I stopped going to church at about age 12, and for partly the same reason:  I found it boring.  The teaching of my church was anemic, its clergy feeble, the sermons saccharine and empty.  I probably would have stayed in church had the material presented been more challenging.  I was ready to hear introductory presentations of the thought of Augustine etc. by the time I was 11 or 12 (I was a bright young kid), but I never even knew there was such a person as Augustine from going to Church.  I heard about him only from private historical reading on my own.  

In any case, I spent years critical of Christianity and of all religion.  My arguments were very much like yours.  I returned to Christian life under the stimulus of university professors—some of whom were not Christian.  They made me realize that there was a colossal edifice of Christian thought that I had never heard about in Church.  Instead of thinking of Christians as “that doltish minister with the fruity voice that I had as a little kid” or “that wild-eyed judgmental fundamentalist knocking at my door,” I started to think of Christians as Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Calvin, Newton, Boyle, Paley, Dante, Swift, Lewis, Tolkien, Bach, Handel, Durer, etc.  It’s ironic that an overtly secular institution—the university—stimulated religious faith by convincing me that faith could go hand-in-hand with intellectual discovery, whereas an overtly religious institution—a mainstream church—drove me away from religious faith out of intellectual boredom.  But such is life.

On your last point—yes, I know that people brought up in extremely narrow religious backgrounds often react by becoming atheists.  I’m opposed to extremely narrow religious teaching, in part for that reason, though also on general grounds.  But there are moderately conservative Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc. churches that people grow up in, where they gain strong faith along with respect for intellectual life, and those churches don’t tend to generate atheism the way that fundamentalism do.  It is mainly in churches where thinking is considered the forbidden fruit that rebellion sets in.  Thoughtful people will naturally leave those churches rather than live under an intellectual tyranny.  But I don’t defend such churches.  I think they are an abomination and represent a deformation of Christianity.  They operate out of fear—fear of science, fear of learning, fear of social change—and therefore they employ repression.  A healthy Christian religion does not produce Ken Hams and Duane Gishes.  It produces Newtons and Boyles and Clerk-Maxwells and Bachs and Durers and Swifts and Mores and Dantes.  Not a bad track record.

Nick Gotts - #81983

July 21st 2013

So, still no evidence for your claims about what kind of Christian upbringing holds on to the recruits best. Again, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but without actual evidence, I’m not accepting that you’re right either.

Of course there are and have been many morally andor intellectually admirable Christians - I’ve known some - though few of those you mention are both, and Newton rejected the Trinity, so it’s doubtful if he counts as a Christian.

<blockquote>My arguments were very much like yours.</blockquote>

But I notice you have not produced or linked to anything close to an adequate response to any of them - you prefer to change the subject.

Eddie - #81993

July 21st 2013


You’re clearly in these discussions to pick tiny faults, and you don’t bend an inch.  I retreated on a point, and conceded to you that there existed people such as you describe.  Instead of being grateful for my concession, you press for more victories; you are determined to prove my whole claim wrong.  Well, if you want stats, I don’t have them.  But I’ve known literally thousands of Christians in my life, and unlike yourself, I didn’t spend all of my life after age 10 outside of the Christian world, and I know it (particularly in North America), very well, and my anecdotal evidence is good enough for me.  If it isn’t good enough for you, I don’t care in the slightest.  I’m not offering the remark as a published sociology of religion paper, and therefore I’m not doing the research to back it up.  I’m telling you what I’ve seen.  Since you don’t hang out with Christian folks any more, and haven’t for many years, maybe you should trust my experience.  But do what you please.

I offered some biography as an olive branch, to build up some things in common between us.  You’ve tossed in back in my face, instead of seizing the opportunity to build bridges.  

Your statement about Newton is merely quarrelsome or cavilling.  First, one can be Christian without being orthodox.   Second, Newton still believed in a creator-God who ordered the solar system with detectable design, and you violently disagree with him over that.  So that’s the real issue here—the doctrine of creation, not the doctrine of Trinity.  And third, Newton’s variation from orthodox belief does not change the fact that Newton grew up in a Christian society and that it was Christianity that shaped the contours of his intellectual life.  (And of course he spent the last years of his life in deep Bible study, not Deistic speculation.)    

You’re clearly here to fight the atheist fight, not to engage in dialogue.  

Nick Gotts - #82054

July 23rd 2013

You’ve surely heard the saying: the plural of anecdote is not data.

You don’t, of course, know who I hang out with - but then, ignorance never seems to prevent youfeeling entitled to lecture me. My parents-in-law, with whom I get on well, are active, church-going Christians. Until recently I was line-manager for a woman I would describe as a fundamentalist Christian; she was well aware of my atheism, but quite happy that I remain her line-manager (I know this both because she repeatedly said so, and because our workplace made it easy to switch line-managers, and she had the specific option to do so when the project on which we worked together ended.) I work regularly with Christians in political and environmental groups.

Many Christians would not concede that a non-Trinitarian was a Christian. Indeed, had Newton made a public show of his beliefs, he would have been in serious trouble. I don’t deny, and indeed have explicitly admitted, that there are many morally andor intellectually admirable Christians.

If you don’t think I’m here to engage in dialogue, there’s a simple remedy for you: stop responding to my comments.

Eddie - #82061

July 23rd 2013

I did not say you had no personal interaction with Christians.  I was given to understand that it had been many years since you regularly participated in the normal activities of a Christian Church, or activities such as Christian conferences, retreats, Bible studies, summer camps, vacation Bible schools, church-led tours of the Holy Land, etc.  That is, I understood that you had not been interacting substantively with Christians “from the inside” for a long time.  My remark was based on that perception.  And if that perception is correct, you may not be the best judge of what sort of teachings and practices produce what sort of reactions (e.g., to atheism, or to staying with the faith) in members of congregations.  Especially congregations that are 3,000 miles across the ocean, in a culture you may not know all that well.  So if it comes down to your anecdotal impressions versus my anecdotal impressions, I might be safest to stick with the latter.

More on Newton later.  As for who is a Christian, it obviously depends on the criterion or criteria applied.  If the criterion applied is acceptance of an intellectual formula, e.g., the Nicene Creed, then it is easy to say X is a Christian and Y is not.  But if it depends upon something more operational, e.g., “I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior,” then a good number of people who hold to the “wrong” verbal formulas, or have the “wrong” interpretation of the verbal formulas, are Christian.  Newton could have been “operationally Christian” even if he could not in conscience sign certain statements of doctrine.  But as I say, more on that later.  I want to check some facts first.

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