This is final part of a 4 part series, adapted from an article by Larry Taunton (http://www.fixed-point.org/index.php/larrytaunton) on why a growing number of young people in the USA have become atheists by their late teens/early twenties – it is well worth our read. Today we are looking at the final two reasons that drew people towards atheism.
- 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.
Religion is a sensitive topic, and a study like this is bound to draw critics. To begin with, there is, of course, another side to this story. Some Christians will object that our study was tilted against churches because they were given no chance to defend themselves. They might justifiably ask to what extent these students really engaged with their Bibles, their churches, and the Christians around them.
But that is beside the point. If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us.
That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.
I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: “I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked. “I do not,” Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”