Larry Alex Taunton and his Christian foundation did a study of college students who are committed atheists, asking them why they chose atheism. What they learned is interesting. Excerpt from his Atlantic piece:
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.
There’s more, including the discovery that the high school years were decisive for these young atheists, in determining their religious (irreligious, I mean) path.
“Shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant” — as a description of what I thought of church during my teenage years, does that ever strike a resonant chord within me. It was only when I got to college and understood that Christianity was so much more than I had ever imagined — that it could captivate the minds and gain the allegiance of men like Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, Dostoevsky, the designers of Chartres cathedral, and so on — that I began to take it seriously. Kierkegaard in particular revealed to me why I had no use for Christianity as I understood it till then: I thought being a Christian was a feature of being a good middle-class American, and nothing more. If that’s all it is, then, to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, to hell with it.
I can understand why a bright college student would find atheism more compelling than Christianity, if that’s the only kind of Christianity he had seen. In the Netherlands last week, a friend of mine, not a Christian, said that the Church had to liberalize if it was going to hold on to young people. (He meant on sexual teaching.) I told him that it would seem that way, but that’s actually not true. Social science data show that the churches that have liberalized have no more luck holding on to young people than those who remain more or less traditionalist. When young people become more liberal in their views, they don’t seek out more liberal churches, which are available to them, but quit going to church at all. This makes intuitive sense to me. If church makes no serious demands on you, and you can pick and choose what you want to believe of the tradition to suit your preferences, then the religion will have no particular hold on you. Put another way, if church is only about teaching you how to be good, as distinct from teaching you how to be holy, then its appeal is significantly diminished, or so it seems to me.
Anyway, I understand, I think, the meaning of Taunton’s findings from his team’s interviews with college atheists; I was never a proper atheist, but I was on the agnostic spectrum for a time as a teenager. I wonder, though, if these findings are relevant to people who aren’t college students, or intellectually inclined, but who have lost or are losing their faith. They may well be, but it seems to me that the kinds of questions that intellectually curious teenagers have about God may not be the same questions that the incurious have. I think of my sister, who was a straight-A college student and a Christian, but otherwise radically incurious about God and His ways. She was, I see now, pretty much a fideist: she believed what she had been told, and never questioned it — in fact, thought questioning it was a dodgy business. As I write in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, my sister chastised my best college friend and me for wasting our time lingering over dinner, talking about theology and philosophy, when we could have been doing something practical and productive. It wasn’t that she thought God wasn’t important; it was that she thought speculating about Him was decadent and lazy.
For my sister, belief was an act of the will, not of the mind. Perhaps she was too singular in her approach to God to be of much use as a guide to how to appeal to non-intellectual Christians tempted by unbelief. I don’t know. Ruthie was all about loyalty; I’m not sure to what extent others are like that. Anyway, I can see why the intellectually curious would be frustrated by churches that downplay the Big Questions in favor of generic moralistic uplift. But is this the same problem that non-intellectual young people would have with church? It may be, but I can’t think beyond my personal example — I mean, the Religious Rod vs. Religious Ruthie situation — to draw general conclusions. What she wanted out of church and what I wanted out of church were very, very different. But then, our approaches to life were pretty dissimilar too, which is why I resist generalizing about faith, atheism, and young people.
Thoughts? I’m open here. I do feel comfortable asserting that a church, and church people, who don’t take religion seriously aren’t going to appeal to those who don’t face social pressure to conform. We live in a truly secular age, in which religion is not taken for granted, but is a choice — and in which there is little or no pressure to go to church at all. More than ever, the Church has to give people a reason to believe. I’m not talking about an argument to believe (though that’s part of it), but a sense that the faith is true and compelling. You can’t get there through argument alone, at least not with most people. They need to see more. They need to see the faith incarnate in a meaningful way.