Learning from Young Atheists

What Turned Them off Christianity

Have you ever asked a young atheist why he or she doesn’t believe? Well, one researcher did. And the answers may surprise you. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

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Eric Metaxas

It’s something most Christian parents worry about: You send your kids off to college and when they come back, you find they’ve lost their faith. The prospect of this happening is why many parents nudge their kids towards Christian colleges, or at least schools with a strong Christian presence on campus.

But in many ways, the damage has been done long before our children set foot on campus. That’s the message from a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly.

My friend Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation set out to find out why so many young Christians lose their faith in college. He did this by employing a method I don’t recall being used before: He asked them.

The Fixed Point Foundation asked members of the Secular Students Associations on campuses around the nation to tell them about their “journey to unbelief.” Taunton was not only surprised by the level of response but, more importantly, about the stories he and his colleagues heard.

Instead of would-be Richard Dawkins’, the typical respondent was more like Phil, a student Taunton interviewed. Phil had grown up in church; he had even been the president of his youth group. What drove Phil away wasn’t the lure of secular materialism or even Christian moral teaching. And he was specifically upset when his church changed youth pastors.

Whereas his old youth pastor “knew the Bible” and made Phil “feel smart” about his faith even when he didn’t have all the answers, the new youth pastor taught less and played more.

Phil’s loss of faith coincided with his church’s attempt to ingratiate itself to him instead of challenging him. According to Taunton, Phil’s story “was on the whole typical of the stories we would hear from students across the country.”

These kids had attended church but “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and manifested itself in offering “superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” The ministers they respected were those “who took the Bible seriously,” not those who sought to entertain them or be their “buddy.”

Taunton also learned that, for many kids, their journey to unbelief was an emotional, not just an intellectual one.

Taunton’s findings are counter-intuitive. Much of what passes for youth ministry these days is driven by a morbid fear of boring our young charges. As a result, a lot of time is spent trying to devise ways to entertain them.

The rest of the time is spent worrying about whether the Christian message will turn kids off. But as Taunton found, young people, like the not-so-young, respect people with conviction—provided they know what they’re talking about.

Taunton talks about his experiences with the late Christopher Hitchens, who, in their debates, refrained from attacking him. When asked why, Hitchens replied, “Because you believe it.”

I don’t know what that says about Hitchens’ other Christian debate partners, but it is a potent reminder that playing down the truth claims of the Christian faith doesn’t work. People don’t believe those they don’t respect.

Here’s something that one of the students told Larry Taunton; he said, “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.”

Folks, that’s pretty sobering. This puts the ball in our court. Are we living lives that show our children that we actually believe what we say we believe? And here’s another question—do we actually believe it? I have to say, as a parent I’m taking this very seriously. If possible, join me in reading Taunton’s excellent article. Come to BreakPoint.org and we’ll link you to it.

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_70113Learning from Young Atheists: What Turned Them off Christianity - Next Steps

Are our students and church members being challenged, or just entertained? Today's commentary is a thought-provoking one to share with those in your sphere of influence, and also with your pastors and youth pastors.

Two resources to equip you are Walk the Talk, a DVD study on  serious Christian discipleship, and John Stonestreet's Why Students Walk Away, in CD format, links below. Also, Summit Ministries has material specifically targeted for challenging young people to live out their Christian faith.

Debates don't win hearts to Christ; examples of Christ-filled lives are the best way to show teens (and the watching world) a faith that is real.


Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Strong Christianity
Larry Alex Taunton | Atlantic Monthly | June 6, 2013

Other Resources:

Why Students Walk Away: The Challenges that are Coming, CD
John Stonestreet | ColsonCenter.org

Walk the Talk, DVD
Stonestreet, Colson, Warren | BreakPoint.org

Summit Ministries

Fixed Point Foundation


The next generation of preachers
This article and our commenters are proof of our redemption.
Mr. Metaxas nailed it
Before I repented of my sins and started believing in the good news of Jesus Christ, I was a closet atheist who grew up in a marginally Christian household. Mom and Dad never took the time to share their beliefs with me or my siblings and encouraged us to "find our own beliefs."

As I mentioned, I was a closet atheist enslaved by elemental powers to put up a front of religious observance of the law. My brother is now a Secular-Buddhist, and my sister does not know what to believe. Without parental guidance, Satan had a field day.

It was only after going to college, where a local church shared the gospel that Christ made the perfect sacrifice to rescue people from sin and death and calls his sheep to turn away from sin and believe in the good news.

This message would not have permeated my sinful soul had it not been for the men and women who lived what they preached. They were not sinless or perfect, but they strove to live in a transparent and ceaselessly repentant lifestyle (1 John 1:8-2:2.) It took the consistent testimony of authentically free Christians for me to join the fold.

If I become a parent some day, I will remember Deuteronomy 6:7.
Where does it start, you ask?
The issue is simple and long overlooked by the church leadership. Sadly it has become a "protect your own" mentality. It must start with parents. As we see here with these comments, HS ministers pass it back to children's ministry. Unless and until we encourage, teach and preach that the parents must train up and raise their own children we will continue to get the same product. Are there not enough surveys out there telling us the same thing year after year?? Youth programs do not work because they were never supposed to work. God designed the parents (adults) to spiritually lead children. The youth industry has created a monster and now must perpetuate it / itself. How old is the idea of a youth minister, anyway? Any one ever stop to consider that? One more example of the church farming out parents responsibility to cater to the indulgent generations America has created / is creating. Much love...
Then too, doesn't the habitual notion "We have to protect our dear little one's from being infected by worldly philosophy" naturally provoke the suspicion,"Why do we need to be protected?"
Where does it start?
The challenge I faced when I taught High School Youth was they did not get a good grounding before I got them. The childrens ministry spent too much time entertaining the kids and no time teaching them. Every summer when a new crop of 9th graders showed up I had to go back to the basics of what Christianity means. This was true of all the kids that grew up in our church.

I now go to a different church and the young people are so much smarter. Why? Because the adults are taught how to teach their own kids. This is what the Bible teaches. It is the parents who are responsible for the education of their children.
As a Christian teacher and previous youth pastor, the main obstacle I faced in biblical instruction was the church leadership. Kids are not stupid; they are actually pretty smart and critical. They see straight through the Chucky-Cheese approach that most churches do in their youth out-reach. Many church leaders and pastors, I feel, have become so disconnected from everyday culture that they have lost the ability to provide solid, core instruction and discipleship to their youth. What has amazed me even more has been the sometimes vehement reaction against attempts to make the Bible meaningful and relevant to kids . . . . and that is largely due to, I fear, the fact that the leaders them selves are ceasing to be meaningful and relevant at all to culture. I do say all this in a general sense---not all churches are at this point, but I am sad to confess that nearly all the churches I have been part of are there, and they have not showed signs of waking up. There needs to be a serious repentance in these places, because ultimately it is the Darkness that keeps them there, and their stasis plays a key role in the disintegration of the culture that we're now seeing.
To be honest, most ministers are not human computers; the people that are are often to introverted to end up as ministers in the first place. A lot of the atheists I have come accross, are however human computers which tends to create an alienation right off the bat. The fact is, most of the things that atheists claim as the reason for their atheism could have made me one.