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Article title--Do Churches Create Atheists?

Do churches create atheists? It may seem like a strange question, yet it is one we should ask. In a time where church membership and influence are declining, and non-belief is increasing, we must ask if there is any correlation between the two trends.

In the past, in North America, it was assumed that everyone had some kind of religious affiliation, however nominal that might be. Today, an ever increasing segment of the population does not even admit to having any faith. As well, we have seen the rise of a new, very militant, and aggressive atheism spearheaded by people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. It is interesting to note that both Hitchens and Dawkins came out of religious backgrounds. When he was young, Hitchens attended religious schools. Dawkins was raised in an Anglican family. Both, while relatively young, eschewed whatever religious ideas that they might have been taught, instead favoring ideas that were more secular and, in their view, scientific.

Many of us have had some experience with people who have moved away from belief. Often they have been disillusioned or disappointed, either by their expectations of God or the behavior of those who professed to be believers. Some may have been very marginal in their belief to begin with, basing their involvement more on church or family culture, rather than personal conviction. Some, like the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14 –16) or even the Ephesians (Revelation 2:4), may have just become lukewarm and lost their first love.

However, today there is a new generation of young atheists who have abandoned their faith and church. They are more militant and active. On countless university and college campuses, they have come together in organizations for association, encouragement, and even to work together to promote atheism. It has been suggested that these groups are the atheist equivalent to Campus Crusade for Christ. Many of these young adults came from religious backgrounds, and like Hitchens and Dawkins, have chosen not to believe in God. Why? Were they influenced by the atheist apologeticists or was there something in their backgrounds that led (or pushed) them away from faith?

The Fixed Point Foundation decided to find out how and why these young adults left. They decided to seek out students involved in these on-campus atheist organizations. They asked the young people to “tell us your journey to unbelief.” The goal was not to engage in debate, but rather to listen. While each person had his own story, a “composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge.” In June, 2013, an article, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” published on The Atlantic website*, written by Larry Alex Taunton, director of Fixed Point, summarized the results. Of the atheist young people they sought for the survey, Taunton notes, “They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.”

Generally, the results came down to specific points. First, most (if not all) had attended church. Their atheistic views were a “reaction to Christianity.” (In this case, Christianity refers to the broad spectrum of religious groups under that umbrella.) Second, the “mission and message of their churches was vague.” In particular, through the article, Taunton tells the story of one young man’s experience. The key moment in his life was when the church he was attending made a major change in direction away from biblical content to a “teach less and play more” strategy to attract more young people. Throughout the study results, many noted that the “connection between Jesus and a Young woman writingperson's life was not clear.” Third, not surprisingly, the respondents felt that “their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions.” Further, they felt that church services were “largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant.” Fourth, despite their negative responses to what was becoming increasingly irrelevant and watered-down, they “expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.” Taunton notes that among the militant atheists, there is a surprising respect for believers who take the Bible seriously enough to attempt to share its message with others. One student from Dartmouth stated, “I really can't consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn't trying to convert me.” Taunton shares similar comments from Hitchens and well-known entertainer (illusionist/comedian) Penn Jillette. Taunton notes, “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.’ ” Fifth, the high school years were “decisive.” Sixth, while the students generally stated that their transition to unbelief was for “exclusively rational reasons” many indicated it was “deeply emotional as well.” This was sometimes coupled with disappointments with people and/or their expectations of God. Finally, Taunton includes the role of the Internet. When asked about what may have influenced their move to atheism, instead of citing the writings of the new generation of atheist apologists, the students mentioned online videos and forums.

A group of young people.Perhaps of greatest value is Taunton's summary, that these young people were “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.”

It would appear, at least in some cases, churches have created atheists. It is a sobering thought, but one we need to take seriously. Sometimes, the only time when people appear to be passionate about their faith is when arguing, often behaving in ways that are inconsistent with their profession. People, especially young people — our young people — are looking for faith that is real. The words Taunton used were “authentic” and “genuine.” That is, that a person's faith is expressed not only in that they believe the Bible, but that they live it — in character, attitude, purpose, and activities. We not only quote the Golden Rule, the chapters on love and faith and the Great Commission, we also live them in our daily lives. We need to show our conviction and passion that Jesus is our Lord.

(Reprinted with permission from Gospel Herald, July 2013.)


Picture credits:
© theodor38. Image from BigStockPhoto.com
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© shannondrawe. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.