Why young people become atheists

Larry Alex Taunton (a Christian) has an interesting article in The Atlantic magazine where he undertook a project to interview young people who had become atheists. It was not meant to be a scientific survey but more a collection of individual stories, which can often provide richer insights than dry statistics. While Taunton’s goal was to find ways to create a more appealing form of Christianity, the themes that emerged from his conversations as to why young people stopped believing are interesting on their own.

They had attended church
The mission and message of their churches was vague
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
Ages 14-17 were decisive
The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

The story of Phil resonated particularly strongly with me because it so closely paralleled my own.

Now the president of his campus’s SSA, Phil was once the president of his Methodist church’s youth group. He loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”

I myself had almost no ‘risk factors’ for becoming an atheist. I came from a very liberal Methodist family that was welcoming and warm. My departure from belief was not due to any anger or hostility to the church or Christianity. In fact, the church ministers and school chaplains I knew were wonderful people, scholarly and decent and open-minded who also not only did not evade the tough questions but seemed to relish the challenge of addressing them. I still recall them as having been powerful influences on my thinking and remember their names fondly (Rev. Arnold Cooper, Rev. Michael Cripps, and Rev, Peter Green) after so many decades.

The one risk factor I can identify was studying science and it was what caused my amicable departure from the church and belief. The concept of a god simply became increasingly nonsensical to me and jettisoning it brought a great sense of cognitive relief.


  1. jamessweet says

    They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

    My wife and I were just talking about this the other day… While an atheistic universe come sometimes feel a little cold and scary, I still cannot say “I wish I could believe” — because if you think deeply about the theistic answers, they are either absurd, or else even more terrifying than an atheistic universe (or, in some cases, equal: The idea of a “soul”, for example, in addition to being prima facie absurd, even if we accept it for the sake of argument it still gets one no further towards a solution to the problems of free will and consciousness, as anyone familiar with the Predestination debate within Christianity ought to be well aware).

    I do sometimes wish I could be the kind of person who didn’t think deeply about these sorts of things 😀 Usually not, but sometimes it would be nice if “because the soul!” did seem to me like a satisfactory answer to questions about consciousness, for example.

  2. garnetstar says

    My only risk factor: my parents have never spoken a singe word about religion to their children, not once, ever. And we’re not allowed to speak about religion to them or to each other. This was never explicit, but the implicit rule is very strict.

    My mother took us to mass every Sunday until we were 18. We all were baptized, confessed, communioned, and confirmed. Went to weekly CCD classes. The only reason we didn’t go to Catholic schools is that my older sister is left-handed: in Catholic school kindergarten, the nuns tried to make her write with her right hand, because the left is of the devil. My parents pulled her out and sent her and all the rest of us to public schools. But still, they never spoke a word about religion.

    So one day when I was seven, leaving mass, the thought occured to me: This isn’t true. That didn’t cause me the slightest concern, as I’d never thought about it before, had just done all the church stuff because my parents wanted me to. I had no guilt, regret or fear, and went through the rest of my years of church without any problem or concern or even thought.

    And, never thought about it again, literally for decades, until the religious right emerged and I had to.

    I very much recommend this quick and painless path to atheism.

  3. Corvus illustris says

    The only reason we didn’t go to Catholic schools is that my older sister is left-handed: in Catholic school kindergarten, the nuns tried to make her write with her right hand, because the left is of the devil.

    Would you be willing to provide a time (and possibly geographical, and ethnic if relevant) frame for this? I have always considered the “left hand is of the devil” thing to be an urban legend. My youngest sister (b.1950) is left-handed and the nuns never gave her a hard time (educated by Dominican sisters [of an originally-German foundation] in downstate Michigan).

  4. MNb says

    Ironically my risk factor was christianity itself. In Europe proselytizing on public schools is not as strictly forbidden as in the USA. Kids are taught the controversy and not in the creationist meaning of the word (like that incompetent figure of Hedin).
    When I was 13 or 14 my class was attended by two members of Youth for Christ, both a few years older. It was the end of the 70’s. The cruelties of the Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships made the headlines. A girl of my class asked: “Pinochet is a devout catholic. WIth all the victims he has made, will he go to heaven if he repents a minute before he dies?” The hones answer was “Yes”.
    This first confrontation with the Problem of Evil made me turn away from christianity forever. Until today I think it unappealing and that includes specifically the concept of heaven. Those two YfCers laid down a solid foundation.
    Trying to be a good skeptic I didn’t immediately become an atheist. For the next ten years or so my standpoint was that it can’t be proven if there’s a god, so I called myself an agnost.

  5. Corvus illustris says

    This is an interesting twist on the “theodicy” problem: instead of the usual “why do the good suffer?” it’s “why don’t the evil suffer enough?”. If you had gotten RCs instead of the YfC types it would have been “well, of course, he’ll be in purgatory ’til the end of time.” Your own end result would probably have been about the same.

  6. Corvus illustris says

    Mano: “The one risk factor I can identify was studying science and it was what caused my amicable departure from the church and belief.”

    Good grief, did you chase down the Fixed Point Foundation (or was the name familiar–it wasn’t to me)? I was going to make silly mathematical puns on the name, but it’s already done: the founder turns out to be the group theorist John Lennox, an otherwise-quite-respectable mathematician and an authority on solvable groups, the ones to which the (Markov-)Kakutani fixed-point theorem can be extended. Apparently studying mathematics doesn’t always work the way studying physics does.

    He should know better.

  7. garnetstar says

    Sure: that was in 1961, in a small industrial city in northeast Ohio, not far from Cleveland. My family is Italian, but most of the city was Eastern European Catholic, primarily Polish. I can’t remember the nuns’ order, if I ever knew it. It was apparently one that cherished its medieval heritage.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    If the nuns were Polish, they were probably Felicians. “Medieval heritage” doesn’t do them justice. One of their orphanages is at least partially responsible for the ineffable Thomas S. Monaghan.

  9. ttch says

    Taunton writes in the article,

    Atheists particularly fascinate me. Perhaps it’s because I consider their philosophy — if the absence of belief may be called a philosophy — historically naive and potentially dangerous.

    He doesn’t even try to support this statement. Imagine his doing this when writing about, say, former Republicans turned Democrat.

  10. dickspringer says

    My public school teacher tried to force me to write with my right hand. It was ineffective but she kept trying until my mother got my pediatrician to write a letter telling the teacher to leave me alone. My semi-illegible handwriting is the consequence.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    An uncle of mine (b.1908) and Mrs Corva’s father (b.1920-ish) underwent this treatment in paroch (boondocks) and public (NYCity!) school respectively. In spite or because of it, they were genuinely ambidextrous but wrote in chaotic cursive (random slants, etc.).

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