Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Why We Became Atheists (and why we didn't)

In recent years, the Christian church has been doing a lot of soul-searching regarding why the younger generations are leaving the church in such large numbers.  It’s been a fascinating topic to follow.  It’s a bit like hiding behind the couch at Thanksgiving, listening to your extended family talk about you while they think you’re running an errand.  The theories are interesting; Some are thoughtful, some are well-intentioned but wrong, most are ridiculous.  My purpose in addressing this is two-fold.  First, I think churches still have an important role to play in society, and I feel like constructive criticism might be helpful.  Second, there are still areas in life where people like me face discrimination simply for the thoughts we have.  These areas of discrimination can only be changed if the discriminators realize they're wrong for being that way.
To begin, I'd like to ask you to agree with me on a few basic ideas.  First, as intelligent people, we get to explain our beliefs to others.  Others don't get to tell us what we believe.  For example, if I trusted what my youth group leaders taught me about Mormons, not only would I be factually mistaken, I'd have a whole lot fewer friends.  Likewise, if many of you really believed what your pastors teach about atheists, you and I probably wouldn't be friends right now.  So, if you tell me what you believe, I'm going to believe you.  I only ask for the same courtesy.  Second, let's do our best to engage each other with charity.  What I mean by charity is that if something is unclear, or can be interpreted two different ways, let's choose to interpret it in the way that is most charitable (or kind) to the speaker.  So many disagreements occur because the reader assumes things about the author that probably were not intended.  So let's do our best to assume that we're not trying to offend each other.

The topic of apostasy is complicated - statistical studies aren't always clear in their terms, and often focus more on why people stop going to church, than why people lose their faith entirely.  Certainly, the former group includes a lot more people than the latter.  In Rachel Held Evans' article on the subject, she focuses on why millennials are leaving the church, and concludes a number of things that I agree with:
* We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

* We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers

* We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities

She also concludes a number of things I don't agree with, including the final conclusion:

*We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Rachel is a fantastic ambassador for Christianity.  In fact, if the majority of Christendom believed and spoke the way she does, I suspect most of the religious culture war would be over, and the vitriolic atheist response to Christianity would subside significantly.  That said, even she seems to agree with perhaps the biggest obstacle to interfaith relationships: the possibility that she's wrong about Jesus doesn't seem to be on the table.

We've all been wrong before, some of us more than others.  What makes the search for truth so amazing is how great it feels to discover something new that we've been missing.  Sometimes that feeling comes during a change within a religious framework, sometimes it comes from leaving faith entirely.  But if truth is what we're committed to, it must at least be fathomable that everything we've come to believe in is absolutely false.  Science, supposedly a fierce rival of religion, operates in exactly this way.  Science constantly tries to prove itself right or wrong.  And when it discovers it's wrong, all the better, for truth has replaced falsity.  Faith systems tend to not only be immune to self-reflection, they often seek to avoid it.  This is not only unhealthy, it's adverse to truth-seeking.

Last year I attended an interfaith conversation between Paul Metzger, a professor at Multnomah Seminary, and a Buddhist monk.  The monk explained that when conversing with Evangelicals, he understands that at the core of everything they're talking about is a giant pillar of faith that's never going to move.  So, he has to talk around it in hopes of improving these interfaith relationships.  I submit that this should not be so.  If any part of our worldview isn't up for debate, are we really searching for what's true, or are we searching to confirm our biases?

That said, let's look at some reasons why some Christians seem to think people leave the church, or become atheists:
According to some guy at askacatholic.com, people become atheists because of a bad relationship with their father.
According to Josiah Concept Ministries, people become atheists because they don't want accountability to God. 
According to creation.com, atheists hate God
Regarding church attendance, this reverend suggests young people quit attending church because churches are no longer intellectually challenging, churches are no longer leaders in ethical and moral decision making, and churches are no longer visionary - focusing on soul-saving instead of community building. I really enjoyed this article.

The issue of why people leave church seems a lot more simple to me.  Rachel Held Evans, and the reverend cited above, have a lot of good input on that idea.  But leaving church over politics or social buffoonery is quite different from losing faith entirely.  Many non-church goers still believe in all or part of the faith tenants held by the church they've left.  Likewise, many church-goers don't believe in God at all.  According to one study (referenced here), 18% of Unitarian Universalists are atheists.  Buddhism, depending on the strain, is an atheistic religion.  Atheists can be found as active members of many religious communities, including Judaism, Mormonism, Quakerism, and many others. But why do people lose faith in the first place?

My own story on that question is here and here.  But speaking in generalities, if you ask us why/how we lost our faith, most of the answers will look something like this:

1 - Faith is not supported by evidence. Certainly there are very smart people  who spend a whole lot of time trying to appeal to God's existence via science and philosophy.  But as technology has allowed new generations of people to access information and arguments that used to be hidden by religious parents, if they acknowledge it existed at all, more and more people are comparing their faith to the supporting documentation, and finding little to nothing is there to hold up the faith structure.  This isn't a matter of saying, "I don't want to obey God."  It's saying, "I have believed in God by faith, but if faith as all there is, I'll pass."  To then say that the person who arrives at this conclusion "hates" God is like saying a person "hates" Krishna or Baal.  Silly on its face, isn't it?  As Hemant Mehta correctly states:

     Moreover, blogs and websites espousing non-religious viewpoints and criticizing Christianity   draw tons of Internet traffic these days. For every Christian apologist's argument, it seems, there's an equal and opposite rebuttal to be found online. I call that "Hitchens' Third Law.”

Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can't protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.

2 - Mean-spirited politics allow the initial doubt, leading back to #1.  The younger generations have spoken clearly on many issues that are not in unity with our parents.  We don't think gays are an abomination.  We don't think marriage is only for straight people.  We don't think men are superior to women.  When we hear these things being preached at church, it's so obviously wrong to us that we allow the possibility that the whole thing is a sham to enter our minds.  Some of us then conclude #1.

3 - One or more traumatic experiences rule out a loving God.  Millions of dollars have been made by Christians writing books trying to get around the problem of evil, both human and natural.  Some are convinced that free will solves the problem.  Many others are not.  While I personally don't think conclusions about the supernatural should be based on individual experiences, for many people, their experiences are insurmountable.  For them, either there is no God, or God is not all-loving. 

4 - The Hell doctrine.  I don't think much explanation is needed.  For many people, hell allows the whole system to be doubted, and from there, #1.

With these things in mind, let's continue a dialogue about God.  But let's do it fairly, and let's listen to each other.  Christians and atheists aren't so different.  We often share the same values, the same morals, and have the same goals for society.  Let's find those things and focus on them together.  

I asked a group of my fellow atheists to briefly sum up how/why they became atheists. Here are their responses"

* "The concept of Hell got in the way of the concept of a loving God that created us. Also, seeing the all powerful God through clear eyes so as to comprehend that He is a creation of all the worst traits of humanity."

* " I was tired of pretending to be god so I stopped being a Christian"

* " My personal rejection of faith came from finally asking all the questions that had been repressed inside of me by fundamentalist christianity. We were told that reason, and doubt, was the voice of satan. The day came when I could no longer suppress the questions. As I started to ask them, the answers that I received gradually lead me down the path to atheism.

* "Eventually I realized that the whole threat of eternal torment is actually the psychological hook that when implanted at a young age, or at a point in one’s life when they are the most vulnerable, can produce an almost impenetrable motivational framework that is extremely difficult to break away from."  More here.

To close, here's an amazing video from a really ballsy church, recognizing International Interview an Atheist in Church Day:

For the best part, here's a shorter version:



  1. An interesting post and as a Christian, I found much I could agree with. There are some closed-minded Christians, but in my experience the problem is just as prevalent among atheists.
    I think you (or perhaps just your choice of words) make a very important mistake - that atheism is not a faith. That simply is not true.

    I also found one of the statements on why I became an atheist humorous - "I was tired of pretending to be god so I stopped being a Christian." What an appalling lack of understanding of Christianity!

  2. Hi Jerry - re: your point about atheism being a faith, that's a matter of semantics. Implicit atheism, which is my position, is simply a lack of belief in the supernatural. It does not make the claim that God does not exist. Explicit atheism DOES make that claim, and I agree with you, that's a faith statement. I've found with experience that what many agnostics believe is the same thing that the implicit atheist believes, we just use different vernacular.

    Re: the quote..I can't speak for that person. I asked for brief explanations, and that's what he gave me.

  3. thanks for the post, ryan!

    your topic was also covered in last week's edition of the "Beyond Belief" podcast, so i enjoyed extra time thinking about faith. i encourage you to listen to it. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037smxz)

    while i don't agree with much the imam said, i was particularly interested in one of his statements about 2/3 through: (paraphrased) "people become disillusioned with religion because of CONDUCT, not basic truths." i think, for the most part, he's correct here. but then i get annoyed that he wants to create a meta-world, free from not just disgusting conduct, but all conduct.

    the imam, and others who believe that humans gravitate toward irrepressible questions of existence ("what is good?" "am i alone?"), believes that basic truths can exist outside of the rational world, i.e. the world of the mind. this irrational world exists in the heart, a region i consider a linguistic cop out.

    personally, i'm not convinced that humans actually have a deepdown desire to know god, the supernatural, or the unknown... at least, i don't think such a desire is intrinsic to human-ness; i also have an extremely strong desire to eat copious amounts of sugar, but that's probably because i see ads for candy everywhere. yet, i hear philosophers of all types agree that humans share this existential mood, and, for some, the mere fact that the subject exists is proof enough that its direct object exists. what do you think, ryan?

  4. It's hard for me to speak to what most people experience, as I don't spend enough time with groups of people, like perhaps a pastor, or a charity worker might. I talk online with a few different atheist groups, but even that can't be expected to be representative. Speaking for myself, I'm not convinced that there is anything outside the rational world. I've seen evidence that this is the case, and am probably not philosophically smart enough to understand how it would work. Re: the god-shaped hole idea, I think there's something to it, but it may be an illusion.

    For me, it's kind of like the end of The Truman Show. Life is simple, questions all have answers, everything make sense. Then one day (or with religion, over a period of time) your entirely worldview changes. While the new discoveries that follow are exciting and new, I think there will always be a deep sorrow over the loss of utopia, and there will always be an inner call back into it, as of one could stuff all the new discoveries away, and cuddle up inside the bubble again. Had Truman never lived in the bubble, or had I never known a deep religious faith, perhaps I could say there is no God-shaped hole. But that's not my past, so I don't know any other experience.

    The few people that I know who didn't grow up with a dogmatic faith don't seem as existentially bothered as I am. I suppose that's anecdotal evidence that you're right - that there is no innate draw to God within us. It's taught at birth, and some of us leave it behind, but can't forget. As David Bazan said, the crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice.