What leads people away from religion and into atheism? That’s the question that fascinated Larry Taunton so much that he launched a nationwide series of interviews with hundreds of college-age atheists.

His question was simple: “What led you to become an atheist?”

The answers were surprising, creating a completely unexpected composite sketch of American college-aged atheists. Here’s a summary from his article, Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for A Stronger Christianity.

1. They had attended church: Most of them had a church background and had chosen atheism in reaction to Christianity.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague: While there were many messages about doing good in the community, “they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.”

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions: Churches did not address questions like creation v evolution, sexuality, reliability of the Bible, purpose of life, etc. Messages were bland, shallow, irrelevant, and boring.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously: This is summed up in one student’s response: ”I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive: Most embraced unbelief in the high school years.

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one: Although all gave rational reasons for becoming atheists, for most there were powerful emotional reasons too – usually associated with suffering.

7. The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism: Instead of being “converted” through the popular New Atheists, most were influenced by Youtube videos and website forums.

So, what are the lessons for a stronger Christianity? Taking the above points in order:

1. The Church has to evangelize its own as well as those outside. We can’t assume that just because kids go to church, they are saved and thus will continue to attend. Our first mission field is our own family and church. This also puts huge onus on professing Christians to believe, speak, and act consistently because many who left the church were turned off by hypocrisy within it.

2. Our messages must be clear and Gospel-centered. All doctrine, practice, service, and devotion must continually be tied to the center of the Gospel, Jesus Christ’s person and work.

3. We must tackle the hard questions: We can’t just preach nice, heart-warming, encouraging, and inspiring sermons. We have to face the reality of our current culture and its varied challenges to Christian faith. And if we do engage these questions, we must do so fairly, lovingly, and honestly.

4. Evangelize passionately and persuasively: Students were unimpressed by dispassionate presentations of the truth and a reluctance to press the claims of Christ upon them. Perhaps this is the most surprising finding of all. We’ve somehow been convinced that sermons have to be more like lectures or just conversational; cool, calculated, casual discussions that present the truth with as little feeling as possible. We mustn’t be pushy, emotional, or earnest in our witness. But according to the students, this bland approach is a complete turn-off.

5. High School years are more dangerous than college years: We can’t wait until college to equip young people with spiritual armor and arms.

6. Appeal to the heart as well as the head: As most people turned to atheism for emotional reasons, usually related to suffering, we must also appeal to their emotions to win them back. We can’t just offer cold logic and philosophy, nor even just biblical truth. We need to communicate love, joy, and peace in our witness, as well as offer them an experience of these healing Christian emotions through the Christ who purchased them through His suffering.

7. Use the internet to promote Christian truth: Many kids are in church and Christian youth groups a couple of hours a week, but are spending 20 or 30 hours a week online. Unless we give them some healthy regular alternative to the videos and forums that are overtly and covertly attacking the Christian faith, we shouldn’t be surprised if they gradually drift away.

On the whole, this research offers a lot of encouragement to churches that preach the whole Bible with evangelistic passion and sincere conviction, that apply the truth to the modern world and modern questions, and that use digital technology to engage, evangelize, and disciple their youth.

What other lessons would you draw from this research?

  • rocketw

    I don’t think it can be subject to as much of a “methods that work” agenda… The pride that rears itself even in tiny children, that says, “No, I will not have anyone to rule over me! I alone am the captain of my ship!” becomes the irrelevance of God to older children and teens and then the well-entrenched worldview of adult atheists, unless the grace of God by the Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ intervenes, right? This is natural and it is the expected course of the fallen and unregenerate, which we all were at one time. We who were and are saved and being saved still must deal with the “grave clothes” of our old man… Reversing the process, putting off pride (atheism) — oh, that’s a miraculous, supernatural event that unfolds until the Lord’s purpose in us is fulfilled and He brings us home.

  • Notmyname

    My reason for leaving Christianity and becoming more of an agnostic did start during high school and solidified during college. I was mainly lead there by much, much thinking along with some emotional reasons as mentioned above. My main idea is this; Everyone in life believes in any number of things, from numerous religions to science to the Universe, and so on. I grew up in Christianity and I looked at other religions. People of all religions firmly believe that their religion is the right one, and I believe that they feel a connectedness and passion just like Christians..if they weren’t getting something out of it, then why would they continue practicing that religion? I see many young Christians go on and join church merely because that’s what their family has always done, and/or their friends and family would view them as ‘lost’ or a ‘sinner’ having been raised ‘right’ and yet still leaving the Church. My life experiences have put me in touch with all sorts of people, and each one, Christian or not, were amazing people. They all have hopes, dreams, beliefs, traits that are beautiful and traits that are bad. The beliefs of these people, the beliefs of different religions, and so on, are just as powerful as those that Christians have. So is it not hubris to believe that our religion is the single, right way? I think it’s greatly possible that no one is right. The Buddhists, Atheists, Evolutionists, etc all firmly believe (I believe they all have perfect evidence within their perceptions to back these beliefs) in their own ideas. Islamic parents have just as much pain seeing their children leave the religion as Christian parents do..I see everyone just trying to make their way through life, trying to make sense of it, and getting by as best they can. Why would God have made things like this? Why all the extra hassle and purposefully confusing variables? The thing is when you have an omniscient God, you can literally explain away any sort of reason with vague answers that you hear every time you bring up an arguments..the same boring text book answers spouted by people who have put no thought into the matter and don’t seem to understand that everyone is unique and thinks a little bit different. Anyways, that is one of my main lines of thought on the matter..I felt like writing it out I guess. I just don’t see how anyone can be sure that they’re right.

    • JH

      Notmyname, I understand the questions and doubts you have. I think they are natural if you are thinking through things. And faith in God is not a simple and easy thing. Jesus said to his disciple Thomas (“doubting Thomas”), “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Not all of my questions have been answered over the years but I have learned through following Christ that the Christian faith answers our most fundamental questions (purpose of life, problem of evil, what happens when we die?, what is good?, what is truth?, what is beautiful?) very well and confirms those answers throughout life in other believers, Scripture, and experiences. But I think faith all begins with “who is Jesus?” Everyone wants to claim him. Most faiths at least want to call him a good teacher and many more want to claim him as a central figure (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Catholics). So who is he? What does he have to say about our questions? The only way to find out is to follow him. That is what he asked people to do – simply to follow him. This doesn’t mean you are a Christian but that you are going to learn from him and see what he has to say and follow his instruction for a while. And one of the best places to start following him is in the book of John. Just reading chapter 1 verses 1 through 18 will help you see why Jesus came and what his mission is. And ask for Jesus to help you understand. If he is God then he can help you see and give you the faith to believe.

    • TT

      Notmyname, I hear what you are saying. I felt the same way for a while and went through a period of questioning. I actually found a lot of confirmation when I was introduced to the charismatic movement and I saw miraculous healings performed in the name of Jesus with my own eyes when I went to India. The pastors down there would pray for the sick, the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed and they would all be healed. The last chapter of Mark talks about the accompanying signs of miracles with the Gospel. When I saw that power demonstrated, I knew that Christ was real and powerful and alive today.

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  • CW

    Notmyname, then I guess you can’t be sure that you are right either?

    • Notmyname

      My point is that no one can be sure.

      • CW

        Are you sure about that statement?

  • thog

    While I appreciate what these young atheists had to say about their reasons for unbelief, and the insights this provides to the church, we can’t discount or deny what Jesus said about unbelief:
    “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21 ESV)

    Those who seek the truth will be drawn toward the light. Most people will not say “I rejected faith because I love my sin more than I love the truth.” But, according to Jesus, this must be factored in as the root cause.

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  • Joe’s World.

    Did any of the respondents say that they stopped believing because; they realised the religion was not true, that faith was the act of pretending otherwise, and that they could not longer lie to themselves?

    It seems to me this is the most common reason for atheism; honesty.

    • Blake Reas

      1. Pretending to be otherwise? Shows how ignorant you are.
      2. Honesty? Please, try not attributing dishonesty to other people, because it was something you did to yourself.

    • Ian

      It certainly is a common reason for atheism, but the problem is that that is simply not what the Bible calls faith. Therefore, this is not what any Christian believes faith to be. So it is dishonest to reduce faith to blind faith and then hold it up for ridicule. The Christian worldview has at its core the fact that “by faith we understand” (Heb. 11:3). Hence, without the Christian worldview you cannot give an intelligible account of anything – not even science or reason and certainly not ethics. Given a non-Christian, materialistic, random-chance worldview try explaining (not describing!) any of these things (reason, science, ethics). To try to understand atheists better, I’ve genuinely tried to think the way they would have to think, and the honest conclusion I come to each time is that it requires way too much “faith” (according to the definition you gave) in order to make sense of anything.

      Faith is eminently rational and lays hold of the most real and certain events in all history – that Jesus Christ was born, lived a perfect life, died on the cross to save sinners, rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, and is coming again. This real and all-sufficient Savior, who I know and love, I heartily commend to you!

      • Notmyname

        You aren’t getting the point. I’m not ridiculing anyone, I was laying out some thoughts of mine on the matter..not saying my thoughts were correct, nor was I ‘ridiculing’ your faith. Your argument here states, ‘Without the Christian worldview you cannot give an intelligible account of anything…’. Something that is exclusive does not mean anything at all. Would you accept the same statement from an Evolutionist? “Without evolution you cannot give an intelligible account of anything. God and certainly not religion explains this. Creationists and their failure to accept the facts is a travesty”. That’s basically that argument from another viewpoint. All I’m saying is is that everyone firmly believes that they are right, but at the end of the day there is no way, if you look deeply enough, to know if your way is truly the right way. Feelings brought on through faith can easily be explained by basic biology. Faith is merely a word for a human idea, just like every other word, no better no less.
        Where in my or Joe’s argument did we ridicule you? A logical debate without making such implications would be appreciated.

        • Ian

          Noymyname, I don’t think I said you or anyone else were ridiculing someone else. I was pointing out the common atheistic misconception about the nature of Christian faith. Joe said, “Faith was the act of pretending otherwise,” and you said, “Faith is merely a word for a human idea.” Neither of these statements approximate the biblical definition. In fact, they are both the opposite of what Christians believe faith to be, and until we get that straight then we are talking past each other. If my faith is simply “my idea,” and particularly, “the act of pretending otherwise,” then I submit there is indeed something inherently ridiculous about this. You said as much yourself – we all believe we are right. So why would we say that a Christian is only “pretending otherwise”?

          “Something that is exclusive does not mean anything at all.”
          Would you consider your own statement exclusive?

          I don’t quite follow. Are you saying I can never make an exclusive claim? Like, “child molestation is wrong,” for example?

          No, I wouldn’t accept the same from a purely evolutionist worldview. How can evolution explain the huge, metaphysical and ethical questions – where did life come from? intelligence? where did we come from? what is the point to life? where are we going? how can we account for induction? what makes something right or wrong? These are not small questions. My contention is that Christianity alone gives a cogent, non-arbitrary account for all these things. Here are the answers to the above questions from a Christian worldview. The point here is not whether we like the answers, but do they make sense. I’d challenge you to give me the evolutionist answers to these questions:

          Where did life come from? From God, who has life in Himself

          Where does intelligence come from? From God, who is rational and created man in His image

          Where did we come from? God created us out of nothing, by the word of His power

          What is the point of life? To glorify God our creator and to enjoy Him forever

          Where are we going? We are all going to exist forever, either in heaven or in hell

          Account for induction? God has created laws and order and has promised that Summer will follow winter and seedtime and harvest will continue

          What makes something right or wrong? Ultimately, whether it agrees with God’s law

          • Notmyname

            My statement was a mere hypothetical example showing that exclusivity does not give a statement any sort of value, you can’t use something’s exclusivity for an argument.
            Where did life come from? It is not known yet. From an evolutionists viewpoint, it probably happened due to billions of years of variables putting everything together under the right circumstances. Stars can create more elements than they are made out of using fusion…other processes we don’t know maybe pumps out elements. Science is not advanced far enough. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes, black holes, and all sorts of exotic energy. Perhaps the energy in the universe works together/sentient. A god of sorts. Not necessarily the Biblical God.

            Where does intelligence come from? We have more advanced brains. Once you can remember stuff/write it down/communicate (2 out of 3 are all you need), it’s all just building knowledge and passing it on from there. Maybe there is no exact moment of sentience, but generally, overtime, as the brain eventually evolved, an ancestor reached that point..and now we are here.

            Where did we come from? By process of evolution. Perhaps energy guided it somehow, as I said, early days in science. A god could have guided it as well.

            What is the point of life/where are we going? That’s up to you to decide. Maybe one religion is right. Maybe we have countless past lives, maybe we go to heaven or hell, maybe we go nowhere, maybe something unknown to us now happens.

            Account for induction? The Universe runs by laws following energy and physics. Summer follows winter due to the rotation of the Earth around a star, 1 among hundreds of trillions, residing in hundreds of billions of galaxies. Certainly amazing.

            What makes something right or wrong? Many many different philosophical ideas about this.

          • Ian

            Thanks for your reply.

            “You can’t use something’s exclusivity for an argument.”

            Of course you can, just as you do with this, another, exclusive statement of your own. I think where we would have to agree is that an exclusive statement can and should be tested. And the test I am appealing to when we ask these big metaphysical questions is, which worldview provides the preconditions for intelligibility.

            I’m always fascinated when Christian faith is described as “merely a human idea” or “pretending otherwise,” and then I read the typical evolutionistic answers you have given here. Again, it’s interesting to note how many times you use words and phrases like maybe, perhaps, probably, somehow, “other processes we don’t know maybe pump out,” “a god of sorts,” “generally, overtime,” “that’s up for you to decide.”

            None of the answers you give above provide anything close to an accounting for these big questions. You often describe the way things already are – “The Universe runs by laws following energy and physics” – but the question remains, why are there these laws? If you live in a random chance, materialistic world, account for why this is the case. You want to assume these laws, but can’t account for them. The same for ethics – “many different philosophical ideas.” Agreed, without the God of the Bible, you simply have no basis for positing an absolute standard and so, according to your worldview, you can never explain to me why something is absolutely wrong – such as rape or child molestation.

            The Christian worldview is the only one that makes sense of all these things.

  • Sarah Comeau

    As someone involved in campus ministry, I heartily agree with the statement, “High School years are more dangerous than college years” Even though I entered college as a strong Christian, well-trained by both my parents and church, I still encountered challenges to my faith. College is often a time in which our student’s lives are tested and the result of that test is reflective of the kind of faith the student had while in high school.

    • Joe Bigliogo

      What gets tested in College isn’t your life, just your most fundamental formative beliefs. Especially the ones that have been spoon fed to you by parents and community. For many young people College is the first time they are encouraged to really think, critically, independently and honestly. For others that process begins earlier in high school years. It depends very much on whether the place you resides allows and encourages free thought and doesn’t judge you when you stand apart in your beliefs. Blble belt USA is definitely NOT one of those places.

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  • Joe Bigliogo

    # 6 is pure taurine excrement. The reasons for a shift towards atheism are usually are NOT emotional nor to do with issues of suffering. Strong emotions come into play mostly when having to deal deal with the religious and their dogmatic indignation expressed in various ways including emotional outbursts, hurling guilt & shame, shunning and even physical abuse.

    The common denominator among most atheists is a capacity (sometimes newly discovered) for skeptical thinking. Given the controversial and outrageous claims of religion it should come as no surprise that maturing young people might for the first time see those claims as irrational and untenable.

    • Ben

      I agree. If you approach the question from a skeptical, objective standpoint, the outcome must always be unbelief (with acknowledgement that some supernatural things could be true).

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  • Thormod Nordahl

    I see only two solutions.

    1. Change your relationship with the bible. Drop the insanity that the bible is the true word of God.

    Recognize it for what it is. A number of tales from the fireplace more than 2000 years ago. Compiled with the best of intentions as the result of one persons existence, Jesus.

    Recompiled again by people with questionable intentions. (Nicaea).

    View the content in context with time, and admit it.

    Keep the ridiculous, Creation, Exodus, Noah, but explain the need to have explanations, comprehensible to illiterates.
    Embrace evolution.

    2. Condemn the Catholic church. Their clergy are criminals.

    Child abuse
    Concealing child abuse
    Questionable bankruptcies to avoid punitive damages for abused children.

    Fraud in secular countries, where religions receive government support, determined by membership. The catholic church in Norway has bloated the number of members by using the telephone directory and including anybody with a catholic looking name. Without consent or knowledge of the individual.

    A pity for the catholic church, perhaps, but condemnation will give you dearly needed credibility.

  • Big Jim

    Um, maybe provide actual evidence that doesn’t come across as rationalization…

  • Brandon Espinoza

    For me, I became an atheist because of family dysfunctions and utter betrayal from an on-going incident involving my older half-brother on ecstasy, and I prayed and prayed all day long, but nothing good changed; he is still mentally unstable, and worst of all, it was his 33rd birthday, and I had to suffer the most because I nearly came to losing my eye over his foolish ways, and I feel God WANTS me to suffer because I’m not Jesus, not will I ever be because I am just an ordinary human, that’s it. Worst of all, my family betrayed my ideals of justification because I believe he deserves to be punished and placed in a psychiatric ward for life because he is not mentally fit for our society.

  • Hayley

    For me, travel has really contributed towards my beliefs (or lack of). I think you will like my recent blog post explaining why! http://lifeasabutterfly.com/traveling-made-atheist/

  • Gabriella Gabriella

    I was put off by the misogyny and many things that just seem to cross every possible line morally against a human being, since I’m a girl and I feel immensely hurt by those things. And there are so many contradictions all throughout that in the end it’s hard to make any sense of it. It’s divisive, discriminating, harmful and has contributed a great deal to the worsening of my depression.