What Led You To Become An Atheist? Some Surprising Answers

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?

Can You Be Happy in Every Circumstance?

“God can make you happy in any circumstances. Without him nothing can.” Andrew Bonar

There are two difficult things to believe in this quote. The first is that God can make you happy in any circumstances. The second is the claim that without God, nothing can make you happy.

Let me take the “easiest” of these difficulties first, which is the second: “Without God, nothing can make you happy.”

No God, No Happiness

This does not mean that you cannot have any happiness without God. You can, but it’s too shallow and too brief to really satisfy, to really deserve the name “happiness.”

Sure, you can have a few moments of happiness at a football match – until they lose. You can have a few hours of happiness at a party – until you wake up the next day. You can have a few days of happiness with your new car – until the first scratch, or until the neighbor gets an even better one.

Because these happinesses are separated from the source of all happiness, they cannot go deep or last long. If you doubt that, read Ecclesiastes.

With God, All Happy

“God can make you happy in any circumstances.” This is even harder to believe. But let’s qualify it a little. Bonar is not saying that in the midst of the most painful providences – like a cancer diagnosis or a bereavement – we can expect Christians to be immediately full of joy.

Not at all; Christians weep and sorrow too. However, the Christian battles against that sadness by faith, and gradually and slowly begins to win the victory, to see the good hand of God, to sense the Father’s love, to experience the Savior’s sympathy, and to enjoy the Spirit’s comfort.

As faith strengthens, so does joy, so that even in hard providences there is a deep and stable and substantial joy. It doesn’t remove the sorrow, but it counter-balances it and hopefully, eventually, even outweighs it.

“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil 4:11).

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The Most Honest Atheist In The World

The Atlantic has published a startlingly honest article by Crispin Sartwell, as you can see even from it’s title, Irrational Atheism: Not Believing in God Isn’t Always Based on Reasoned Arguments And That’s OK. In it Sartwell admits:

  • The atheistic worldview “is similar to the worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
  • His view of the universe as a natural, material system is based on his interpretation of his experience not on a rational argument.
  • “I have taken a leap of atheist faith.”
  • Atheism can be as much a product of family, social, and institutional context as religious faith.
  • “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.”
  • Just as religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on church dogma, so some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.
  • Science rests on emotional commitment (that there is a truth), a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up.

What a refreshing blast of humble and honest air! You cannot but admire such a sincere, transparent, and honorable atheist. But the article ends on a painfully sad note, which may partly explain Sartwell’s atheism, and maybe even his humility:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering…I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

As is so often the case, the agony of suffering is a large contributor to Sartwell’s atheistic faith. There are many like him, young and old, who find personal and global pain an insurmountable obstacle to Christian faith. In my experience, quoting Romans 8:28, preaching God’s sovereignty, or offering philosophical arguments about suffering in such situations is usually ineffective.

If I had the opportunity, I’d take Crispin to the historic events around Calvary and especially to the sufferings of God’s Son. I’d try to keep him at the cross as long as possible, and I’d work at explaining what happened there and how this is the only way into the power and wisdom of God. It’s also the way God calls both religionists and atheists to saving faith. As the Apostle Paul said:

We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Top 10 Books for Youth Groups

As I’m often asked for book recommendations on various subjects, I decided to put together an online list of my top ten books in various categories. Basically, if I was only allowed 10 books in my library on that subject, these are the ten I would choose. Previous posts include:

Today we’re looking at Top 10 Books for Youth Groups. This list was supplied by PRTS graduate Russell Herman, who has had a lot of experience in teaching teens, and also in leading church youth groups in book studies. He wanted me to say that these are not in any order of preference, and that his comments on each book are to help churches and youth leaders to see if it matches the youth they are working with.

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan, edited by C. J. Lovik.

2. In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair Ferguson.  Also worth mentioning is the companion book, By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me.

3. The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin by Kris Lundgaard. Helps a believer identify and deal with indwelling (update of the material of John Owen’s Indwelling Sin and Mortification of Sin)

4. Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on Christ That Change Us by Kris Lundgaard. Directs the reader to meditate on the beauty and glory of Christ (update of the material from John Owen’s Glory of Christ)

5. Loving the Way Jesus Loves by Phil Ryken.  Takes the reader through 1 Corinthians 13 focusing on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

6. The Gospel for Real Life: Turn to the Liberating Power of the Cross…Every Day by Jerry Bridges. Takes the reader through the work of Jesus Christ and then helps the reader see the implication of those truths on their day to day life.

7. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex and Brett Harris.  Arguably a teenaged answer to John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.

8. Humility: True Greatness by C. J. Mahaney. In an egocentric age this is a great book to deal with pride and help lead people towards the path of humility.

9. Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung.  This is a great book to ground young people in a Biblical view of Scripture.

10. Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung. An extremely helpful book for helping young people with decision making.

Reader Suggestions

Please put your own suggestions in the comments box and I’ll add them here.

Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters by Josh Harris.

Submission in Practice: 10 Steps

There’s always huge potential for misunderstanding when we try to explain the Bible’s teaching that a wife submit to her husband. No matter how much we try, people hear “submission” and think “oppression.” That’s why I thought it would be helpful to give an example of how the principle of submission works out in practice. I hope that will demonstrate how different (and even beautiful) biblical submission is compared to what people often think about it.

Using the example of buying a house, here’s how the husband’s leadership and the wife’s submission interact in the process:

1. Initiative: Having prayerfully considered the family’s needs, the husband says to his wife: “I think we should sell this house and buy another.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “We will…” but, “I think we should…”

2. Explanation: Next the husband says, “Here are my reasons.” He doesn’t just say “We’re doing this!” He explains his reasoning to his wife.

3. Invitation: The husband then invites his wife’s opinion, “What do you think?” This is not a monologue but a dialogue.

4. Gratitude: This is not necessary to say in every situation, but the wife should regularly affirm her husband’s leadership in general and express gratitude for it, especially if she is about to disagree with a specific proposal from her husband.  She might say something like, “I acknowledge your leadership in general, and I appreciate this thoughtful initiative, but…”

5. Listening: If the wife agrees with the proposal, then the decision is made. However, if she disagrees, she should freely state that and the husband must listen carefully and thoughtfully to her reasons.

6. Persuasion: The husband doesn’t listen to his wife’s reasons for objecting and then just go ahead anyway. No, if she disagrees, then the husband interacts with her reasoning and seeks to persuade her.

7. Patience: If his wife still disagrees, then there should be a reasonable period of time – days, weeks, or months – given to prayer, further discussion, consultation, and attempts at compromise.

8. Acceptance: After this time, if his wife is not yet persuaded and no compromise has proven possible, the wife must accept the husband’s leadership and submit to his will.

9. Support: The wife must avoid sulking or subtle opposition. Instead she should say something like, “I respect your leadership and trust your judgment, and will do all I can to make it go well.”

10. Review: When a decent period time has passed, the couple should re-visit the decision. If it turns out well, the wife should praise her husband for his leadership. If it turns out badly, the husband should confess his error and failing.

General points

Let me add a few general points about this process:

1. It’s rarely as neat and tidy as this, but this gives a general structure that can be adapted to different situations.

2. The husband should be extra careful to pay attention to his wife’s opinion in areas where she is more knowledgeable or gifted than he is. He should be extremely reluctant to insist on his will in these areas.

3. The husband should take opportunities to accept his wife’s wisdom whenever possible. If the husband is seen to be flexible and accommodating when he can be in good conscience, it will make it much easier for the wife to submit to her husband’s will on other occasions.

4. The husband may delegate many decisions to his wife, as long as he’s not abdicating responsibility and as long as she is willing to take the responsibility.

5. If the husband is overruling wife all the time, there’s something seriously wrong in that relationship. But if the husband never crosses his wife’s will, there’s something wrong there too.

6. The wife can also initiate, she can come to her husband and say, “Honey, I think we should move house. Would you give some time to thinking, praying, and talking about that?”

7. All this is in the context of the husband’s Christ-like love and Christ-like leadership.

8. The most important question for both husband and wife is not “How do I get my will done?” but “What’s God’s will for us and how do we do it?”

Previous Posts in this Series

Completing not Competing

Five Ways to Lead Your Wife

Two Models of Husband-Wife Love

The “S” Word: Three Models of Submission