Really Listening to Atheists: Taking Nonbelief Seriously

When Larry Alex Taunton talked to young atheists about why they left Christianity, he interpreted their objections as matters of style, not substance. That's not accurate or fair.

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As an atheist, I have frequently had religious acquaintances and even family members misunderstand the basis for my lack of faith. So when Larry Alex Taunton, a Christian who has debated nonbelief with celebrity New Atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, recently wrote about his conversations with college-aged apostates, emerging with several conclusions about why these young people are leaving the church, I was interested.

Taunton and his organization wanted to understand how young men and women become avowed nonbelievers, and they contacted a number of campus secular groups to ask if their members would share their stories. Their respondents were mostly ex-Christians who had left the church during high school. Though Taunton acknowledges that most young atheists he has met in his career start out by "attribut[ing] the decision to the purely rational and objective," he highlights several other themes drawn from further discussion with the respondents: they found their church's "mission and message ... vague"; "they felt their church offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions"; they respected ministers of genuine belief; their "decision to embrace belief was often an emotional one"; and the Internet was a factor in their journey to nonbelief. Taunton concludes by suggesting churches not shy away from being serious about belief and the Bible. In sum, according to Taunton, it would seem that the atheists to whom he spoke mostly suffered from personal disappointments with the church, rather than from disagreement with Christian dogma or religion as a whole.

Taunton's are deeply problematic findings. Because what this kind of analysis does, whether intentionally or not, is peremptorily dismiss these atheists' valid objections and present snippets from the interviews in such a way as to insult the sincerity of their nonbelief and foreclose other possible explanations for their apostasy; namely, that Christianity may be losing its grip over increasing numbers of young Americans not because its preachers and pastors are doing a shoddy job of delivering their message or listening to their flock, but because the young Americans find the religion itself to be inherently implausible or morally objectionable.

Taunton introduces the reader to a number of members of the Secular Student Alliance and the Freethought Society. He interviews them, hoping to hear about their "journey to unbelief" and create "a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists" -- something that I am not sure it is possible to do in any accurate and nuanced way. (And as an atheist, I would argue that, if anything, it is the journey to belief that needs to be studied.)

The atheists Taunton speaks to declare straightaway that the problem is, simply, that they don't believe: "With few exceptions," he acknowledges early on, "students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons." But Taunton doesn't take them at their word. Instead, he treats them as subjects for psychoanalysis. He presents "Phil" as holding views "typical" of young New Atheists. Phil is "smart, likeable," and depicted as a lost young fellow, for whom things have "come apart" -- this is how Taunton refers to quitting religion -- and one who misses his "youth pastor." (Again, the only New Atheists from whom we hear are former Christians -- a fact that must necessarily skew the conclusions, even if it's not one Taunton can do much about within the confines of this particular study.) "Stephanie" appears, and laments that "The connection between Jesus and a person's life was not clear." A young man named Ben simply "got bored with church" and chucked it all. "Meredith" took comfort in the absence of a god, because her father had died and she didn't want to see him again, presumably in the hereafter. "Rebecca" prayed and got no answer. More generally, "vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums" figured in their de-conversion, as did, says Taunton, a search for "authenticity" -- surely what secularists would call an empirically verifiable conception of life, death, and the cosmos. But according to Taunton, his "idealist" students "settled for a nonbelief, that, though less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable."

He does not seem to understand that this is a deeply patronizing way of recounting the free decisions of these students to leave the church because -- again, as a number of atheists apparently told him outright -- they just don't believe its teachings. It would be one thing if the students themselves had declared they'd "settled," or said that they felt atheism to be "less grand." But no quote from the students suggests the point Taunton is making. Taunton's analysis amounts not to an objective assessment of their words, but pseudo-diagnosis presented in a way that skirts what they were really trying to tell him.

Yet such are the "journeys to unbelief" recounted by Taunton. He concludes that if church services had been more "meaningful" or if preachers had preached more convincingly, these lost sheep might never have strayed from the flock. He dismisses out of hand the most relevant and mature critiques leveled at religion by his New Atheist experimentees: matters pertaining to "evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc." The "etc." here is telling, as is the "and so on" with which he later disregards his subjects' complaints that religious beliefs are illogical.

Nowhere does Taunton posit the most obvious conclusion one may reach about the growing prevalence of atheism today: namely, that the tenets in which the Christian tradition demands faith may have ultimately appeared to young people to be untenable. Christianity requires that we, in the twenty-first century, after having mapped the human genome, sent probes to Mars, and discovered the Higgs Boson, believe in human parthenogenesis and tales of a man turning water into wine, calming raging seas, curing lepers, and raising the dead. It requires that we believe that God chose to redeem humankind by means of a human sacrifice. That's not even counting the NC-17-rated Old Testament, which includes incest, God ordering death for rape victims, God enjoining execution for apostates, and what looks an awful lot to the modern mind like God-sanctioned genocide in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Why is this important? The piece concludes that "sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe" which sidesteps the thornier nature of faith in Christian doctrine: Belief in these improbable and troubling stories is an absolute prerequisite for both membership in the church and entrance into heaven.

Doctrines that promise eternal rewards for some of us, eternal damnation for others, and mandate the observance of a moral code to which all humanity is supposedly subject, demand the closest scrutiny. Taunton's interviewees have done that: scrutinize. Their decisions to leave the church, based on that scrutiny, deserve respect.