Listening to atheists

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We christians are nearly always talking. Our pastors encourage us to be out there talking about Jesus at every opportunity. Even if no-one is listening.

But maybe we should try listening more. Maybe I should try listening more!

Fixed point in a changing world

Fixed Point Foundation was set up nearly a decade ago to “stand up for God” in the world of ideas, to offer a thoughtful christian response to contemporary issues and thought, and do it “with gentleness and respect”.

Gaining understanding by listening

Last year Fixed Point asked members of atheist societies on campuses across the US to talk to them, to tell them their journey to unbelief. While some were wary, the response was bigger than expected, and Fixed Point received a “flood of enquiries” from those interested in participating.

What they learnt is revealing:

The critical ages were 14-17

It has long been known that most christians convert in their teens. It turns out the same is true of most atheists in this study. Truly, as Tony Campolo has said: “Youth is made for heroism”. (Of course, those who choose atheism after university wouldn’t be picked up in this study, but it is interesting that it was at high school, not university, that most people chose their beliefs.)

Churches didn’t answer their questions

Most of them had attended church at one stage (that probably wouldn’t be true in many countries other than the US) but found church services generally “shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant”. They were interested in questions such as evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the Bible, Jesus as the only way, personal significance, purpose, and ethics, but found the answers unconvincing. Worst of all: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.”

Respect for those who believe … and live that way

Most expressed respect for those who took their faith seriously, and wanted to share it. If it is true, it should be shared.

Reason and emotion

Most atheists who replied said their atheism was based on reason and science, but it became clear that their ‘deconversion’ was “a deeply emotional transition as well”. For a number, difficult life circumstances were also a factor.

The role of the internet

None of these atheists mentioned high profile atheists as influences – websites and forums seemed to be more influential.

The idealism of youth

Most students were idealists who “longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable”. One said:

Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”

The bottom line

This survey was not representative in many ways – it is specific to US university students who were willing to respond – but it is still helpful.

Make friends with unbelievers …. and listen

Jesus’ mission calls us to care for people, to leave the safety of our flock and go to where non-believers are. Let’s listen – on the web, in newspapers, and to the people we mix with.

“What do they teach them in their schools?”

If churches I know are any guide, we don’t often give youth good reasons to believe, but somehow seem to think they will sustain faith as their life experience grows, without having their questions satisfactorily answered (most christian apologetics doesn’t cut it, in my opinion) and without being prepared for doubts, difficulties and challenges to their faith.

Older high school youth groups must be a crucial place to start. Do you know what they are taught in the youth group at your church?

Photo Credit: stuartpilbrow via Compfight cc

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