Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The New Young Atheists

I read a interesting article in The Atlantic on atheism and the young people, mostly ex-Christians, who've come to embrace it.

This isn't about the famous "New" atheists we've all read and know:  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et. al.  This article explores the young men and women who, through serious self-reflection and examination of their religions, have rationally left behind Christianity and become nonbelievers.

Here are some of the highlights:

They had attended church 

 Most of participants [in the study] had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. 

 The mission and message of their churches was vague 

 These students heard plenty of messages encouraging "social justice," community involvement, and "being good," but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: "The connection between Jesus and a person's life was not clear." This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again. 

 They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions 

 When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: "I really started to get bored with church." 

 They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously 

 Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn't try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: "Because you believe it." Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: "I really can't consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn't trying to convert me." As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: "I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.... How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" 

 Ages 14-17 were decisive 

 One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. 


Poll Shows Fivefold Increase in Ranks of U.S. Atheists 

The survey also shows a downward trend in the number of people who say they are religious. 

 A new poll suggests that 1 in 20 Americans now call themselves atheists, a fivefold increase from the last time the survey was taken in 2005. The Religion News Service reports that, to go along with the jump, just 60 percent of Americans now identify as religious, down from 73 percent the last time the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism poll was taken seven years ago. The decline has also been felt in many other countries around the world, including double-digit drops in several European and North American countries.


American Atheism is rising and Christians don't like it

Young Americans 

Young Americans in the 18 to 25 age group are more likely to accept Evolution. Among Americans over 40 the majority believe in creationism. 

Young Americans are less likely to go to church; the decline in Christianity is happening mainly as each new generation is less inclined to be religious or to believe in God. Some deconversions happen among older people as well though. As the proportion of atheists increases, ordinary people will increasingly get to know atheists and will increasingly see that we are moral. 

Actively promoting Humanist morality and showing that we are trustworthy human beings may help reduce prejudice. 


Some deconversions in the United States and elsewhere happen because atheists show believers their faith is irrational but most happen because people see this for themselves. Adults, even intelligent older children and young teenagers, if they hear or read a non-Christian folk tale, piece of mythology treat it as fiction. 

When people have been told persuasively from early childhood to believe the bible not all see the similarity between biblical and other mythology but increasing numbers see this. Shrill atheism may increase the rate of deconversion marginally, it certainly makes atheists more confident. Even if New Atheism were to stop (which is unlikely) the steady erosion of Christian faith will continue.


FreeThinke said...

He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow --
The Broad are too broad to define
And of "Truth" until it proclaimed him a Liar --
The Truth never flaunted a Sign --

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As Gold the Pyrites would shun --
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a Man!

~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

As I see it, the implications there are vast and something of a two-edged sword when it comes to the apparent conflict between Belief and Skepticism.

Those of us who know and love Emily are well aware that she, herself, had great difficulty in accepting the "faith of her fathers" without question or pause. She was filled with doubt, and I am reasonably sure the conflict was never fully resolved in her consciousness. However, I don't recall her ever having expressed contempt or utter disregard for Belief or those honestly devoted to it.

Whatever contempt she may have held seemed to be for those who were arrogant and too cocksure in their manner regardless of the direction their thoughts may have taken.

The little poem quoted above gives ample evidence of that, I think.

If you are interested in further exploration of the subject of "faith" from varying perspectives, you might want to visit AOW's blog today. Much of what has been shared over there, you might enjoy it a good deal.

Infidel753 said...

Most of participants [in the study] had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.

My guess is, this was found because they were studying people in the United States where Christianity is by far the most omnipresent religion. I know for a fact that the same general phenomenon is going on in some Muslim countries too, and there it's happening in reaction to Islam, which is the dominant religion in that social environment. Of course this is much harder to study since atheists in Muslim countries tend to keep quiet -- it's far more dangerous than being an atheist in the West -- but it's definitely happening.

My guess would be that the same thing is going on in Hindu and Buddhist societies too.

The figure of 60% for Americans who see themselves as religious is startlingly low. It's clear that tens of millions are de facto atheists but aren't quite ready to embrace the word.

The whole rotten structure of religion is collapsing -- faster in some countries than others, but it's happening. As atheism becomes more accepted and no longer stigmatized, I expect to see a further massive shift. It won't be long before self-proclaimed Christians are a minority in the US.

FreeThinke said...

A sample from commentary today at AOW's blog:

Whoever spread the idea that "religion" ought to be prim, prudish, wary, narrow, stuffy, boring, and dismally constrained did a great disservice to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ.

Mistaken ideas of what constitutes "proper" piety have gone a long way toward killing God's Church.

The idea of doing continual PENANCE for no other reason than having the unmitigated gall to be alive is the antithesis of what Jesus sacrificed Himself for.

He came to FREE us not enslave us to a drab existence marked by a continuous exercise of haughty, self-righteous contempt for others regarded as "sinners" and "outsiders."

The very LAST thing Jesus wanted was to beget and perpetuate yet another set of Scribes and Pharisees.

If we are not GROWING, we are DYING.

The implication there, of course, is that "religion," as it has developed in most of the temporal church organizations, deserves to die.

True faith, however, does not.

That old thing about "throwing the baby out with the bath water" again.

Anonymous said...

Atheism itself becomes a religion.

Shaw Kenawe said...

"Anonymous said...
Atheism itself becomes a religion."

The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.
Details of belief as taught or discussed.
faith - belief - creed - denomination

AS you can see, Anon, it is impossible for atheism to become a "religion," since atheism embraces no belief in any supernatural being, nor any creed, nor any denomination, and atheism is not a "faith" by any definition, since faith is defined as:

Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

When someone declares he or she does not believe in supernatural beings or an after life, that is not a faith-based statement; it is a statement of fact.

Atheism is not a "religion," nor will it ever be.

There is no atheist doctrine or dogma or "beliefs." An atheist simply rejects the idea of supernatural beings and an after life.

Anonymous said...

You obviously know nothing about Atheists of America
read up

Shaw Kenawe said...

Anonymous @2:46, please explain yourself.

I googled "Atheists of America," and nothing with that exact name came up.

Because I don't belong to any atheist association, organization, or club, I have no idea what "Atheists of America" is about, and I'm guessing whomever they are, they do not speak for all atheists in America.

Incognito said...

I agree with Free Thinker.

Religion and personal faith are not one and the same.

Christianity has brought the world some of the greatest works of art, sculpture, and music. I hope that hardcore atheists can appreciate those things because they are priceless!

Infidel753 said...

If atheism is a religion, then silence is a form of noise, and health is a form of disease.

Anonymous said...

"I have no idea what "Atheists of America" is about"
My point exactly

Shaw Kenawe said...


I had hoped this wouldn't devolve into a discussion of the merits and the disadvantages of the Christian religion on the art world.

Christianity, as we all know, produced, by Church fiat most of the time, great works of art, music and architecture, but it also produced, by fiat, great pain and misery on those who were infidels.

This is a discussion on how more and more young people are turning away from religion and the reasons for that change.

Shaw Kenawe said...


And bald is a hair style.

Incognito said...

Shaw Kenawe,
"I had hoped this wouldn't devolve into a discussion of the merits and the disadvantages of the Christian religion on the art world."

It is devolving to bring up the greatest gifts from Christianity???

Do you repudiate those great works of art because they were created by Christian fiat?

Do those who are turning away from Christianity today also reject the works of art? I do know at least one hardcore atheist who does reject those works of art just because they are Christian in origin.

Shaw Kenawe said...

Dear Incog,

You're changing the subject.

If you go back and read the post, you will find that it has nothing to do with the influence of Christianity on art, architecture, and music. It is YOU who is diverting the discussion to something you wish to argue about.

I have made no such claims, as you imply, about "repudiating" anything.

I have no idea if those who are turning away from religion are also "rejecting the works of art," since no one has brought up the subject.

If you would like to give an opinion on why young people are turning away from religion, fine, have at it.

I would appreciate your staying on the subject and not hijacking this thread.

Incognito said...

Shaw Kenawe,
"If you would like to give an opinion on why young people are turning away from religion, fine, have at it."

Okay, but you may not like part of what I have to say.

At first, you may accuse me of trying to hijack your thread. Read on. I am not doing that.

1. Churches -- what I know of them, that is -- have repudiated a lot of the old Christian liturgy and art. The last service I attended was filled with something that doesn't begin to compare to the music of old. And no hymnals!

Now, maybe part of the problem is that younger people today don't like the old liturgy and art in the first place; a few people younger than me have told me that.

But it could also be that because the church abandoned finer things that young people lost interest in both the heritage and the faith; a few people younger than me have told me that, too.

In my own case, I quit going to a particular church -- then another, then another -- because I can't relate to what these churches call music. My tastes in music are pretty inclusive, but not THAT inclusive.

So now maybe you see why I don't think that I was hijacking your thread.

But the art-music thing is just one part of what I see as the turning away from the church.

(continued below)

Incognito said...

2. The church as a whole is overcome with greed and hypocrisy. The church used to serve; I don't see much of that anymore. Any service is superficial, and young people see right through that kind of bilge. The example of Stephanie, student at Northwestern.

3. Maybe teaching that Jesus is the only way in a turn off. On the other hand, that only way stuff has been the heart of Christianity when Christianity was at its most popular. Maybe, anyway.

It is interesting that so many brought up in the Christian faith turn to Islam, which has its own set of strictures.

4. And maybe "taking God out of the classroom" has also had a strong effect. After all, kids are in school for several hours every day that school is in session, but in church only a few hours every week. If then.

Thomas Paine's Ghost said...

The Age of Reason, a book of which Paine said that it was a ‘march through Christianity with an axe’. ‘All national institutions of churches’, wrote Paine, ‘whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.’

Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or so savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine.

Incognito said...

"They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions"

And that's the crux of it, I think.

No atheists in foxholes or some such saying.

Today's "difficult questions" are much different from the difficulties of times past.

Think of the Westward Movement, for example. It does make logical sense that those folk were more religious as they crossed the harsh prairie and battled "savages." The risk of death was very great; in the face of death, there is often much sudden or much stronger faith.

Plus, those participating in the Westward Movement had limited reading and limited experience outside of Christianity.

Oh, and the impact of greater scientific knowledge has also taken a control on faith. Particularly on Christianity, which does often seem to insist upon creationism only.

Will we be a better society with waning Christianity? Waning faith? Time will tell. One of the best people I know is a diehard, militant atheist. He puts to shame any people of any faith!!! The man understands what it means to care about other people. Really care about them.

Ducky's here said...

With the Catholic church scandal and the evangelical fixation on homosexuality to the exclusion of serious spiritual matters it would be surprising if people weren't turning away from religion.

Watching the churches in action throughout America you wonder if it isn't a moral imperative to rebel against such a god.

FreeThinke said...


"Religion: (2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; (4) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith."

~ Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (online, 2006)

“I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.”

Albert Camus

God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that.

Joseph Campbell

“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.”

Blaise Pascal

"Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; Unbelief, in denying them."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
"One's religion is whatever he is most interested in."

~J.M. Barrie, The Twelve-Pound Look (1910)

“...for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence."

~ R.N. Bellah

"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness."

~ Alfred North Whitehead.

Shaw Kenawe said...

. "And maybe "taking God out of the classroom" has also had a strong effect. After all, kids are in school for several hours every day that school is in session, but in church only a few hours every week. If then."

God should never have been in the classroom to begin with. Because we were still a young nation and mostly Christian, no one saw the trespassing on the first amendment as anything wrong. But it was. I remember seeing my Jewish classmates go silent as we Christians recited the "Our Father," and we Catholics went silent as our Protestant classmates recited the Protestant ending "...for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory..." That wasn't part of the Catholic Christian's "Our Father," and that prayer was not a part of the Jewish religion.

Taking god and gods out of the public schools was a good thing, afterall, in doing so, we conformed to our Constitution by not favoring one religion over another.

Imagine how the classrooms would be now with far more diversity in our population than in the old days: Muslims, Hindus, Ba'Hais, Sikhs, and then children who are raised with NO religion. It was always wrong to force children to recite the prayers and psalms of only one religion.

Children may be in school several hours a day, but they spend more time in their homes (and on weekends in their places of worship) with their parents and THAT is where their religious training, if any, should be given.

I, OTOH, agree with Richard Dawkins, in believing that making children little religionists before the age of reason is a form of child abuse, since the little ones have no choice in the matter. They are forced to listen to indoctrination in religious dogma before they know how to sort anything out.

Shaw Kenawe said...

I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous - if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.
Robert Green Ingersoll

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
― Christopher Hitchens

“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
― Christopher Hitchens

"Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."
-- Thomas Jefferson,

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” --Richard Dawkins

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
― Richard Dawkins

FreeThinke said...

And of course, you can't see, Ms Shaw, that in adopting such a hidebound attitude, you, yourself, are in actual fact practicing a kind of "fundamentalism," can you?

A true intellectual remains open and curious -- vulnerable, if you will, to all sorts of ideas that may run contrary to his or her basic instincts.

It seems to me that yo have merely substituted one set of virulent absolutist tenets for another.

This is not meant as any personal criticism or "disapproval" of you, as I hope you realize?

I simply cannot be so absolutely certain of anything, therefore, I try to embrace all sorts of conflicting ideas with CURIOSITY and don't seek reasons to CONDEMN anything that appears honest and heartfelt.

However, in the few quotations I shared above, Albert Camus comes closest to expressing my own belief, which is, if you stop to think about it, highly pragmatic.

I have met plenty of people who vehemently reject classical music. Most of them told me variations on the theme, "I already heard it, I didn't like it."

I think such an attitude is pitiful when applied to anything many regard as vitally important to themselves.

By the way, if Atheism were not a religion, according the criteria described in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary quoted above, I can't imagine what else it might be. Mr. Dawkins, Mr Harris, and others of their sort are most assuredly PREACHING to the multitudes, and have an obviously fervent desire to make "converts" to their Belief System.

It's no different than any OTHER kind of evangelism.

I am old enough to remember very clearly when Bible reading was permitted in public schools. It never amounted to more than a brief reading -- usually from Psalms or Proverbs, which are part of the Hebrew as well as the Christian faith. About one-third of my elementary school class was Jewish. There was no discomfort and no resentment on their part -- or that of their parents in those days, believe me.

Oddly, most of the atheists I've known strongly identify themselves as Jewish -- a paradox for which I've never found a satisfactory explanation.

Whatever happened to the lovely old cocept of LIVE AND LET LIVE?

I miss it very much. Today, EVERYBODY seems to have an axe to grind of one kind or another. In my never humble opinion that has made us a sick society. Things are NOT better today than they were sixty years ago, no matter what others may want to believe.

Shaw Kenawe said...

"And of course, you can't see, Ms Shaw, that in adopting such a hidebound attitude, you, yourself, are in actual fact practicing a kind of "fundamentalism," can you?"

No. I don't see that. What exactly is my "hidebound attitude?"

You do understand that I was actually raised a Catholic, so I know, intimately, what religion is about.

What exactly in my comments shows fundamentalism? I've simply stated that forcing Christian prayers on public school children was wrong--and our Constitution backs that up, and indoctrinating children in a religion before the age of reason is a sort of child abuse, since they are forced to adopt a religion their parents choose, not them. That's hardly "fundamentalism," it's an observation.

"A true intellectual remains open and curious -- vulnerable, if you will, to all sorts of ideas that may run contrary to his or her basic instincts."

I've been exposed to religious ideas my entire life and have found them wanting. I have Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, Evangelicals, Jews, and Uni-Unis in my family, all of whom have instructed me in their beliefs. I have listened to them all. You did not know this, of course, so you erroneously stated I'm not open to ideas.

Shaw Kenawe said...

"It seems to me that yo have merely substituted one set of virulent absolutist tenets for another."

It seems that way because you may not have an understanding of what a nonbeliever thinks. I have NO tenets whatsoever. I simply live my life as best I can with no expectation of a hereafter. Period.

"Mr. Dawkins, Mr Harris, and others of their sort are most assuredly PREACHING to the multitudes, and have an obviously fervent desire to make "converts" to their Belief System."

I don't see it that way at all. I see them as giving people an alternative choice, a way of living their lives without shame, fear, and feeling superior to those who have different beliefs. What some folks don't like is that these few people are more open and aggressive about pushing back against what most people believe is the ONLY way to approach life and death. I think it may be people who have spent their lives believing everything their religion tells them to believe who are closed minded and fearful of what nonbelievers like Hitchens, Dawkins, and others have to say.

Shaw Kenawe said...

"Whatever happened to the lovely old cocept of LIVE AND LET LIVE?"

I'm afraid that when a publicly taxed school makes school children recite prayers and psalms of one religion over any other, it is NOT "live and let live." It's more a matter of promoting the majority religion in a secular country. You feel resentful, perhaps, because you were never challenged on this, it was something you accepted, because you were part of that majority. It was wrong then. It was never "live and let live," I think, it was more, "my religion over all else."

"Things are NOT better today than they were sixty years ago, no matter what others may want to believe."

You're look at it from a narrow point of view, I think, it disturbs your idea of a false nostalgia.

In the old days, in the very evangelical south, African-Americans were tortured, hanged or burned for any reason the white people deemed they deserved. Women were not allowed to own property, have credit cards, or even encouraged to seek careers. I remember there was only one woman in the Senate, and she got there only because her husband died. Birth control was prohibited in states-via the influence certain Christian churches had over people's private lives, even those who did not belong to that particular religion. No woman dreamed there could be a female presidency. Gay people had to hide who they were or risk losing their jobs, or worse, being tortured or even killed.

There was a sort of innocence in the old days, but there was also hellish discrimination that ruined peoples lives, even killed them.

I think we're better off now. Nothing is perfect, but ask, say, an African-American if he or she thinks it was the good ole days in the Jim Crow south.

Let's not forget the unspeakable harm that was done to an entire group of American citizens.

Les Carpenter said...

Religous partisanship is quite similar to political partisanship methinks. Both tend to cloud reality.

But yes, in public schools funded by taxpayer dollars NO religion has a place.

Religion and matters faith are best left to the Church of ones choice.

Anonymous said...

shaw...for your friends' child is stopped from praying in school...if anyone wants to pray, all he or she has to bow head and him/herslef...what the Xtians in this country to pray out LOUD!and show off their these people believe...their god cares if prayers are said aloud or quiety to him? the Xtians want to force other people's children to say...Xtian prayers...and that's wrong...

lonesomerobot said...

It should be noted that Jesus was not the "founder" of Christianity. Not once in the Bible does Jesus mention forming a new religion based on his teachings (and with himself as the focus of worship - to do so would have been egomaniacal). He was trying to reform Judaism.

Jesus didn't want Christians, he wanted better Jews. And most Christians don't understand this simple point.

Anonymous said...

Қeep on writing, great job!