June 19, 2013

The Christians are Listening

University of Oregon
University of Oregon (Photo credit: jjorogen)
No, this one is not about the latest "scandal" about how the NSA may be spying on U.S. citizens (I have scandal in quotes because I think this should be a real scandal, and yet most Americans don't seem to give a damn). Instead, this post is about the fact that some Christians are starting to listen to atheists and advise other Christians to do so too. They see the data showing that young people are finding their religion increasingly less appealing. They would like to stop losing followers, and so some have started asking young atheists why they are leaving religion behind.

Larry Taunton's recent article in The Atlantic describes how a Christian foundation interviewed members of the Secular Student Alliance and freethought societies on college campuses to discover why they had turned their backs on Christianity. What they claimed to have learned from their results included the following:
  • Most of those surveyed had a history of attending Christian churches.
  • Most described the message they heard at their churches in vague terms.
  • Most perceived their churches as having provided superficial answers to life's questions.
  • Most indicated that they had some respect for clergy who took Christian dogma seriously (i.e., the true believers).
  • Most rejected Christianity during the high school years.
  • Most reported that the process of abandoning religion was, at least in part, an emotional one.
  • The Internet was often mentioned as an important catalyst for these atheists in the process of leaving their religion. 

I did not see any surprises on that list. This list describes me rather well too, with a couple of exceptions. My objection to the answers provided at church was not so much that they were superficial but that they were flawed and irrelevant. I'd also say that I had less respect then for the true believer types than I did for the more flexible ones. And of course, there was no Internet when I discarded Christianity. I am encouraged to see that this is now something young atheists are finding helpful.

By far, the most relevant and interesting part of this article involved the strained conclusions the Christian author attempted to draw from it.
If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them.
Yes, I suppose that is true. But what makes you think that these atheists want to be reached by your churches? Is it really so difficult to imagine that we might be perfectly content - maybe even better off - without your religion? Your own results suggest that we tried it, rejected it, and moved on. How about just letting us be?

If Christians are listening because they seek to understand atheism or to understand atheists, then by all means, feel welcome to do so. But if they are listening in the hope that they will discover ways of bringing us back to the fold or to prevent others from leaving, I'm not inclined to be helpful. I find that motive terribly condescending and would encourage Christians to consider that this is exactly the sort of thing that has helped to alienate many of us in the first place.

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