Really Listening to Atheists: Taking Nonbelief Seriously


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.

Written By: Jeffrey Tayler
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  1. The “journey to belief” in reality is indeed what Taunton is really investigating.

  2. Amidst some of the patronising and slanted subjective analyses of the study’s subjects one phrase caught my eye.
    “..the Internet was a factor in their journey to nonbelief”. This notion was a red flag to me. The mystification of the abstract “internet”.
    Try the sentence again replacing ‘internet’ with ‘library’ and this guy falls on hard times intellectually. (or try “the telephone was a factor in their journey to nonbelief”)
    Laughing stock.

  3. Really Listening to Atheists: Taking Nonbelief Seriously

    Or ..translated … without the theist blinkers – young atheists no longer taking religious dogmas and their superstitions seriously!

    (Why can’t they just accept his [immature] faith-claims as obviously correct?)

  4. As someone who used to belong to a “charismatic” Christian church, I personally did not reject the church because of how they preached about god, but because of the people. I left my first husband and got a divorce and in the process lost all of my church friends. I started to become disenchanted with the church earlier than this due to the dysfunctional patterns I noticed around me. Judgmentalism and hypocricy were everywhere, and in my case, you don’t realize how bad it is until your the victim of their judgement. That opened my eyes quite a bit. My atheism was a gradual process from then on.

  5. So Larry Taunton seeks for reasons for people leaving Christianity !

    From my POV there is no great intellectual struggle to be had ; **Christianity is incompatible with reality. **

    There, problem solved, – and no existential angst involved ! Now, Mr Taunton, go and tend your garden and do something useful. Even plants have only one life, and they are definitely essential and beneficial to human life, and most other life forms !

  6. He can’t bear coming to the conclusion that there is nothing the church can do but watch its numbers dwindle, so he rationalizes and distorts his findings and suggests strategies that are doomed to failure.

  7. Only by reading this fine article by Jeffrey Tayler, any sincere and honest person would become a sceptic or even an atheist, or would at least start questioning what he or she actually believes. It has been said that, on average, the development of the human intellect stops at age fifteen and that most people have a very limited and infantile view of life. This is exactly what’s wrong with people of the faith (and why organised religion is still flourishing). For them, it is so important to continue this comfortable but blind walk through life, that they will lie to (themselves) and cheat and insult rational fellow human beings at every opportunity. Dishonesty and intellectual laziness is the dominant character of so-called religious people. Pray for the internet; things will change.

  8. When someone is so convinced of their “rightness” nothing you say will sway them otherwise. They see everything through their lenses not realizing that they are wearing tinted glasses. The more invested they are in their perception the more difficult it is to have them open up to a new way of thinking.

    By the way, towards the bottom of the page of the link is a video “Life Advice from the First American to Summit Everest.” You might want to check this out. Life stories like these do more to uplift me than any church sermon I have ever heard. He has truly found his “cathedral.”

  9. I wonder what this guy would have said if anyone told him the internet made them convert to christianity. Accusing atheists of proselytizing is ridiculous since that’s alll christians do.

  10. Looks to me like a Karl Rove “math you do as a republican to make yourself feel better” moment.

  11. Luckily for me I grew up in a religion free environment, It seemed obvious to me even as a young child that gods were invented by us to explain the unexplainable .I never even heard the term atheist until I was in my 30’s ,we didn’t need to label ourselves ,when asked why they don’t believe in gods most people in my society would just say the idea of believing in gods in this day and age is just silly,theological or philosophical arguments don’t even come into it,its just plain obvious that we don’t need gods in this day and age.

  12. “young Americans find the religion itself to be inherently implausible or morally objectionable”

    In other words, they have noticed that the emperor has no clothes.

    This is not rocket science, really.

  13. So I went and read the Taunton article, too. There are a couple of observations – criticisms, more accurately – of his article that I would’ve expected to show up in a response piece like this, but are not here.

    Most obviously, Taunton’s findings are going to be invalidated because of his sampling. This was a self-selecting study, and what Taunton received were only those American college-aged atheists/secularists who opted to discuss – and I quote – “how and why they left religion” with an explicitly Christian organization. Not only is his data wildly skewered toward former Christians considering the demographics of his population, but he’s plainly missing out on the insight to be had from those students who never were explicitly religiously affiliated, but knew religion and went along without it anyway.

    In fact, the heavy ex-Christian bias in his sample leads Taunton to make a ghastly error in his conclusions, namely: “Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.” Well of course the majority of ex-religious individuals in US universities would have come from Christianity as opposed to Islam or Buddhism, and there’s a darned high chance that more ex-Christians than never-was-Christians would be willing to have this discussion with a Christian.

    But the error is that he’s concluding that modern atheism in the younger generations is merely reactionary to Christianity – and not in the sense that atheism is only a “movement” now out of response to pervasive injunctions of liberty and equality by politicized Christian groups in America – but rather in the guise of rebellion, “reactionary” in the derogatory and politically-charged sense of the word. He is using his poor data to dress up the topic in the thematic clothing of Biblically-based apologetics: These kids are angry with God, and so reject him; or these kids are the fools of intellectual hubris to deny creation. This bogus interpretation also whets the appetite for the Christian persecution narrative we can so often trace through the issues.

    An article calling Mr. Taunton’s own into question loses quite a bit of punch by neglecting to lay out these criticisms.

  14. So much of these sorts of studies are little more than “garbage in, garbage out”. They take bad data, then come to conclusions based on this bad data.

  15. The sense I’m getting from the snippet is that Taunton is not looking for ways to make the the God posit more believable. Instead he’s looking for ways to avoid the ancillary issues (social, logistic, etc) that make people question their involvement. If the only thing wrong with a church is that they believe in something silly, that’s probably not enough reason for someone to question their involvement. But if there are scheduling conflicts, personality conflicts, boredom, embarrassing activities outside the church building (protests)… it’s likely to cause someone to question their involvement and ultimately their belief.

    Taunton seems to be heading up a retention program for Jesus salesmen to apply toward teen clients.

  16. It seems to me that young people everywhere are finding so much that is inherently wrong with Christianity that with their modern education they see the flaws everywhere and cannot bring themselves to take it seriously, even if they perchance manage to retain a belief in a god.

    There is just one question to ask an intelligent person. “Do you believe that all humans are born as sinners?” No one can seriously believe that to be true! Take away the Christian statement that all humans are born in sin/as sinners, and Christianity dies. No one needs Jesus, salvation, sacrifice, if humans aren’t born sinners.

  17. Religion is an awfully big business, so they won’t go down quietly. Some people just don’t want to know the truth. I think our younger generations will come to their senses. I, personally, was about 14 when I started questioning the validity of god. The kids today have a much firmer grasp on reality than us old cats. Personally speaking, I fought with the disbelief for years. I read a lot about religion trying to find something that fit. Buddhist, Confucianism, Taoism, Native American, Wicca, ect,ect. Nothing seemed ‘right’. Finally, I came to the conclusion that it was all bunk in a different wrapper. Hey, if religion of any sort makes you feel better, then more power to you.

  18. I have to admit something here. I was an evangelical christian of 10 years that had preached and witnessed the gospel in many different places. 2 years ago I a had a chance encounter with an old christian friend of mine who had been a pastor of various churches but was now semi retired, only a travelling preacher. Recently he called me because he wanted some work done in his garden.

    One thing I discovered (though not really surprised) was that he only seemed to be really content when we talked about jesus and the bible. I found myself compromising my disbelief in order to keep him happy. I would talk about all the christian books I had read as if I still enjoyed them. I talked about the hundreds of times that I had gone door-to-door, street evangelism and my time as a missionary in central Asia. I talked how I was inspired to radical christian living. He had such a stoic personality that I found I didn’t want to upset him. I felt the message I was putting across was that I was hurt by hypocrisy in the church, I was a back slider when the real reason was that I just didn’t believe any more. I’ve always said that the hypocrisy is such a small matter compared to whether it is true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    He used this opportunity to try to preach to me again, to make me thing that I was going to maybe spend an eternity in hell.
    The sunday before, I had listened to him preach at a local church. I did this so that I could try to not let myself have confirmation bias. I wanted to weigh what he said but because I had many years to think sceptically, I found myself coming out of church with more criticisms than ever. Obviously, the group dynamics of being in church, amongst believers is very strong and it is not conducive to question too much the validity of jesus.
    Being an ex-believer, being amongst stoic, passionate believers can be difficult. I find that I don’t want to argue with them but try to keep the peace. Maybe some people would say I’m compromising but sometimes I just don’t want the hassle of a long debate so I find myself agreeing with them. We must remember that pastors and such people are shrewd, head strong people who are very good at influencing. They do it every day, their brains have become adept at influence and conversion. I hope this is of help.

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