How I became an atheist. And why it didn’t work out for me.

 

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I have a friend who says he was raised an apathetic. “Apathetic” makes a pretty good description of me growing up as well. I was not an agnostic – someone convinced that God is unknowable. I had no idea if God was knowable. Maybe there was a God. Maybe not. I had never given it much thought. If there was some sort of a supreme being who spun up the world, well, we did a pretty good job of staying out of one another’s way. So I didn’t believe in God. But I didn’t disbelieve in him either.  Like I say, I was an apathetic. I just didn’t care.

At some point, though, one runs into life, or life runs into us, and we start to care.

Life ran into me one summer day after sixth grade. I came home and found my parents sitting on the edge of the bed in their darkened bedroom. My mom’s hands were over her face. I could hear muffled sobs. My dad motioned me in. “Your mom and I, we have decided to separate.” And just like that, with an obviously one-sided “we,” my Leave it to Beaver life childhood was gone. My world had been nice, quiet, predictable, moneyed. Divorce tends to unravel each of those. I was no exception. It turned out that most of my friends were going through their own pain: another divorce, a mom with cancer, a dad fired, an incurable disease. A lot was pressing in on our little group that summer as we sat on the cusp of the developmental mess that is adolescence. So, as sixth grade was about to begin, I looked at the world for the first time and wondered about the pain I felt and the pain I saw.

Broken people, broken families, broken neighborhoods, broken schools, broken cities, broken nations. The list of “broken” is disconcertingly long. How is it, if we are the product of a good and wise creator could the world be in such moral and physical squalor? I became an atheist for the reason many do: Pain. And just like that I was converted. I became a vocal and evangelistic atheist.

I was proud of my newfound disbelief. Make no mistake, it was much harder to be an atheist in the late 70’s. There were no Youtube videos. No Facebook memes. One had to find other atheists to talk to and go to the library and read Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Jean Paul Sarte. And atheism wasn’t cool the way it is now. To be an atheist was not avant garde. It was oddball. Things went well, though, in my newfound unbelief.

I relished helping my Christian friends, who were ill-equipped to defend their faith, out of their unreflected upon delusions. I might have left them alone if my Christian friends had seemed happier than the rest of us. Or if there were any evidence, even the slightest, that their faith gave them the strength to live a more moral or kinder life. Unfortunately, my Christian friends tended to be the biggest partiers, the most promiscuous, and oddly, the most judgmental people in my school. Naturally I asked questions about this. “How is it that I, someone who thinks that I answer to no one but myself, live a more moral life than you, someone who will supposedly answer to an all powerful deity who smites people that do the things you do?” Their answer was remarkably unsatisfying: “You just party on Friday and Saturday and ask God to forgive you on Sunday. Christianity is pretty awesome!”

“Seriously?” I would answer. “Marx was right, faith in God is an opiate to justify whatever immoral thing you are in the mood for. More than that, it allows you to feel superior in some God-given right to stand in judgment of others. If I ever were to pick a religion, I can tell you it wouldn’t be something as lame as Christianity.”

Then there was the Bible. Picking that apart with people who don’t know it very well isn’t difficult. And don’t get me started on the weird and distasteful things the church has done (and continues to) through the centuries.

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All in all, atheism worked pretty well for me. At least until the end of sophomore year in biology class…

Sophomore biology is often where churched kids begin to doubt their Christian faith. For the first time they are confronted with Darwin’s theory that time and chance account for life in all of its diversity. As the scientist said at the launching of the Hubbell telescope, “We no longer need ancient myths and foolish speculations to explain our origins.” I didn’t have the slightest inkling biology class would work in reverse for me. But it did. It was the sheep eye dissection unit the last week of school that ruined me as an atheist. The football coach / biology teacher, Mr. Swerdfeger, would sit on the front of his desk with a clear plastic bag filled with sheep eyes in one hand, reach in and grab one, and toss it the queasy students at each lab table.

Biology class had two-person tables and metal stools whose screech on the linoleum made the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard endurable. Biology lab pairs pimply, barely pubescent boys with entrancing young ladies who smell of gardens in Spring. These creatures would turn their attention toward us and inform the boys, “I will NOT touch it.” To have been spoken to by one of these goddesses was a great honor. We would have grabbed the eyeballs anyway to impress, but to have been spoken to guaranteed our obedience.

Mr. Swerdfeger pulled an eyeball from the plastic bag, and threw it toward our table in the back right corner of the class. I snatched the eyeball from the air to place in the wax tray, blackened by thirty years of use and reeking of formaldehyde. As I stared at the mass of tissue in my hand an awareness crept across my mind…There are eight or nine tissue types present in an eyeball: pupil, iris, lens, cornea, retina, optic nerve, macula, fovea, vitreous fluid. Evolution, the unit immediately preceding the dissection unit, explained that biological complexity is the result of beneficial mutation. It is the mechanism of beneficial mutation that allows life to overcome the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in the closed system of the universe, life should be running down. It is beneficial mutation that Jeff Goldblum was talking about in Jurassic Park when he famously said, “Life will always find a way.”

As I held that sheep’s eye it occurred to me that those eight or nine tissue types all have to be present and working together for the eye to be useful. Beneficial mutations are only perpetuated if there is a benefit. There is no benefit to any of those tissues without all of them present together – which should be impossible…unless someone was messing with the recipe. And it dawned on me, something, or someone had interfered in the system.

I dropped the eyeball and stood up. My worldview crumbling as my body rose from my lab stool.

Mr. Swerdfeger was annoyed at the interruption. “What’s the matter, Marino? Are you grossed out?”

“No sir.” I said, “I’m freaked out. I have to leave.” I grabbed my backpack and walked out. worldviews don’t die easily. After wandering aimlessly through the breezeways, I found myself heading home.

I did not realize it, but I had been confronted by a classic God defense: design demands a designer. By the time I walked through our back gate I knew that there must be a God and that I needed to find a religion that explained it or him or her or whatever or whoever. I was not a Christian. I was not even contemplating considering becoming a Christian. I just knew that if someone had asked me that day, “How is atheism working out for you?” My answer would have been, “It isn’t.”

I simply had a hard time believing that what I can see is all there is.

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*By the way, Mr. Swerdfeger was a fantastic teacher. Once when I was in the midst of ditching two weeks of school he rode his bicycle a mile to my house with a pile of homework in his backpack and told me that if I didn’t do the hours of work to pass his class he wouldn’t just fail me, he would find me and hurt me. Mr. Swerdfeger was a large man. He finally retired when the school told him that his biology class was so difficult they were going to make it the AP course. He retired rather than dumb down his curriculum. If you ask me, every high school in the country could use a few Mr. Swerdfegers.

Mean people suck. But that’s not why millennials dropped the church.

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An open letter to Lead Pastors.

Do you hear that sucking sound? It’s the sound of young adults walking out the back door so fast that you can feel the breeze from the pulpit way down at the front of the sanctuary.

Young adults have always been a bit shaky in their church attendance during college. But then a new trend emerged: They stopped coming back. No one worried much about it at first. But as the return rate continued to plummet, the Millennial abandonment of the church became the stuff that keeps pastors up late at night. Millennials are, after all, the ones whose attractive fresh young faces make people say, “Oh, this place is doing really well!”

A few churches are still doing really well with young adults, of course. But multiple studies, such as this one from Pew Research, show that young adults now attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents at their age. One in three young adults now characterize themselves as  “nones” – religiously unaffiliated.  If you haven’t noticed your church greying yet: fear not, you will.

What is going on with those Millennials? 

According to the narrative, the church is full of narrow, nasty, fearful, bigots. If you are smart, hip, or have a pulse, you should drop the church like a hot rock for something more helpful to your life…like spending Sunday morning playing games on your iPhone at Starbucks, or puttering in your garden, or just pulling your covers up over your head and grabbing another hour of shuteye.

David Kinnaman, in his interesting book, “You Lost Me,” provides a stark articulation of this meme. His team conducted research with more than 1200 young adults. According to the compelling stories he recounts, young adults dropped out because they found the Church to be:

Shallow, with easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans.

-Overprotective and repressive: Sexual mores feel stifling to young adults.

Exclusive. Christian claims to exclusivity are a hard sell in a pluralistic culture.

Doubtless. The church is fearful and dare not risk allowing them to express doubts.

Antiscience.

In other words, the church is mean. 

If you talk to folks between the age of 20 and 35 about the church you have probably heard all of the above statements. However, these don’t necessarily paint a complete picture as to why Millennials left. They tell us why they SAY they left – how they have interpreted their experience. So, although Kinnaman’s book has become the “Bible” on Millennials, there is…

Another piece of the puzzle…

It appeared in last April’s edition of Atlantic Monthly: “Listening to Young Atheists.” Alex Taunton interviewed college students who self-identify as atheists and asked them to “tell the story of your journey into atheism.” What he heard was not what he expected – which always makes my ears perk up. To his surprise, young atheists did not wax eloquent about their intellectual difficulties with Christianity – the anti-science, anti-gay, theologically rigid, “easy believe-ism” stuff we all hear about (apologies to my more progressive friends). Neither did they talk about a desire to engage in sinful, frowned upon by the church, lifestyles (apologies to my more conservative friends). Here is what young atheists told Taunton…

1. They had attended church The number one source of college atheists is, wait for it, Christianity…as it was modeled to them.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague – rather than too much catechesis, they received too little. They were not given an intellectual frame for their faith.

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.

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

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive  In the middle of forty years of enormous investment in youth ministry, high school is when atheist millennials embraced their unbelief!

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional oneusually involving the loss of a trusted youth leader

Did you notice the seedbed that hatched young atheists? It was specifically a reaction AGAINST their experience of the church. Second, they didn’t become atheists in those evil, conspiratorially faith-stealing secular universities. We lost the Millennials when they were in high school – In our youth groups!

One student 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.”

Our big fail?

“Meanness” is style. And apparently a style fail is the least of our issues. According to atheist millennials, we also have a theology fail, a program fail, and a leader fail. The atheists who grew up in our churches tell us that we didn’t:

1) Model love and authenticity during their critical adolescent years.

2) Disciple them. Not downloading information, but the time-intensive task of walking with them, life on life…teaching them Christian practices in a context of friendship.

3) Catechize: Provide historic answers to the historic questions.

4) Allow them to engage their doubts. Talking through doubts is how one gets through them.

5) Integrate them thoroughly into the life of the church. We gave them a soteriology without an ecclesiology:  A personal Jesus without a Body of Christ. We professionalized student ministry and segregated kids away in youth rooms. We let parents, the older generation, and anyone in the church staff not titled, “youth pastor” off the hook.

Students needed a web of relationships and an affiliation bond with the larger church.

But we shuttled them off into “youth services,” creating in-effect parachurch student ministries on church campuses with trendy grow-out-of-it-when-you-graduate names. And, often, by the time they get back from college, their pastor, the student pastor, is gone as well. In a “youth service” model, Millennials have never been in the sanctuary and don’t know those leading in there either. Add in the fact that the sanctuary reflects a ministry model developed for their parent’s generation and, for many, you have strike three, and the Millennials are walking off the field and hanging up their bats.

6. Give them a mission in the world. The doctrine of creation tells us that we were made on purpose for a high and holy purpose. When they were in high school did we give them something epic to do? Something unreachably heroic that they could only see and do with eyes of faith?

Will we listen to them?

Young adult atheists are telling us that we failed to give them a robust faith in the triune God…a faith they were asking us for. And this isn’t just a problem facing “liberal” or “conservative” churches.  While the Left gave them Social Justice Jesus, the Right gave them a truncated, topical Jesus who promises, “Your Best Life Now.” A Fuller seminary friend told me that in a recent survey of graduating youth group seniors the most common thing students, across denominations, wished they had been given more of in youth group wasn’t games, skits, or worship. It was “Bible Study.”

Lead pastors, you have served your mission field of busy 35-55 year olds nervous about cultural change by giving them practical content from fewer, trusted voices on video-venues. What might missionally engaging students in there changing context look like? After all, like you once said to your senior pastor when you were working with youth, “We cannot expect today’s youth ministry to use the models we designed for a previous generation.”

When you and I started in ministry, students came to the church hungry to be entertained. Today they come expecting a sense of the transcendent. Study after study tells us that Millennials long for spiritual practices, meaningful service in the church, and a mission to the world. They seek peer groups to support their faith. They desire older Christian mentors and multi-generational relationships. They come for Scriptural knowledge and, gasp, theology. They come to learn about the God who made them, redeems them, and has a purpose for the world. They come seeking God’s plan and calling on their lives to do something of true and lasting significance.

Yes, the world changed. But while that change occurred we kept giving them a simple Gospel message with fog machines, light shows, and games in which they stuffed their faces with marshmallows.

So they left. But not when we thought. Not why we thought. And not how we thought.

A way forward?

It should be obvious that what I am pointing toward is not less youth ministry but a redirecting of it toward a more robust form. A form more tied to the greater church. The solution to all of this will involve Lead Pastors – You are the source of vision, direction, permission and covering. Nothing changes without your endorsement. Will you allow your Student Ministry leaders to change your student ministry today so that tomorrow’s students don’t bail too? You were an innovator in reaching your mission field. Will you free your student ministers to innovate to a new generation? We all want Christians for life, not just for high school. Will you unravel programs when the data demonstrates that filling youth services today leads to empty sanctuaries tomorrow? 

The truth is staring us in the face. The stakes are too high to throw away another generation with sincere but ultimately unhelpful youth ministry.