Two atheists recently released the results of a new survey, in which they asked fellow atheists why they “let go” of their respective faiths. The survey’s results are especially helpful when it comes to understanding why young people embrace atheism and how parents and other educators can prevent this from happening.
Before I highlight the survey’s most interesting results, however, I must mention one caveat. The authors solicited their responses through a link that was retweeted by other prominent atheists. This makes the results of the survey susceptible to “volunteer bias”; they may not reflect the views of atheists in general but only a specific subset of atheists. In this case, the survey would over-represent atheists who are active on Twitter and enjoy answering surveys about atheism.
According to Pew Research, twenty-two percent of American adults use Twitter and, of that group, ten percent post eighty percent of the all “tweets.” That means the vast majority of Twitter’s content reflects the views of about two percent of the U.S. population. The atheists’ survey may still, of course, reveal the attitudes of someone you know from “real life” who enjoys spending his time on Twitter debating religion. If that’s the case, then consider these results from the survey.
First, most people begin to accept atheism as children being raised in Christian homes. While most of the survey’s 800 respondents were between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, eighty-eight percent were raised as Christians and three percent were raised without any religious beliefs at all. According to the authors, “In the comments section for this question the vast majority specified that they were Catholic, over three times more than the second runner up: Mormonism.”
But when do these people stop believing in God?
Countless parents have asked for my help in reaching out to their children, who seemed to have robust spiritual lives at home before they went off to college and lost their faith. This view finds some validation in the survey, since nearly a quarter of the respondents report first beginning to doubt their faith in the years following high school. Forty-four percent of the respondents, however, began to doubt God’s existence before they became adults.
Even worse, only seventeen percent spoke to family and friends about their doubts, and nearly a quarter didn’t talk to anyone. Many were probably afraid of how their loved ones would react to such news, and those fears aren’t unreasonable. Of the few respondents who did share their doubts with family members, sixty percent said those relatives were unwilling to discuss the issue or were even “actively hostile” in response (and for many respondents, this occurred when they were children).
So where did these young people go, if not to friends or family?
The majority cited atheistic books published in the early 2000’s like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which makes sense given that many of the respondents were in their thirties and forties and were in high school or college when these books came out. But the second highest number of respondents to the question, at forty-five percent, identified YouTube as their source for answers. This number will almost certainly be higher for today’s young people, who consume audio and video media far more than they do digital or printed books.
Forty-six percent of the respondents said their doubts began with “a classic philosophical problem” about the existence of God like the problem of evil, for which they went out to find answers. I bet that when they met articulate, winsome atheists (even if only through a series of YouTube videos) this shattered stereotypes they held about atheists. For example, one respondent said, “I was not allowed to have friendships or relationships outside my own church or belief system.” Another bluntly said: “I believed Christianity was right and all [non-Christians] were stupid cavemen.”
Those of us charged with educating children—especially parents—need to keep the lines of communication open, even on controversial subjects. Leila Miller, a mother of eight children and co-author with me on the book Made This Way: How to Prepare Kids to Face Today’s Tough Moral Issues, underscores the importance of not “freaking out” when your children come to you with difficult questions. She says parents need to be a firm foundation for children so, no matter how a parent (or other teacher) feels on the inside, he or she must project calmness and confidence on the outside. In fact, Leila’s advice on how to handle a child saying they identify as gay or lesbian applies just as well to a child who comes to you and identifies as an atheist:
If your child says this to you, remember our golden rule: Don’t freak out. As long as he (or she) isn’t trying to be a “crusader for a cause,” the reason he confided in you is because he’s struggling with fear and anxiety, and he knows you are a source of comfort and protection. In order to be that “firm foundation,” give him a huge hug and calmly ask questions like, “How did you come to believe this?” or “What do you think God wants you to do in this situation?” This shows your child that you are committed to understanding him as a person. It also gives you time to assess the situation and respond graciously. Finally, don’t expect to “solve” this issue in one conversation. Take a breath and say a prayer, asking God or the Blessed Mother for the right words in this conversation and many future ones.
Finally, we must let young people know it’s okay to ask questions and to be puzzled over parts of our Faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says
Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” (157).
To keep a difficulty from metastasizing into a serious doubt, we should introduce children to the objections they will hear later in life. Even young children should be taught how to answer questions like “If God made everything, what made God?”
If a child’s belief in God rests on the foundation that they just “need to have faith” and atheists are bad people, then that foundation will crumble when they meet respectful atheists who ask them insightful questions. Instead, be the first one to introduce them to critics of the faith and affirm the critic’s good qualities (e.g. “Wow, he makes great videos. The animation is excellent.”) before offering answers to their arguments or showing similar replies from apologists and other defenders of the Faith.