Young Atheists – Their Journey to Unbelief

Greg Strand – June 13, 2013 4 Comments

What is it that young atheists believe? What do they look like?

Larry Taunton, founder and executive director of Fixed Point Foundation, asked a number of college students, those identified as atheists, this question: “what led you to become an atheist?” Here is how Taunton explains how they went about this:

To gain some insight, we launched a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). These college groups are the atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade: they meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize. They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.

Through the Fixed Point Foundation, they contacted people who are a part of these groups. As Taunton notes, “the rules were simple: Tell us your journey to unbelief.”

Through listening to these “testimonies,” they developed “a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists.”

  • They had attended church
  • The mission and message of their churches was vague
  • They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
  • They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
  • Ages 14-17 were decisive
  • The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
  • The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

Their conclusion is reflected in the title of the article: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.” They did not engage in an apologetic to respond to the statements made by the students. They simply listened to their responses to the one main question. That is one important way to engage in the lives of these young people. Here was their take-away:

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.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us.

That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable.

Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I am very concerned about the number of young people that were raised in Christian homes and attended Evangelical churches that leave church and the Christian faith once they leave home for college/university. Being raised in a Christian home and/or attending an Evangelical church does not make or guarantee that one becomes a Christian. But God does use means, and two ordained means He has given are parents in the home and the church. This is one of the reasons I teach the Sr. High Sunday School class at the local EFC church. But it is also important to remember that even if both of those means are faithful in the proclamation and living of the gospel, there is no absolute guarantee as the young person can be represented by various soils that depict various responses to the Word (cf. Mk. 4:1-20).

The questions I ask: are we doing all we can or should in the catechizing of young people in our churches? Are we equipping parents with the tools and resources and relationship support in the vital task they have of passing on the faith? At the end of the day we will not be accountable for whether someone is or becomes a Christian or not. But we will be accountable before God with how faithful we were in living and passing on the faith, and how repentantly we were in being honest about how far short we fell, that we knew truth much better than we lived it.

What about you? What are the lessons you learn from this?

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

4 responses to Young Atheists – Their Journey to Unbelief

  1. Having been in youth ministry for 20ish years I have always felt that youth ministry was a sort of “last-line-of-defense” with the majority of people who accept Christ doing so before the age of 18. As the article points out, ages 14-17 are decisive as students go through a great amount of identity formation. While the concrete may not be fully set by the time students graduate, much of who they will be is well determined.

    Greg, you say, “We knew truth much better than we lived it.” An axiom that was passed on to me that I share with many others is, “We’re all educated well beyond our obedience.” In my opinion a reason many young adults leave the church as they enter college is because now, as young adults, they fail to see older adults living out a vibrant, appealing faith. They’re looking for the counter-cultural kind of lives that the Bible speaks of, instead everything has become so much vanilla.

    When everyday Christianity includes caring for the prisoners, orphans, and widows; when it becomes faithful witness; when it becomes meeting one another’s needs; when it becomes each one using their spiritual gifts as the Spirit directs, perhaps then a catalytic movement will be the norm rather than the exception and the church will be compelling once again.

    • Neal, thank you for your helpful input into this important discussion. We pray and labor to the end that you write in your conclusion!

  2. Thanks Greg. Another good resource set before us. This part of your ministry – as well as the other parts – is valuable.

    • You are welcome, Kerry. It is a joy and a privilege to provide these kinds of resources for those of you on the front-lines of ministry in the local church.

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