Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for the Church

In an article published in The Atlantic, Larry Alex Taunton summarized his non-profit organization’s (Fixed Point Foundation) expansive research among college students who are members of either Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS) on college campuses across the nation.

Interestingly, almost all of the students interviewed had some background in the American church, and for one reason or another, had made the conscious decision to not only leave the church, but to identify as Secular, Agnostic, or Atheist in response.

As the research came in, says Tauton, “slowly, a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge and it would challenge all that we thought we knew about this demographic.” Here is what they learned (and what we can learn from them):

They Had Attended Church

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.

The Mission and Message of their Churches was Vague

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.

They Felt Their Churches Offered Superficial Answers to Life’s Difficult Questions

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously. Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ages 14-17 Were Decisive

One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

The Decision to Embrace Unbelief Was Often an Emotional One

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn’t answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.” After a moment’s reflection, she appended her remarks: “Either that, or maybe he is [real] and he’s just trying to teach me something.”

The Internet Factored Heavily Into Their Conversion to Atheism

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

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. I again quote Michael: “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.”

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.

The American founding father and skeptic, Benjamin Franklin, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:

“I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked.

“I do not,” Franklin replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”

What Does God Require in the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Commandments?

Q. What does God require in the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments?

A. Sixth, that we do not hurt, or hate, or be hostile to our neighbor, but be patient and peaceful, pursuing even our enemies with love. Seventh, that we abstain from sexual immorality and live purely and faithfully, whether in marriage or in single life, avoiding all impure actions, looks, words, thought, or desires, and whatever might lead to them. Eight, that we do not take without permission that which belongs to someone else, nor withhold any good from someone we might benefit.

In 1631 a Bible was printed in London which became known as the ‘Wicked Bible’. Why? There was a mistake made by the compositors on the Seventh Commandment, the word “not” in the sentence “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was omitted, thus changing the sentence into “Thou shalt commit adultery”.

While we might chuckle at this ‘omission’, sexual sin is serious (like all sin). How can we fight it in a sex-saturated society? Kevin DeYoung gives twelve passages of Scripture that speak to the issue of fighting lust and the temptation to sexual immorality.

(1) Lamentations 3:25-27The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”

This verse is for singles (including women). Granted, this passage isn’t talking about waiting for a spouse. It’s about waiting on the Lord. But that’s the point. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him. He knows what you need. The preceding verses tell us, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” Don’t think, “how can I live without companionship for another year or decade or two decades?” Think about today. The Lord has given you grace for this day, and He will give you grace for the next spouseless day.

(2) Proverbs 5:18-19 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

This may seem a strange text for fighting sexual temptation, but married couples need to know they have delight at their lawful disposal. We need to know that sex is good, intimacy is good, bodies together in marriage are good. God thought up sex, and it is a good thing in the covenant context of marriage.

(3) James 1:14-15But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

This passage helps us understand how temptation works and reminds us that feeling tempted is not the same as sinning. Temptation is an enticement or allurement. That’s not sin. When the desire is nurtured, it conceives and gives birth to sin (sin in the flesh or sin in the mind). Sin then grows and matures and leads to death. It is not lust to be attracted to someone or notice he or she is good-looking. It is not lust to have a strong desire for sex. It is not lust to be excited about sex in marriage. It is not lust to experience sexual temptation. It is sin to take another look and mull over the thought for awhile. King David’s example is a warning to all of us.

(4) Romans 14:21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”

As Christians, we want to help each other avoid sin, not lead one another into it with flirting, coarse joking, and immodest dress.

(5) Matthew 5:27-30You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Jesus takes sin seriously, and he warns us to do the same. We must be serious about fighting sin in our lives. It may even mean taking radical measures: avoiding movies, getting rid of your Internet connection, not being with your boyfriend/girlfriend outside of a public setting – whatever it takes to battle lust. There are too many whole-bodied people going to hell and not enough spiritual amputees going to heaven.

(6) Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

There are often temporal consequences for disobedience. It could be STDs, baggage in marriage, a guilty conscience, distraction at work, a pornography fetish you pass on to your children that effects your family, your marriage, your ministry. There are also eternal consequences if you give yourself over to this sin. “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8).

(7) 1 Corinthians 6:15-20Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Paul is using terminology that would have been very familiar to his audience, in a context where more than 40% of the population were slaves, he is reminding those in Corinth (and us by rite of inspiration from the Holy Spirit) that their bodies were bought with a price (not just their souls), and it now belongs to God.

(8) 2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Our secular culture says, “Be who you are.” Self-help says, “You can become a better you.” Moralism says, “Just do the right thing.” The Bible says, “You are a new person by God’s grace, not live in line with who you are in Christ.” That is Gospel motivation for a God-honoring life.

(9) Hebrews 10:24-25And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

No one fights a war by himself, and no one will get victory over sexual sin on her own. You need to talk to others about your struggles and listen just as well. Be honest. Ask good questions. Don’t just confess and feel better. Repent and change. Don’t just sympathize, admonish. Follow up with your brothers and sisters. Pray and remind each other of the Gospel.

(10) James 4:6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

God always gives more grace. So keep coming to Him with your sin. Approach the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). Confess like David in Psalm 51 that you have sinned against God. Confess that God is the most offended party as a result of your sin.

(11) Matthew 5:8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The Scotsman Thomas Chalmers had a famous sermon titled ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.’ A greater love for Christ is the best antidote to giving into temptation. We need to fight the fleeting pleasure of sexual sin with the far greater, more abiding pleasure of knowing Christ and honoring him. Do we believe that God’s steadfast love is better than life (Ps. 63:3)? Is the presence of God more alluring than wickedness (Ps. 84:10)? Do we believe that the greatest reward for purity is the promise of one day seeing God?

(12) Ephesians 1:18-21 “That you may know… the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

The great power that created the world, and saved us, and raised Jesus from the dead – that same power is now at work in you. We must believe that God is stronger than sexual temptation, sin, and addiction. If you believe that God brought a dead man back to life, you should believe that you can change. Not overnight, usually, but from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

 

 

What Does God Require in the Fourth and Fifth Commandments?

Q. What does God require in the fourth and fifth commandments?

AFourth, that on the Sabbath day we spend time in public and private worship of God, rest from routine employment, serve the Lord and others, and so anticipate the eternal Sabbath. Fifth, that we love and honor our father and our mother, submitting to their godly discipline and direction.

The Fourth Commandment is tricky. There is some disagreement on how, or even if, we are to uphold the Sabbath Command. Either it is neglected, treated like a Saturday interrupted by church, or practiced with a Sabbatarian perspective (where all activity outside of church and rest is discouraged).

So, how should Christians think through the issues raised by the Fourth Commandment?

Let us begin in Genesis (a good place to start). Here, God wove into the fabric of the seven-day process of creation, a Sabbath principle. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” God set aside one day in seven for rest.

For Israel, the Sabbath day was to be a sin of the covenant that God had made with Israel (EX. 31:14). The Fourth Commandment was meant to reinforce to Israel the creation principle that we should rest from our labors and trust in God.

As you move into the New Testament, Jesus certainly kept the Sabbath commands, but he was more concerned to get to the heart of the Sabbath. For Jesus, the Sabbath was a day of freedom (Luke 13:10-17), a day for healing (Luke 14:1-6), and a day for doing good (Mark 3:1-6). In fact, Jesus refers to himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:7-8).

In Romans 14:5, the Apostle Paul says that each person should be fully convinced in his own mind whether one day is better than another (clearly having Sabbath issues in mind). Colossians 2:17 argues that the Sabbath, along with questions of food and drink and festivals, is “a shadow of the things to come,” whose substance is found in Christ. Finally, Hebrews 4:9-10 tells us that the Sabbath rest points to a deeper kind of rest – the rest we have in Christ, not having to labor to earn our salvation, because he accomplished all that was necessary for it on the cross.

Based on these latter texts of the New Testament, I don’t believe there are grounds for claiming that Christians are bound to observe the Jewish Sabbath. I do believe, however, that there are aspects of continuity between the principles of the Sabbath and the Christian recognition of the Lord’s Day (In the Book of Acts, we see the believers gathered on the first day of the week, the ‘Lord’s Day’, explicitly tying the first day of the week with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Acts 20:7)).

So, for us, how are we to think of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day? As Tim Keller puts it “In our lives we’re commanded to have a rhythm of work and rest, and we are forbidden to overwork. We’re also commanded to nurture our bodies and our souls. We’re not supposed to nurture only our bodies. We’re to rejuvenate our souls through fellowship and through prayer and devotion and worship every week.”