Youth Culture Window
“Emily” finally emailed me; it’s sitting in my Inbox as I write. Her message starts off with these words: “I’m agnostic.”
Emily’s not alone in her worldview. Many teenagers identify themselves as unbelieving, whether agnostic or atheist. But here’s my question: Is that number increasing?
For the record, Emily is nothing like the “devil-worshipping, puppy-kicking, morally-bankrupt” image some Christians have of unbelievers. In fact, she’s a polite, intelligent, and hardworking college student who’s been coming to my wife’s campus ministry at The University of South Florida for several weeks, now. In the conversations I’ve had with Emily and her devout boyfriend, she’s presented herself in a genuine and courteous matter, and mutual respect is given by both of us to the other.
The one thing I’ve gleaned from my emails and conversations with Emily is that she’s committed to finding answers to her questions about the higher power she speculates exists. But for now, she doesn’t believe in God, the truth of the Bible, or the necessity of salvation. I’ve told her she isn’t the only teenager in that boat.
But if some recent reports and conjectures are accurate, that boat is becoming a little more crowded.
Unbelief by the Numbers
Young atheist and blogger Hemant Mehta is the chairman for the Secular Student Alliance, and recently reported significant growth in unbelieving young people’s numbers and influence during the past year.
I guess this “growth” of atheists really depends on who you ask. According to the most current (2008) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 25 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 29) claim to be unaffiliated with a religion (see full report here, chart on page 40). 25 percent sounds like a big number. This percentage is definitely larger than before, but within this number, only 3% are atheist, 4% are agnostic, and 18% simply say they are generally “unaffiliated” when it comes to religion or spirituality.
Compare that to a Barna study from 2007 where he measures those who claim to have “no faith.” The no-faith segment was defined as anyone who openly identified themselves as an atheist, an agnostic, or who specifically said they have “no faith.” Barna reveals that the percentage of the no-faith segment grows with each successive generation, with only 9% of Boomers (ages 42-60) claiming no faith, 14% of Busters (ages 23-41), and 19% of Mosaics (ages 18-22).
Combining these two studies, I would agree that a one-year increase from 19% “no-faith” to 25% “unaffiliated” reflects growth.
Some of this seems to be a difference in semantics. Sure, athiests only make up 3% of young adults in the U.S. But, call it what you want, this fact remains: a quarter of our young people don't claim any faith at all!
Researchers are suggesting different explanations for this apparent growth in young people claiming no faith affiliation. The first catalyst appears to be the use of online social networks by unbelieving students to more easily build community with one another – and receive support – before going public with their stance against religion. Others credit the Obama administration for this growth. From his mention of “unbelievers” during his inaugural address, to his desire to involve more young people in community service, the president and his aides are calling on secular organizations to help.
These young unbelievers have some famous company. One website charts the celebrities who are known to be, or believed to be, atheist or agnostic. Among the more famous are the two magicians Penn and Teller, and the late comedian George Carlin who once said religion was “the biggest bull---- story ever told.”
Yet, the number of unbelieving young people in America pales in comparison to the staggering escalations of unbelieving students in Canada. In the chilly land to our north, teenagers who said they definitely believed in God shrank from 54% to 37% from 1984 to 2008. During the same time period, the number of atheists rose from 6% to 16%. This religious shift in Canada has some folks worried about American teenagers, and whether or not they will follow suit.
But all is not lost. Ironically, according to one of these same researchers, “a high percentage” of unbelieving young people claim that religion is still “important” to them. Further, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, put out by the Pew Forum, found that 22% of those who considered themselves “unaffiliated” with any religion still pray every day.
It sounds as if the door of influence may still be cracked open.
Give Them Something to Believe In
There aren’t two atheist/agnostic teens alike; in fact, there aren’t two definitions of atheism alike. In my research I discovered that atheists don’t like most of the descriptors ascribed to them by others. The American Atheists’ official website defines atheism as “a lack of belief in gods.” Since unbelieving students come in all shades, we need to cater our ministry to fit particular needs.
First, we must be prepared with gracious, compassionate, and honest answers for their questions. This is the exact same advice Peter gives in his epistle (1 Peter 3:15). Teenagers can recognize when you’re “keeping it real,” and when you’re not. If they ask you a question you can’t answer, simply say, “I don’t know,” and try to find them the help they seek.
Second, focus on changing hearts, not just minds. Jesus never instructed us to go and argue people into the faith with a well-rehearsed presentation of the ontological and teleological arguments for the existence of God (and other things learned in seminary that have no application in real life). We must minister to their entire being, and not just try to satisfy their philosophical inquiries.
Finally, live like Jesus. This is absolutely the best way to help unbelieving students experience the living God. Sure, it requires the most from us, but it’s well worth the effort. Jesus tells us that we will be known by our love, and so will He by extension. TheSource4YM.com has an entire page dedicated to OUTREACH EVENTS that will help youth ministries love and serve their communities. (Hey, it’s the least believers can do for atheists given that they promise to take care of Christians’ pets after the rapture!)
We can’t view the Emily’s around us as a hopeless cause just because they wear the title atheist or agnostic. My wife’s leadership team refers to the Emily’s on campus as “pre-Christians.” They see what God sees, and work hard to accomplish His dream for them. All of us can do the same.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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