Why Would a Fundamentalist Christian Become an Atheist?

Our data-driven conversation about religion obscures more than it reveals about the nature of belief and non-belief.

Researchers say I’m a None.

They’re correct, technically. I’m a fundamentalist Christian turned atheist and I’m under 30. But the lives represented by the data are far more complicated than numbers can really express.

I’m here to tell you about mine.

At five, I told my parents I wanted to be saved because I’d just seen Star Wars and thought Darth Vader lived in the shadows of my bedroom. Jesus, being omniscient and notably hard to kill, seemed the strongest candidate to protect me from Darth Vader, so I ran to my parents to tell them I understood that I was a hell-bound sinner in need of rescue.

My parents homeschooled me, then sent me to Christian school and then, finally, to a tiny public high school in Appalachia that didn’t deviate much from the evangelical script. The wildest moment of my adolescence involved crowd-surfing at a Skillet concert, and the second wildest was convincing my parents my Catholic boyfriend was really born again.

At sixteen, I got expelled from Christian high school. The reason, they said, was that I was a disturbing influence on the other students. This makes me sound far more interesting than I actually was then, or am now — like I’d committed arson or criticized George W. Bush. But the truth is that I’d become depressed and sought treatment. My Bible teacher, a proud graduate of Pensacola Christian College, took advantage of the situation to announce to my class that “brain problems” simply didn’t exist.

Later, I attended a conservative Christian college, Cedarville University. Cedarville is where I first heard of the Nones. As a student journalist, I interviewed Gabe Lyons, who worked alongside David Kinnaman to produce a Barna Group study on Millennial Americans who leave the church.

Lyons and Kinnaman found that 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of their church-going peers considered Christianity anti-gay. Eighty-seven percent of non-Christians found the church “too judgmental,” and 85 percent found it “hypocritical.” Significant majorities called the church “old-fashioned” (78 percent) and “too involved in politics” (75 percent).

Those results didn’t surprise me. By the time Lyons came to campus, I’d already spent years listening to Christian fundamentalists (with a few exceptions) rail against gays, gender equality, and anything else deemed inappropriately “postmodern.” The anti-intellectualism chafed.

I approached that interview with more than a little trepidation; at the time, I was immersed in my own spiritual struggle, which resolved itself a few months later in my total de-conversion from the Christian faith. I became one of Barna’s prodigals — and one of Pew’s Nones.

It’s been seven years since the release of Barna’s poll and roughly six since my de-conversion. In that span, a succession of studies have provided a more thorough glimpse into the beliefs, practices and experiences of the Nones.Researchers have discovered that although Millennials are the least religious generation, most still harbour positive feelings toward religion and believe religion has a role to play in public society.

Those facts seem to contradict each other. And that may explain why, amidst the avalanche of research, I’ve found that stories like mine are often obscured by ideological factions bent on spinning the results to their favor.

My fellow atheists seem particularly pleased by a 2012 study by Pew, which revealed that a record one-third of all adults under 30 reported no religious affiliation at all. Some so-called New Atheists rushed to claim that as a victory. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, announced, “If you don’t have a belief in God, you’re an atheist. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself.” New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett publicly declared, “We gave [the unaffiliated] permission to declare their lack of interest in religion . . . and we have significant numbers of converts on our tally sheets. We get e-mails from them all the time.”

But they’re missing the point. This trend isn’t about conversion or de-conversion; most unaffiliated Americans aren’t even atheists. This trend is about dogma.

The Milliennials who’ve left evangelical Christianity are the children of the Moral Majority. We’re Generation Joshua, raised on a steady diet of Ken Ham’s science, David Barton’s history, and Jerry Falwell’s ethics. Even Millennials who weren’t raised in this subculture lived in a society shaped by its influence.

That should help you understand why a recent survey of Millennial beliefs showed that although most say they don’t look to religion, they do still talk to God. Young, unaffiliated Americans aren’t as willing to accept the rigid ideological categories preferred by their elders.

And here, again, my life is a data point.

Although I don’t hesitate to call myself what I am — an atheist — I haven’t found a home in organized atheism. Rather, I’ve found that it’s prone to the same foibles I witnessed in the American Christian church. There’s a similar tendency to comprehensively disregard different perspectives: Belief in God is irrational, so obviously nothing good can come from religion. But this dichotomy can’t account for the progressive people of faith I count among my friends — just like the fundamentalism of my childhood, rigid atheist ideology fails to describe reality.

I’ve also witnessed within atheism rampant sexism and other forms of prejudice directed at marginalized groups, all justified thinly with a non-theistic veneer. Of course, there’s more to organized atheism than this, just as there’s more to Christianity than what I witnessed personally.

The Nones get this. We’ve seen that the movements vying for our membership suffer the same difficulties, and we wonder what benefit there is joining any of them. While we wonder, we wait in no man’s land as culture war rages all around us, and we consider our options.

Our reluctance to categorize ourselves isn’t born of apathy or confusion. Instead, we’ve rejected the idea that there’s nothing positive to be found in other points of view, that different perspectives should be avoided, or at least derided when encountered. We prefer nuance to dogma.

My life is just one statistic out of thousands. But it tells me Christians and atheists alike could learn something from me, and from the Nones.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Sarah Jones
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  • Casper ter Kuile

    Love this piece – thank you! Nancy Ammerman’s research at BU gives a lot of insight into these stories as well. Highly recommended.

  • rathrift

    As a former Lutheran minister, now deconverted, I appreciate the candor of Sarah’s article. Leaving “the faith” and the support of those you have grown to love and care for can be devastating. I hope Sarah and others like her can find the support they need from others that share their new world view.

  • Scott

    As someone who has never had so much as a single theistic thought in his life, yet still researched ‘atheism’ as a movement, I find it odd that there is even a distinction being drawn between ‘nones’ and atheism as a category. I firmly apply the ‘if you don’t believe in god you’re an atheist’ logic, but I don’t get to really ‘see’ the dogma that comes from the atheist side since, frankly, I have no reason or need to keep up with it or pay attention.

    I mean, I just find the notion of having dogma attached to atheism is a bit freaky. I don’t even know how that could come about save for the intensity of some angry post-conversion… hell, lest’s go all the way… extremists.

    • David

      A lot of the nones do believe in God though and I think that is the reason for the distinction. There are some atheists, some agnostics and then the nones who believe in God or some higher power at least but don’t hold to any particular religious dogma.

  • B-Lar

    If anyone says “Belief in god is irrational, therefore nothing good can ever come of religion” then they themselves are being irrational. It does not follow. They might be an atheist, but they don’t know how to use their brain-parts.
    A more truthful statement would be “Belief in god is irrational presupposition and closes your mind to evidence whilst basing your knowledge on weak foundations.” You might get the right answer sometimes, but more by luck than by judgement.

  • westcj

    ‘I’ve also witnessed within atheism rampant sexism and other forms of prejudice directed at marginalized groups, all justified thinly with a non-theistic veneer”
    I would have liked the author to have explored this statement more as it certainly has damaging overtones for atheists. As a long time atheist, I have certainly seen plenty of antagonism of religious groups by atheists. However I am not sure what she means by “other prejudice” in this case . I presume the author means a person or group was disadvantaged by the actions of an atheist(s) because that person/group believed in god. If that is true it is very sad. I have certainly seen amongst atheists no more sexism that what( unfortunately) typically occurs in western society. Rampant is a very strong word. But the statement does pose a question that I have never considered before. Are atheists sexist?

  • Modus V

    Thank you Sarah for this article. The point that roughly 33 million of the 46 million or so “Nones” are in fact spiritual and profess a belief in god is so often lost in the talking points of those looking to bolster the cause of atheism. The first thirty years of my life were spent as a whole-hearted believer in god and more specifically, the religion in which I was raised. When I left religion I also bid farewell to my belief in god, but according to the data, this is not how the majority of those who leave religion behave. I read time and time again from secular sources about how the rise of the “Nones” is proof of growing secularism in America. While I agree that secularism is increasing, it is a mistake to suggest that the entire group of religiously unaffiliated people fit underneath the tent of secularism. Automatically branding someone who chooses to believe in a deity as an idiot isn’t a very wise strategy for inspiring change in America. The only way for “Nones” to bring about the changes they seek (separation of Church and State, political representation, scientific literacy, the true origins of moral character, etc.) is to work together, both spiritual and secular. This takes far more tolerance and understanding than what some of the most vocal atheist leaders themselves demand from the religious community.

  • James Mc Cormack

    AFTER STUDYING ALL RELIGIONS AND THE HYPOCRISY THAT IS THE QUICKSAND ON WHICH THEIR FOUNDATIONS ARE BUILT. I DO NOT WANT TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH ANY.RELIGION….I’LL GIVE THE BUDDHISM A BREAK THEY NEVER STOLE,KILLED OR CONQUERED ANYBODY BY THE POINT OF A SWORD OR THE BARREL OF A GUN OR CONDEMNED ANYONE TO ETERNAL DAMNATION FOR NOT BELIEVING THEIR HOLY BOOK WAS WRITTEN BY GOD.
    SO.I CHOSE TO IGNORE IT AND ONLY GO TO CHURCH FOR WEDDINGS AND.FUNERALS.
    I DON’T FEEL BAD FOR NOT LOVING JESUS.
    I DON’T THINK ANY BOOKS WRITTEN.BY SUPERSTITIOUS NOMADIC SHEEPHERDERS HAS ANY RELEVANCE IN TODAYS WORLD OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES.
    THESE CLERICS OF TODAY ARE CHARLATANS LEADING THEIR FLOCKS BLINDLY DOWN THE ROAD OF DOOM DUE TO THE UNSUSTAINABLE DOGMA THEY PROFESS. GO FORTH,BE FRUITFULL BECAUSE GOD.LOVES YOU….BUT THERE ISN’T ENOUGH FOOD FOR YOUR CHILDREN….THE CHURCH NEEDS YOUR SOUL AND TITHE TO SUSTAIN ITSELF. .WHAT A CON-CEPT.
    JUST SEND YOUR $19.95 DONATION TO KEEP OUR PROGRAM ON THE AIR WHILE OUR ANNOITED PASTOR DRIVES HIS LEAR JET ON ANOTHER CRUSADE OF WHERE MIRACULOUS HEALINGS TAKE PLACE…..NEED I SAY MORE….OKAY THEN ROUND UP.SOME REVISIONIST HISTORIANS, SOME GUYS WITH A BIBLICAL MUSEUM WHERE CHILDREN RIDE DINOSAURS AND THAT ALL THE ANIMALS ON EARTH EVEN KANGAROOS COULD.FIT ON A WOODEN BOAT WITH NO RUDDER .
    OPEN UP YOUR OWN COLLEGE THAT TEACHES NOTHING BUT BIBLICAL INERRANCY AND THEN TOSS IN A FEW CONSPIRACY THEORIES SHOUTED OUT BY RADIO PERSONALITIES.
    YOU GET THE PICTURE

  • James Mc Cormack

    After studying all religions and the problems they have caused I just decided to say ” Hey I don’t need it one bit “,plus the guilt by association of dogmas that committed genocide, condone slavery, treat women like crap,love war and death ,enjoy killing cultures and using biblical / koranical verse to justify their every move to force their gods on everyone by the barrel of a gun or tip of the sword.
    i like.the Buddhists tho , they don’t make.you convert or Kill you if you want to leave !!!!!!