If you want to understand young atheists, don’t ask Larry Taunton
Larry Taunton, director of the Fixed Point Foundation, recently wrote an article for The Atlantic about what young atheists think. It’s been doing the rounds of forums and social media since it was published a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still prompting a lot of discussion about what it means, with Christians poring over it and fretting about whether their own children might catch the dreadful disease of atheism. I read it with interest when I heard about it, but despite a superficial appearance of objectivity and insight, I was very disappointed.
Taunton’s “surprising” findings really aren’t that surprising – in fact, they’re astonishingly self-evident, mainly products of selection bias that he either hasn’t noticed or chooses not to acknowledge. Any degree of thoughtful reflection reduces them to laughable statements of the bleedin’ obvious.
He finds that most of the atheists surveyed were brought up within Christianity. (What’s that? Brought up Christian? In America? Hold the front page!) He also finds that college students – remember that we already know their views mostly differ from their upbringing – were likely to have formed their current views some time in their teens. (No way! My mind is blown!) In either case, a moment’s consideration of the possible alternatives shows just how shallow and unremarkable these conclusions are, and it reflects badly on Taunton that he considers them worthy of comment, let alone surprising or significant.
The selection criteria, restricted to members of Secular Student Alliances or Freethought Societies – described by Taunton as “actively, determinedly irreligious” – are also a major obstacle in truly understanding the thoughts of young atheists. This is a small subset of atheists, most likely those with a specific opposition and objection to religion, and hardly representative. You might as well attempt to understand voters’ priorities by talking to the members of political parties.
But further examination suggests a rather darker reason for these apparent oversights – they fit his preferred narrative. Despite an insistence that he was just asking people to tell him how they felt, with no agenda and no ill will towards them, the author’s dismissive view of atheism as “historically naive and potentially dangerous” permeates everything, as do his theological inclinations.
There’s an obvious disconnect between the article’s various claims, even taking them at face value. Of one young man, he says “Like others after him, he suspected a trap…Once he realized, however, that we truly meant him no harm, he started talking.” A beguiling story, but he also says (my italics): “It was not our purpose to dispute their stories or to debate the merits of their views. Not then, anyway.” Colour me unimpressed at your harmless objectivity and impartiality, Mr Taunton.
I read this article with no knowledge of who Taunton was or what he believed, but even though he doesn’t give any specific information on his theological position in the article, by the time I finished I was in no doubt at all about his broad theological views, sympathies and agenda, a view confirmed by subsequent research. Look at the points he raises:
- The mission and message of their churches was vague
- They felt their churches offered superficial answers
- They respect ministers who take the Bible seriously
This is the heart of Taunton’s analysis, and it all points the finger (for it’s clear that he considers atheism to be a fault – see above) at wishy-washy liberals. Points 1 and 3 should need no explanation, and while point 2 is a complaint that could be made of churches of any stripe, the reported complaints – speaking of a search for purpose and personal significance, and complaining of issues like creation, sexuality and “Jesus as the only way” being unanswered – leave little doubt as to the conclusion we’re meant to draw, conveniently matching Taunton’s own views.
On emotion, Taunton’s particularly slippery. He flags it up early, saying of atheists in general “To hear them tell it, the choice was made from a philosophically neutral position that was void of emotion.” Then he attempts to use this to lever in another preferred conclusion about the unreliability of atheists, with the headline that “The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one.” He wants to emphasise the emotional side and apparent inconsistency, even though he later clarifies that this was emotion “as well” as reason, leaving his conclusions hinging on the subtle details of the interviews.
Speaking of which, those interviews aren’t accessible because the “study” (a rather grand word for what seems to be a collection of anecdotes cherry-picked to support an ideological position) isn’t even complete yet according to these comments. No data or even methodology are available, and he didn’t respond to my query on Twitter, so there’s no way of verifying Taunton’s analysis, or digging into the results to find other patterns he might have missed. Whatever the quality of his work, until and unless that’s made available, this is effectively worthless as evidence, and any discussion that’s been generated by the article is uninformed fluff.
Despite a fairly transparent agenda, it’s not clear what Taunton hopes to achieve with this study. It looks like a very soft piece of research, but his words give the impression that he wants it to be seen as hard science. I can’t comment fully on that until the details are released, but here are some questions that occurred to me as I read the article, and which he would need to have addressed in order to draw meaningful conclusions from his discussions:
- Was there a set methodology for the interviews?
- Was there a standard questionnaire in addition to the interviews? If not, why not?
- How did you distinguish between correlation and causation?
- How did you settle on your selection criteria? In particular, how did you control for differences in the churches they were brought up in, and the possibility that atheist converts from more conservative traditions stay in the closet longer or are less likely to join openly atheist groups than ex-liberals?
Without answers to these questions, my inclination (and my advice to anyone else) is to simply shrug and say “Cool story, bro.”