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.

ChapelTaunton’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.

InterviewThere’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

ClassThis 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.

Lecture TheatreDespite 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.”

Images courtesy of c_mackow, whitebeard, ruthiebabe and gozdeo, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “If you want to understand young atheists, don’t ask Larry Taunton”

  1. Arkenaten says :

    The world is full of such idiots. One must just take heart that slowly but surely this rubbish is fading away.

    • Steve says :

      OK, I’ll bite. Which idiots: Christians, atheists, wishy-washy liberals, sola scripture fetishists, or me for even asking?

  2. Sabio Lantz says :

    Thanx for the intro to this group. They have chosen a good marketing name. “Fixed Point” is what many folks are seeking — it is why they find religion more prevalent among the vulnerable: unstable economies, unsafe communities and those with health threats.

  3. Jacob says :

    I apologize if this comes across as a bit more aggressive/cutting than I intended.

    I read through the article, but unlike the author I was aware of the man’s position/background beforehand. I can see how someone might look at him that way if you have no idea who he is coming in, and I didn’t really think about that when I was reading it through.

    The points he makes aren’t at all self evident. Are they moderately intuitive? Yes, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of verifying.

    There’s a difference between being brought up with christianity, and being brought up in a christian home. He wanted to see if they were “the product” of their family views, or of something else.

    They changed their minds when they were teens? Sure, that sounds likely enough, but would there be any point in leaving the question unanswered if you’re “already there”?

    As for choosing who he would be speaking to, would anyone less interested (than what would be needed to have a specific position, as people possessing a specific position usually need some kind of relevant knowledge to allow them to formulate a reasonable position) in their atheism actually show up to talk about it? Would they feel confident enough in their position to risk it being attacked 1 one 1 with someone who’s career IS defending christianity?

    They would be more than aware that they would be talking to a theist, and they’d be expecting confrontation in some form, so his comment on them becoming comfortable, after starting off decidedly uncomfortable makes perfect sense, as does “Not then, anyway.” The man debates atheists publicly as part of his job. It was just a gentle piece of humour.

    I can say that his anecdotes of these atheists coming from churches that gave vague and superficial answers wasn’t surprising. I can also say that the anecdote itself was also unsurprising. The christianity that I know and love isn’t one of superficial answers, blatant rejection of science and the like. I study my bible, watch debates between christians and atheists, read devotionals, scientific literature, etc.

    If the only faith a person knows is the faith that Richard Dawkins claims is the only faith to be had, the faith of the intellectually stunted and the willfully ignorant, then it is unsurprising that one would reject it when presented with a barrage of rational thought, as so many see in high school and college/university. If you are familiar with a faith rooted in a search for genuine understanding (as I, and Mr. Taunton would be) it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see that comment, and in truth I thought nothing of it’s presence as I saw that as something one would expect.

    Atheism is presented to the general public as the last true bastion of intellectual liberty and ascendancy in a religious world. You don’t go about revealing that for the horrible farce that it is (if any of the anti-intellectual ego-serving you hear from new atheism, predominantly and stereotypically from Richard Dawkins and his readership) by simply hinting that it isn’t entirely grounded in science (biology and the existence of a creator is a true example of non overlapping magisteria, not history/reality and faith). You present what is to be expected, and then you present what it was in reality. It is exactly the same way when any scientific experiment is done. You present your hypothesis, and then afterwards you produce your conclusions and then compare. Since this isn’t a formal experiment, but a more casual analyses of the data (I did not personally feel as though he was setting the article up as a purely academic endeavor) it’d make sense to see the comparison done in the manner it was seen.

    It was never intended to be “evidence” in the sense that I think your using. He didn’t intend to prove that atheism is some purely emotional shell of a position, (simply?) through a series of interviews with college students. He DID want to clarify something that the new atheists in particular have obscured to a remarkable degree, that people don’t choose atheism for purely academic reasons.

    Predominant atheists from yesteryear were somewhat more willing to concede (I think “agree” would have suited their thinking better, but to the new atheist…) that their atheism is a faith, as one George Klein had said “I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith. . . . The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy.”

    The man also uses a scientific tone, I’d wager, simply because he’s in the habit of doing his best to be articulate and precise, or risk being misinterpreted due to sloppy presentation.

    All in all, I would much rather find myself debating positions better founded and developed than the ones we see today from people like Dawkins, Harris, etc., but it seems to simply be more a matter of selling books, and the books that would make the most people feel good about their atheism are the ones that sell, and thereby create the “cutting edge” argument base in the general public. That was the main point of the article, I suppose, that often times they went with what made them feel good, and not the thing wrestled their christianity to the ground and, through clever footwork and greater strength divested their faith of their minds.

    Now that I think about it, it’s actually rather fallacious to say that “You can’t persuade the christian away from something that they didn’t come to by reason, therefore mock them to scare away the others”, and then try to position yourself as intellectually superior at all, simply because you, by the statement you just finished uttering, ruled yourself (along with everyone else) out as being capable of switching positions from christianity, and therefore are just “from somewhere else” as Dawkins would say. You didn’t grow up in christianity (and come to it through emotional commitment), and therefore you could not have mentally overpowered it’s wraps. That’s something to think about, in particular as it’s pretense is so blatantly false even without this realization, that one would wonder how, beyond simply appealing to the ego of it’s recipients, it ever spread as an idea at all.

    -Jacob

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