If you’re at all familiar with leading atheist voices in today’s world, you undoubtedly know who Richard Dawkins is. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the bestselling author of The God Delusion. As an outspoken atheist, Dawkins rails against religion and is intent on ridding the world of any “childish” notion that God exists.
Dawkins recently announced on Twitter that he is working on two books for kids: Outgrowing God (for teens) and Atheism for Children (it appears the final title is still TBD):
I’m not sure exactly what Dawkins will cover in his books, but the title Outgrowing God has piqued my interest. It fits right in with Dawkins’ general attitude—religion is for those with childish minds; it’s something everyone should outgrow, though not everyone does.
If you’re an adult Christian, this sounds ridiculous. And it is. But atheism is quickly on the rise in America, and young people are increasingly coming to believe the claims by Dawkins and others that religion is something to leave behind once you’re sophisticated enough to see the truth about reality.
With that in mind, we should be asking ourselves: What on Earth would lead a kid to believe Christianity is something to be outgrown?
Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of reasons why this happens, and much of the time it’s rooted in either the lack of effort many parents put into discipling their kids or their lack of direction (i.e., they may be putting in effort, but not the necessary kind of effort given today’s challenges).
Here are some reasons that stand out to me:
1. Kids learned to see belief in God as an emotional crutch rather than as knowledge about reality.
Christian parents often start out motivated to teach their kids about God when their kids are very young. They look for the best children’s songs, videos, devotionals, prayer books, and so on. The message kids get from these resources is usually (and necessarily) very simple: God loves you and He’s with you all the time.
When we’re sad, we can pray. When we’re angry, He can help us be calm. When we’re scared, we can know He’s there. When other kids don’t like us, God still does.
In other words, these messages are primarily about emotional comfort. While God is a comforter and these messages are important, too often kids never grow deeper in their understanding of who He is; they get perpetually stuck in the land of sentiments like “pray when you think there’s a monster under your bed and God will make it better.” When there’s no more fear of monsters under the bed, there’s no more need for God.
Of course, by the time kids get to be tweens, they usually aren’t still calling out to God for help with monsters, but if parents haven’t thoughtfully continued to develop their understanding of who God is and why there’s good reason to believe He exists, that’s where their view of God can effectively remain: He’s just an emotional crutch from a time long gone.
2. They see God as their parents’ behavior modification strategy more than as their loving Creator and Sustainer.
One thing I find particularly striking about every Christian parenting group I’ve seen on Facebook is that there is far more—and I mean FAR more—discussion of how to manage kids’ behavior than how to help them deepen their understanding of Christianity. And I understand why. Kids make us CRAZY. How can we possibly think about a discussion on the nature of the Trinity when our kids’ behavior makes us want to take an 18 year parenting sabbatical? It takes serious intent to keep focused on growing their faith.
Oftentimes the result is that parents relegate spiritual development to church. The home becomes the place where mom and dad work on behavior management. To be sure, parents often attempt to tie faith to behavior: “Christians don’t act this way,” “The Bible says we shouldn’t…” “God is not pleased with this behavior.” But when Christianity becomes seen primarily as a behavior modification tool rather than an entire worldview out of which Godly behavior flows, it’s easy for kids to later leave the “God stuff” behind and continue to be what they think is “good without God” (a mantra of many secular humanists). Parents don’t intend for their kids to see things this way, but it’s often the inadvertent outcome in homes that rely on the church to develop their kids’ faith.
3. They don’t have a healthy understanding of the relationship between faith and science.
In every research study on the youth exodus from Christianity, some issue of science always bubbles to the top or near the top. I can see many related ties to the view that faith is somehow childish. In the interest of space, I’ll broadly summarize them by rolling them into one underlying belief:
Science explains the world, so if you’re intelligent enough to understand science, you’ll no longer need to believe in God.
In other words, science is the adult way of knowing reality. Faith is the kid’s way.
This is rooted in a significant misunderstanding on many levels, but let’s focus on two:
- Faith is not a way of knowing. No one claims (or no one should claim) that faith is how they know about God. Rather, biblical faith is trust based on knowledge that is rooted in evidence (see this article for more on that). Science and faith aren’t in competition. We don’t grow out of faith as a way of knowing and into science.
- Science is only one way of knowing about the world. This can easily be shown. The statement “Science is the only way of knowing about the world” is itself not something that can be scientifically demonstrated! Philosophers debate what should be included as ways humans form reliable knowledge about the world, but science undoubtedly is only one of several ways.
Despite the importance of kids having grappled with science and faith questions, very few parents take the time to work through such questions—and this has extraordinarily unfortunate consequences, as all the research shows. See my post, 4 Things That Must Happen Before More Christians Will Care About Questions of Faith and Science, for more on the topic.
(If you want to better understand questions of faith and science, Melissa Cain Travis has a fantastic new book out called Science and the Mind of the Maker. It shows how the existence of a Maker is the best explanation for the world around us. I highly recommend it.)
4. They haven’t been given opportunities to sharpen their critical thinking skills.
As I shared in my last blog post, A Parent’s Guide to the 5 Skeptics Who Want to Shame Your Kids for Being Christian, shame is often the skeptic’s weapon of choice. They want to make your kids (and you!) feel stupid for what you believe. You’re childish. Gullible. Unsophisticated. Silly.
Much of the time, they do this with pure rhetoric—not even in the context of any actual arguments against the truth of Christianity. Dawkins himself is especially fond of such tactics, saying things like, “The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the raising of Lazarus, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and they are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children.”
Kids who haven’t been given abundant opportunities to sharpen their critical thinking skills with regular exposure to quotes and longer form content from skeptics can easily be swayed by comments like these that simply assert religion is for children. Emotional attacks are effective when kids haven’t been trained to 1) see through the emotion to identify the underlying claim (or lack thereof) and 2) assess the validity of the claim. They simply succumb to the narrative.
In the case of Dawkins’ quote, for example, kids should be able to immediately identify the claim that miracles don’t happen. They should then know the basic logic that if God exists, miracles are possible (and therefore it would be completely rational to believe in that possibility), and if God doesn’t exist, miracles are not possible. Furthermore, they should be well equipped with an understanding of the evidence that God does exist. (If you need help with these subjects, see my reading plan for parents on the subject.)
5. They believe the secular world has out-thought their parents, pastors, and other spiritual influencers.
The keynote talk I often give at churches and conferences ends with the five most important practical steps I believe parents should take after they understand the importance of teaching their kids apologetics. The fifth and final point I leave them with is this: Ask your kids the tough questions they don’t ask of you.
Maybe your kids will never think to ask you why God allowed slavery in ancient Israel. Or how we know that Jesus actually existed as a person in history. Or about the moral implications that God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites. Or whether there’s any historical evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Or why a good God allows so much suffering and evil.
But just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proactively bringing these important questions TO their attention.
When kids eventually encounter an avalanche of faith challenges like these (and they will), if they haven’t first heard them from and discussed them with their parents, pastors, and/or other spiritual influencers, they will often assume the secular world has thought more deeply about Christianity than the Christians around them. The conclusion is grim: Christianity was a quaint part of their childhood, but it’s something to leave behind as a more mature thinker.
How incredibly tragic. And totally preventable.
Parents, the ball is in our court. We have years with our kids to have these conversations and prepare them for the world. It simply takes desire and motivation. Could anything be more important?
For questions parents should be proactively discussing with their kids, check out my books, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side (a broad overview of 40 questions across the subjects of God, Jesus, truth and worldviews, the Bible, and science) and Talking with Your Kids about God (a deeper dive on 30 questions specifically about God).