Accidental Atheist: Post Mortem of a Church Kid

(Part Three of the Five Part Series)

In my previous article, I gave a list of 5 ways parents can raise an “accidental atheist” and said I would expound on the them. However, I’d like to skip #1 on the list and start with #2 and #3 today. The reason is I see these two as leading directly to the first, so dealing with them now will show the logical progression toward a young person rejecting Christianity.

But on a side note…

The hate mail has already begun. In just the two days since these articles have been posted, several readers have already felt the need to respond with hateful comments on our church’s Facebook page. The Facebook company even had to delete of few of the worst ones laced with profanity, without me even asking.

You may think I’m shocked, but I’m not in the least. Why? Because I communicate with atheists most every week. I have a blog in a local paper dealing with issues of faith, and much of my time is spent defending Christianity from those who comment negatively there.

Each week, I invite them to join me on Friday at the local Starbucks for a polite conversation called COFFEE CUP COMMUNION, which was even covered by our local newspaper. Honestly, few ever make it to the one-on-one encounter.

Most prefer to stay anonymous and hide behind their computer screens. And the overwhelming majority of their comments have been filled with a level of anger I found surprising earlier on. Despite my commitment to keep every conversation friendly and polite, the majority turn hostile.

Here’s what I didn’t understand at first in these encounters: if you don’t believe in something, why do you so stridently need to attack it?

But after communicating with so many of them, I think I do understand now. Many people’s atheism has little to do with the intellectual doubts they so loudly trumpet. For them, it’s something much more personal, and is based in a deeper hurt. And this hurt often has something to do with their parent’s faith.

Two initial ways parents raise up “accidental atheists” are:

  • Model rule-based religion that delights in punishment more than mercy and grace
  • Live a lifestyle inconsistent with your stated beliefs (hypocrisy)

I remember talking to one middle-aged man. He was a successful businessman with a family, and he’s been raised in a committed Christian home. No, these were not people who just “talked the talk” – several of his extended family actually were in professional Christian ministry.

As I asked what his problem was now with Christianity, his words became measured but intense.

“Most all the preaching I heard growing up in my church was condemning in nature. We were never good enough, never doing enough, never attending enough. I believe the highest motivation to serve God ought to be out of love for him. But all we were taught was fear.  Oh yeah, they TOLD us God loved us, but it was always a begrudging kind of love.”

“It’s like you worked really hard on a school project, but your teacher looked at it and said, ‘Well, if that’s the best you can do, I guess I’ll have to pass you.’ We were never something enough for God to fully accept us, so finally I just gave up.”

He went on to talk with me about his current belief system. He said he was into some Depac Chopra and Buddhism, but most all of it was nothing more than life philosophy. There was no God left – no personal relationship, just basic “doing good” ethics and nebulous ideas floating in a philosophical soup.

Unfortunately, most of the people angriest about Christianity are people who’ve been exposed to it. The problem with their accusations is many are completely true, because they come from personal experience. Many grew up in churches that were incredibly judgment. Instead of finding ways to extend forgiveness and mercy, these churches emphasize strict adherence to the letter of their own law. Much of their laws end up focusing on outward appearance and habits, as opposed to transformation of the heart first.

Judgmental churches raise up impossibly rigid standards members have to meet. When members inevitably do not meet those standards, a lot of pretending happens. And when young people with idealistic expectations see this, their perception is the church is made up of hypocrites who hurt people with rules they are unwilling to obey themselves.

As a pastor who has experienced these types of churches first hand, my only advice to parents is simple: leave. In doing so, you’ll be called a compromiser, a backslider, and possibly worse. I’m not saying to embrace a mushy theology that puts no expectations on personal holiness. But you must raise your child in an environment where God is seen as loving and merciful to sinners.

Most importantly, learn the art of being CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT…

The best thing I’ve done as an imperfect father is admit to my kids when I make mistakes. Though I want to present an image of consistency, unfortunately I am inevitably inconsistent as a Christian. By the way, so are you! And pretending otherwise doesn’t make us look consistent, it makes us look like hypocrites.

As a pastor, I always try to be the first to point out when I make a mistake. Most reasonable people don’t expect me to be perfect, just honest. And to hide some of the dumb things I do, I’d need a whole garage-full of camouflage! So it’s much better if I laugh at myself, showing people I depend on the grace of God just like they do.

As a parent, you need that grace too. Most of our kids have already figured out we’re imperfect. Admitting so will come as no surprise to them, and it will tell them you are honest. They’ll learn early on that parents need forgiveness just like kids do.

Those children will grow up with a healthy view of God, parents, the church, and best of all…themselves!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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