He approached me with his hand held out, ready to shake mine. ‘My name’s Nathan,’ he said, ‘and I’m a reluctant atheist.’
It was a surprising way for someone to introduce themselves. I’d just delivered a lunchtime talk hosted by the Christian Union at Nathan’s university. As I came down from the stage, most people scurried off to their afternoon lectures. But several wanted to chat further. Nathan was at the front of the queue.
I’d just explained that most people in our culture believe that reality consists solely of matter – things that we can see and measure and touch. But I also pointed out that our everyday experience of life – the choices we make, the things we treasure, the dreams we follow – are at odds with this basic conviction. I then suggested that these deep intuitions about what’s truly valuable whisper to us that our conclusions about the fabric of reality are wrong. There’s more to the universe than just physical matter.
Nathan was keen to speak further, so I asked him his story.
He told me that he had no religious background – in fact, he’d not thought much about spiritual things at all. But he explained that he was increasingly uneasy with the story of reality with which he’d grown up. When it came to explaining how life really feels, Nathan thought that atheism hadn’t served him well.
I asked why, if this was so, Nathan still referred to himself as an atheist.
He breathed out a long sigh. Yes, he was tired with atheism. But he was reluctant to impose meaning onto a reality that wasn’t there. He didn’t want to commit to an alternative big story merely to meet his own psychological need. And he said, in a world of competing meanings and stories, why choose the Christian account over any other?
Nathan was disenchanted with atheism but felt that he had nowhere else to turn. Like many students formed in a secular society, he really was a reluctant atheist.
Understanding the secular student’s outlook
Secularism’s creed – ‘above us, only sky’ – has dominated for decades. Shaped by this soundtrack, most students say that they don’t believe in God. Some really are convinced atheists, but I’m increasingly meeting students saying that their atheism isn’t as existentially or intellectually satisfying as they’d been led to believe. It’s telling that each time I’ve publicly recounted my conversation with Nathan, others have come to tell me that they too are reluctant atheists. Nathan’s experience and outlook exemplify that of more secular students than we might imagine.
Like Nathan, many have given little thought to spiritual or religious things. Many of today’s students haven’t consciously rejected religious belief as previous generations have; they simply never think about spiritual things. In fact, most students at today’s British universities are third-generation church non-attendees – it wasn’t their parents but their grandparents who were the first in their families to stop attending church. They aren’t necessarily hostile to religious belief, but a non-religious outlook is their default.
At the same time, Nathan’s expression of doubt around the atheism of his youth is not unusual either. The philosopher Charles Taylor freely admits that religious belief is difficult today: phenomena that humanity once thought necessitated God we know now could be explained in other ways. But, Taylor says, atheism is hard to maintain too.
As students like Nathan watch the latest Netflix documentary about the cosmos, as they walk with friends in the countryside, or even as they study in the library, they feel that their deepest convictions and desires can’t be written off as merely ‘interesting neurological phenomena.’ Student life does, of course, bring enough distractions that many just numb themselves to this ache. But others can’t shake it off. That is what I think Nathan was trying to convey: that the ultimate flatness of atheism’s big story at the intellectual and existential level just kept reigniting his intuition that there must be something more. And the large attendances we’re seeing at Christian Union evangelistic events suggests he’s not alone in these feelings.
But if there is more – then to what version of ‘more’ should students turn? My conversation with Nathan highlights a third aspect those of us seeking to reach students in a secular society face: that while Christianity has an unprecedented historical influence on our culture, it has lost, as American campus minister Derek Rishmawy puts it, its ‘home court advantage’. To many secular students, Christianity is at best just one of a wide array of implausible alternative worldview stories, others of which seem to harmonise more easily with their pre-existing ethical outlook. As reluctantly as they may be atheists, following Jesus doesn’t seem all that attractive an option.
Engaging secular students
With these factors in mind, how might we engage secular students today?
First, Christians need to enter real relationships with these students. Nathan was only at that lunchtime event because he was impressed by his Christian friends. Time and again as I travel around the UK, I meet non-believing students whose longing for something beyond the material world has been awoken in part through seeing Christian friends living for a different hope that impacts all of life.
Second, we need to engage these students with the gospel starting where they are at.
Students in Christian Unions have long been inspired by the Apostle Paul’s example of engaging the Stoics and the Epicureans at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). Addressing people who did not have the building blocks of a biblical worldview, Paul endorses the reality of their deep existential cries while showing that their current understanding cannot provide the happy-ever-after they are chasing. Paul carefully destabilises the stories these philosophers were telling, while also demonstrating how Jesus alone can fulfil their legitimate existential longings for transcendence.
Today, most students respond well when a speaker gently questions what the dominant, unquestioned narrative says about the things they really care about – such as science, meaning, relationships, identity and hope. As they begin to perceive that Jesus makes better sense than any other account of the parts of their lives most precious to them, their perception of Christianity changes. This initial response isn’t usually yet repentance and faith, but it might be enough to start giving Jesus a proper hearing, perhaps through a set of seeker studies in one of the Gospels – which may lead to genuine conversion.
All this takes time – as it did for the apostle in Athens. But there are many reluctant atheists like Nathan who are waiting to hear some good news, and to see that trust in Jesus is well placed.