I know what it is like to be indoctrinated into Christianity from an early age, experience doubts about what I had been taught, and gradually emerge on the other side of a long struggle as an atheist. The fact that I went through this many years ago limits my ability to understand what it is like for young people today. I went through this process before the Internet, and that alone is a powerful illustration of the gulf between my experience and theirs. And so, I don’t know what it is like to be a Christian, experience doubts about my early indoctrination, or to discover atheism during the Internet age. I can only imagine that young people going through this today face a somewhat different set of challenges than I did. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be a young Christian these days.
Not Everyone is Christian
When I was a Christian, everyone I knew was a Christian. They weren’t all the same kind of Christian, but I considered them all Christian. Whether they were Protestants, Catholics, or Mormons did not matter all that much. This was a function of the lack of religious diversity where I grew up, but it was compounded by the lack of information to which I had access. In my childhood, I did not have access to anything other than pro-Christian material. I was not exposed to any of the other world religions.
It seems like Christians today would be far more likely to know that there are people right in their own communities who are not Christian. And if they don’t because they live in areas with little religious diversity, social media is going to bring them into contact with plenty of non-Christians. They are going to encounter plenty of non-Christians online, including some atheists. I’d have to think that it would be almost impossible for them to maintain the view that everyone is Christian like them.
Ex-Christians and Life After Christianity
When I was a Christian, it had never even occurred to me that there might be former Christians out there who were sharply critical of Christianity. Even if I had somehow known of their existence, I had no way of finding them or learning about what they thought. Criticism of Christianity was something to which I was not exposed until I stumbled across it in a used bookstore one day in the form of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. This was revelatory for me at the time in ways that are difficult to describe.
With the Internet, there is virtually no way modern Christians are going to grow up without encountering at least some criticism of their beliefs. I am sure some avoid it the best they can, but the odds that they would eventually run into it seem quite high. Maybe that is why we are seeing ‘Christian Facebook,’ Christian dating sites, and all sorts of Christian “safe spaces” hoping to shield Christians from diverse views.
As contemporary Christians encounter ex-Christians on the Internet (if not offline), they may see something I never did: living examples that one can lead a perfectly decent life without gods. Christians today are growing up exposed to models that show them alternatives to Christianity. Just knowing that such people exist is important.
I have to imagine that most of today‘s Christians have heard of atheism. Even if they have only heard the sort of misconceptions and bigotry of which many members of clergy are fond of pushing, they have at least heard of it. And that means that they have at least some awareness that there are people out there somewhere who do not believe in gods. In a sense, this gives them an advantage I did not have. If they are curious, the Internet awaits. With a little investigation, some will be able to recognize the problems with what they have been taught.
I suppose the flip side might be that their indoctrination has probably included far more false information about atheists than mine did. The people who indoctrinated me could get away with ignoring atheism in a way that their contemporaries probably cannot. So Christians today may have an easier time accessing accurate information but have probably been prepared to resist it in ways I never was.
I first encountered atheists in the pages of various books, and it would be at least a couple more years before I’d meet any face-to-face. This means that my first exposure to atheists came in the form of highly educated authors, mostly famous philosophers and scientists. This is unlikely to be true for most young Christians today. Their first encounters with atheists are probably going to come in the form of being subjected to ridiculous personal attacks and counterproductive name calling by assorted atheists on social media. Whereas I encountered reasonable, educated, freethinking masters of their craft, Christians today are far more likely to encounter utter morons who happen to be atheists. Sad but true.
My initial impressions of atheists were overwhelmingly positive, and this did not change as I finally began to meet atheists face-to-face. Most were intelligent, thoughtful, and kind. I felt challenged but supported. My beliefs were subjected to ridicule and mockery, but they were directed at my beliefs and not at my person. Based on what I see from many atheists on social media, I doubt that this will be the case for many Christians today. Their initial impressions of atheists are likely to be quite negative, and this is perfectly understandable. We can do better.