Where Are the Young Atheists? December 30, 2009

Where Are the Young Atheists?

In February, I’m going to be attending a Christian conference that will probably draw several hundred teenagers — maybe even thousands.

At every atheist conferences I’ve ever been to, I’ve been shocked to see anywhere close to 100 students.

Why is there such a discrepancy? Yes, there are more of them than there are of us… but that alone doesn’t explain the lack of young atheists who participate in events like these.

Ait Chapel wonders the same question in an article he wrote for Secular Nation called “Atheist BattleCry?” (BattleCry refers to the name of a heavily-attended Christian event.)

The natural questions that follow are why is there such a paucity of young secularists active and secular causes and why do Christian organizations seem to be so much more successful at reaching out to this demographic?

Chapel does offer a few ideas of what the Christian do very well, thing that we haven’t come close to matching:

There are some things Christian organizations do quite well that secular organizations seem to have some degree of difficulty with. One such thing is making that important initial effort to reach out to young people. Another is doing so in such a way that these efforts connect with them. Christian organizations learned long ago how to do these things. They learned how to make their message appear youthful, cool, relevant, and sometimes even sexy. They learned how to effectively implement the social media. They learned how to frame issues related to their causes in such a way that they appeal to such youthful characteristics as a distrust of established institutions, the desire to rebel against authority, and the ideal of wanting to make the world a better place.

Chapel writes about a few ideas atheists should keep in mind in regarding reaching out to young people who already share our views. I’m mentioned in the article and so are several names familiar to readers of this site.

You can read the full article here (PDF)

I think we’re getting better at the social networking and getting more young atheists to come out of the closet. Our job will get easier as more people do this. The internet is our friend.

Why do you think young atheists don’t get involved in local groups or national organizations as much as Christians do?

Does their desire for freethinking drive them away from any sort of like-minded group?

Is the cost of traveling to an atheist conference too much to overcome, despite available scholarships and travel grants?

Are they simply unaware that local/national events are going on?

Chapel’s article first appeared in the January-March issue of Secular Nation magazine, the magazine of Atheist Alliance International.”

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  • I de-converted to atheism for the first time late elementary to early middle school, and I think there’s some important factors missing from the ones above.

    Around ninth grade I went to a single freethinker’s meeting with a friend of mine (and her sympathetic mother), and we were the only people of our age there. Everyone else was at least a decade, if not multiple decades older than us, and the things they did and talked about held little interest for we youngsters. That’s not to say the freethinkers weren’t friendly and inviting -they definitely were- but it was not a kid’s social activity, and was not comfortable or interesting to my friend and I. (Of course, I’d probably love it now.)

    Compare that to youth groups which, because children have been raised by Christian parents who often made church groups mandatory until they became habitual, have large crowds of peers to interact with, and activities tailored specifically to the age group rather than just being inclusive of the age group. By way of example, we have one Camp Quest… versus how many implicit or practical religious camps for kids?

    Also, note the mention of the friend’s sympathetic mother- my mother would never have allowed it (while simultaneously encouraging Christian social activities), and if the freethinking group knew I was sneaking off to attend they probably wouldn’t have encouraged it either. Judging by how many stories you hear around the atheism community dealing with unsympathetic religious parents, that could be a major factor in why only some of the under-18 set can show up. Only some are allowed to, much less can get a ride.

    If I’ve interpreted this wrong and we’re talking college age students- we’re getting there. Patience. Campus clubs are more active by the day and young atheists more outspoken.

  • J

    I think you’re also forgetting that churches organize these things, and often treat them as field trips where they collect money from the kids/parents and ship them off by the dozens since it’s a “fun christian event”.

    Think of the number of parents/grandparents willing to shell out cash for their kids to attend a christian event, versus the number of them that would pay for their kids to attend and godless heathen event!

  • Rhiannon

    I was 17 when I decided I was an atheist. In my case I lived at home and was still going to high school in a small town. Realitically, I couldn’t go to any atheist conferences because my mother and stepfather are Super Christians, nor were there any real opportunities because I lived in this small town. Extended travel was impractical because I would have to go alone.

  • Matthew C Bryant

    Religion offers an entire lifestyle, atheism is the lack of a belief. For those of us who are fairly vocal and open about it, it’s almost a political stance; but not a lifestyle. I suspect atheist young people tackle specific political problems with just as much fervor as christian kids at bible camp, but who’s going to show up at an “I don’t believe in unicorns” rally?

  • I guess my question is…what is the point of these groups and events?

    I mean, it makes sense that Christian groups and Christian events are for a common interest, a common goal, a common identity. *Religions* are about community.

    Atheism and secularism isn’t about community. I don’t see much in common with other atheists other than 1) we don’t believe in gods and 2) we face similar experiences as a result of living in a society dominated by belief in gods.

    But as toward common goals, ethics, codes, worldviews, anything substantial? No, I don’t really see that.

    Being stuffed into a religious community was pretty stifling. I’m for more individualism, more freedom, not less. To make atheism look like another religion is not my idea of fun.

  • MathMike

    Some thoughts.
    What percentage of home schooled children are christians? They would have a better opportunity to attend such events. I teach in a very religious area and it is not uncommon for students to miss days of school to attend church events. They are often authorized for these absences in the same way as a doctor visit. I doubt a student missing school for TAM (or similar) would also be granted an authorized absence.

  • Matt

    We don’t believe in the god claim to be true — that’s really the end of our commonality. We’re not a religion. I don’t want to be part of something that gives that false impression. I don’t join any atheist organizations because I see them as people’s silly attempts to get benefits of a supportive community missing in their non-churchgoing lives.

  • Em

    There is a group, the Young Australian Skeptics (http://www.youngausskeptics.com/) that has quite a following. Surely there are similar groups in the US?

  • REX

    It is the indoctrination that we rail about that separates the Christians from everyone else.

    Teenagers as a rule are self centered and apathetic. The ones in a Christian setting are herded and coerced into this stuff initially, and after a while, they realize that they are with other teenagers who don’t really want to be there either, and it is a great bonding experience. At least this is how it was with the Mormon groups that I grew up with. Besides, some of them look at as a chance to escape their box for a short time, even if it is just to another Christian function.

  • Zach

    as a college student I do not go to different national events because I do not have the money to do so. As the above commentor said religious conferences are heavily funded to get younger people to come to them whereas nonreligious conferences don’t have nearly enough funding to help younger people like me come to the conference.

  • Laura

    As a young atheist myself I think it might be a few reasons. One, because atheism is not as widely accepted the events don’t seem to be spread quite as far as with christian events, and christian teens will invite their friends regardless of their religion because conferences are a good way to get converts. I know this from when I used to be a young christian. Two, the young atheists that come from religious backgrounds might not be willing to tell their families that they are going to an atheist conference which may limit their options for events. Finally, there is a smaller number of atheist teens then there are christian teens. It might be a similar percentage from both groups but that is just speculation.

  • Why would I or anybody else want to go to to an “atheist” event? I don’t believe in unicorns or leprechauns either, but I don’t go to event expressing that lack of belief.

    The idea itself strikes me as rather silly. I don’t claim to be an atheist to fit into some group. I claim to be an atheist because I don’t believe. That’s it.

    It’s not about a community of like-minded people. I don’t care what other people believe or don’t believe if it doesn’t affect me. So why would I attend any “events” based around such a topic?

  • Jamie

    I think J and Corvus hit on some major reasons – lack of parental support and fund raising.

    It’s always about community and social life when you talk about youth, and that is hard to achieve without a lot more support and a critical mass of others you know are going to go to something like a national gathering.

    To paraphrase Ella Wheeler Wilcox: Believe and the world believes with you. Doubt and you doubt alone.

  • Erp

    I suspect many college-aged atheists also have different priorities than some young Christians. Some but by no means all young Christians are trained to put Christian events first and other events (e.g., for a cause independent of religion or for pure fun) second. Almost no young atheist is likely to put events emphasizing atheism first (barring an immediate need such as discrimination). Many might put causes independent of religion first (e.g., tutoring kids, raising money for mosquito nets for Africa, etc.) and they are probably right to do so. Many Christians do the same as far as priorities but if only 1% of atheists make it to atheist events and 5% of Christians to Christian events that still means in absolute numbers 8-24 times as many Christians (depending on the percentage of atheists in the population). Note also that many Christian conferences provide help in furthering religious neutral causes so even Christians who don’t put faith first might go because one of the causes is something they favor. And then numbers attract numbers especially for people looking to find others of similar views to date.

  • Matthew

    The young atheists(like myself) are out there.

    There are several reasons I do not go to atheist conferences.

    1) Parents – I am not out to my parents yet (I would like their assistance paying college tuition before they disown me), so going to an atheist conferences and groups is a bit of a problem there.

    I think this may be the biggest single barrier. Without parental approval, a young person cannot go anywhere. It is less of a problem now that I am in college, but when I was in high school, I could not attend anything.

    2) Awareness – Most younger kids are not aware of what is out there. I know I do not. My college sort-of has an atheist group, but it is not really an atheist group. Beyond that, I know of nothing(*hint* write up some of these groups and conferences up so I can go*/hint*).

    Most of the people who go to religious conferences learn about it through their church. These blogs are the closest things many atheists have. Ads and banners for instance do not help. I read everything through RSS feeds, and click-through to sites rarely.

    3) Money – Now that I am in college, I have a bit more freedom to overcome my parents. I just don’t have the money to travel an atheist conference for instance. Heck, I can barely scrape together enough for my textbooks, much less fly to some conference. If there are scholarships for attending, they do a VERY good job hiding them. I have never even heard of them, much less seen a link to apply.

    4) Now that I am nearing a decade as an atheist(wow!), I feel the need to fight religion. I did not feel that when I was younger. It felt good to be out of the yoke of religion, and I felt at peace. I really did not need a community of people who share the same views. I still don’t need a community(yeah it is fun sometimes to get together and make fun of religion, but….). I also realize I cannot fight religion alone, and that is the only reason I would consider going to any sort of conference.

  • Takma’rierah

    As a college student I have neither money nor time. Also I live in Wisconsin and while I could drive to Chicago or Minneapolis in a day that still runs into the time and money bit, and all of the Chicago events I have heard of take place in pubs and I’m not of legal drinking age.

  • potatopeeler

    Most teenagers don’t want to go to Christian events either. They’re either forced by their parents or reluctantly attend because they know of friends who are going. It’s a small percentage of teens who go because they’re actually enthusiastic about their religion.

  • Jim (elbuho)

    I think the answer is pretty clear: there is nothing in the atheist world which offers the sense of community, belonging and family that a happy-clappy church does, nor is there anything that offers a regular once a week time & place to drop in, catch up, make plans, etc.

  • Wendy

    I fall in the “I can’t afford it!” category. The major atheist get together here in Australia is the one in Melbourne. I live in NSW. Not to mention, I’m also a full-time student and studying, plus the fact that it would be hard finding people to go with me (it’s a lot more fun if you can get your friends to go with you).

  • Tom

    Because most atheists don’t really have a lot in common with each other. Christianity is a lifestyle and a family thing; atheism is just a lack of a god-belief. That’s not a lot to bind a group of people together.

  • qwertyuiop

    Why do you think young atheists don’t get involved in local groups or national organizations as much as Christians do?

    1. They don’t want to be condemned to hellfire by their own parents. They get enough of that from everyone else.

    2. Most of their friends are either Christian, or are not attending these things because of number 1.

    I think the indoctrination and labeling of children is the single most importing thing to be done away with in regards to religion. Let them grow up in the real world and they’ll understand reality and would not likely buy into these ancient superstitions in later life.

  • KeithLM

    Lot of good comments here. I think it’s a bit of everything being mentioned. Mainly it comes down to access and apathy.

    I found atheism in middle school back in the 80’s. Since then I’ve never concerned myself with the need to surround myself with like-minded individuals. I believe what I believe because that’s how I see the world. It matters not if there’s 5 people or 5 million people that agree with me. Therefore I’ve never put in any effort to find local atheist/humanist groups. I guess I fall in the apathy camp. 🙂

    In recent years I’ve spent more time reading up on atheist issues and science in general. My interest in the area has grown as I’ve seen more threats in the US from Christianity. It’s more of a political thing though. That is an area where I feel a bit guilty about not getting more involved. Separation of church and state is important, and it’s something that we need to spread the word on, but really, how much is that going to appeal to kids? College students maybe, but not the younger ones.

  • Tom Woolf

    Please don’t discount the “evangelical” aspect of those christian retreats.

    From what I have seen, there are fewer evangelical atheists – those who would go around trying to convert others to atheism – than evangelical christians (or from other sects).

    Personally, I will discuss religion and my atheism with anybody who cares to discuss it. However, I will NOT go door to door to try to get people to realize that they are superstitious. I am a firm believer of letting folks believe what they want to believe (as long as it does not include or promote harassment or suppression of others, nor allows sex with kids). Everybody has the right to be wrong. 😉

    I WILL fight to keep religion out of politics and government. When government includes religion, it effectively is forcing religion on everybody.

    Sorry – got off track. The thing is, atheists tend to be less evangelical, preferring to convince folks via discussions rather than encouraging groupthink.

  • HP

    I think that atheists in general tend to be antiauthoritarian and nonconformist in outlook, are strongly put off by anything that smacks of groupthink, and prefer to gather in informal, ad-hoc associations based on what we do rather than who we are. I think this is doubly true of high-school and college age people, who really are working very hard to establish an independent identity.

    I know this is true of me, and I’m in my 40s. As I get older, I can appreciate that organized groups can accomplish far more than individuals acting independently. But I’ve so far avoided joining any atheist organizations, because I fear that at the first mention of by-laws, mission statements, parliamentary procedure, or the election of officers, I’m going to run screaming for the door. Gaaaaaaahhhhh!!!!

  • Anonymous

    As a young atheist, it’s pretty simple for me. I realized religion is silly, and stopped making it a part of my life. I don’t actively look to spend time on it, the same way I don’t actively look to spend time with other people who think the sky is blue. It’s just not important enough to me. For religious people, that’s all they want to do is affirm their craziness by hanging out with other people who buy it too.

  • [Christian youth organizations] learned how to frame issues related to their causes in such a way that they appeal to such youthful characteristics as a distrust of established institutions, the desire to rebel against authority, and the ideal of wanting to make the world a better place.

    …and of course in so doing, most of them are lying through their teeth — they’re recruiting for the most established institution there is, one that at its heart is deeply authoritarian.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I don’t think at 27 I really qualify as a young atheist any more, but I have never been a member of an atheist, skeptical, humanist, etc. group because I live in a very religious area and I don’t think there are any reasonably close by.

    Also, between school and work, I don’t really have the time if I ever want to relax.

    However, my youngest sister just announced to our family yesterday that she is joining the Dominican order in Tennessee. The focus of the order is teaching. That has certainly lit a fire in my belly to join some sort or organization to counteract all the heinous doctrine and “information” my sister will, in a few years time, be placing into impressionable young people’s heads.

  • Derek

    im a 16 year old atheist, and i dont go to conferences because theyre too far away. and its hard to find good info on local secular groups. ive been thinking of starting my own club at school for that reason

  • Bryce

    I could well be wrong, but I imagine it has something to do with the differences between ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’. To be a credible Christian/Muslim/Jew/Other Religious Type (yanno, the kind that go up on morning news programs and the like) you just have to Believe! You don’t have to have any facts or figures, just the ability to memorize three or four relevant bible verses. Imagine if atheists tried the same tactic? It’s a double standard so the visible atheists are all older because they have the knowledge and the gravitas to be considered ‘experts’.

  • Richard Wade

    Where are the young atheists?

    Several people have offered this as one answer, but I have to say it too:

    They’re hiding.

    Of all the classes of problems in the letters I get for Ask Richard, by far the most common is high school or college students having to keep their atheism a secret from their parents, or suffering awful consequences because they have told them.

    When they’re no longer under their parents’ financial thumbs, they’ll come out.

  • The Other Tom

    Why do you think young atheists don’t get involved in local groups or national organizations as much as Christians do?

    They have lives.

  • Dan

    I’m 26, too busy working, starting a family, and playing WOW to get REALLY involved. I guess once you are a post-thesit, hard to give a shit anymore.

  • Tom

    I think the biggest thing is the “coming out” factor. Being an atheist is still not socially acceptable. Youths still don’t want to come out to ultra-religious family (a lot of my wife’s Lutheran family doesn’t know about either of us). There is a lot of stigma about being a “godless heathen” to quote #2.

  • Shannon

    I agree with those who say they don’t feel the need. When I was in high school and college I was an atheist and out about it, but I didn’t feel the need to get together with other atheists and discuss atheism. I would have had no interest in a conference (still don’t). Maybe if I had known of a group on campus I would have checked them out but I wasn’t motivated to seek out any other atheists.

    Now that I have kids of my own I am wishing for a bit more community but I am finding what’s available in my area (a very populated, urban area too) to be lacking when it comes to children. Mostly people seem to want to get together at bars or sit for a weekly platform at Ethical Culture. Neither of which are of interest for me or the kids (ok, the bar wouldn’t be legal for them, lol!).

    Someone upthread said that atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods and we don’t necessarily have other things in common. That’s how I feel.

  • Chris

    I was never particularly interested in such things when I was a teen and even now in my early twenties it doesn’t appeal.

    If it’s any consolation, anything I ever did with my friends was pretty atheist in nature 🙂

  • Christine

    Maybe the sense of community, publicity, and money issues are all related. As a Christian, you have a church which can publicize events and help you fundraise. You have a formal structure that supports your conference attendance.

    Many atheists don’t have anything like a church, and don’t want it. If you’re trying to get away from being a Christian, belonging to an atheist group might seem unnecessary–and that self-perpetuates into lack of event attendance.

    I’m 20 and a college student, and I wouldn’t have the time or money to go even if I had heard about conferences (which I haven’t).

  • Brian

    Theism has little content. There are no theist camps. There are only Christian camps, Jewish camps, Muslim camps, etc.

    Atheism has no content. Science camps, art camps, socialist camps, or survivalist camps could be atheistic camps, but camps need to be organized around something positive.

  • Ross

    I’m 28 now and don’t fall into the young atheist group either. However, when I was in high school I was drawn into the evangelical christian scene for a few reasons.

    Christianity provides a sense of community that I was lacking at that point in my life. I was lonely and didn’t really have a connection to any groups. I was welcomed in to the christian groups with open arms. Once I got involved I was able to connect with a lot of people and it filled my longing for community.

    I was also really drawn into the music that the church and religious groups provided. It was like going to a concert a few times a week. I was able to sing and it gave me an opportunity to play both my Sax and Bass outside of the normal venues of school.

    Another reason I was drawn to it was because of the girls. I feel I’m an average looking guy. In the religious community average guys are able to get much better looking girls than what nature really allows. Guys that are 5’s get girls that are 8’s – 9’s. That is a pretty sweet deal I think. Mormons have it even better, there are some really hot Mormon girls.

    For awhile I really liked it and was willing to look over some of the obvious fallacies of god and the church. It wasn’t until college that I really had the conflict of interest. I couldn’t over look the crap that came along with religion. So I started to get away from those types of groups and events. Some of my best friends were still very religious and involved with the church so I would go to the Christian Challenge group with them as a social outing. I would go to the meetings and then go out to the bars with some of the girls. It was a win-win situation lol.

    Now I’m at a point in my life where I just don’t care about religion and the evangelical people really annoy me. I just wish they would keep themselves out of politics.

    What I think the churches offer is the sense of belonging and community that atheism lacks. Even though we share a common belief that there is no god, that is typically about it.

    For atheism to have the same type of draw as religious events there would have to be more offered than just sitting around talking. I think using the christian events as an example for how to put together an atheist camp would be a good start. Give people a chance to really get involved with atheism without turning it into it’s own sort of religion.

  • Jim

    I agree with Christine, being at the end of my college days I really don’t have the time or interest to go.

    One of my major disappointments with with Atheism as well as religions is the bickering. So many blogs out there, but nearly all of them just trying to disprove the views of everyone else instead of just trying to coexist. This is really the only Atheist blog I follow because you seem to at least try to keep the name-calling and attacks to a minimum (though you do have your moments…). I would guess a conference would be about the same: just trying to deny or alter everyone else’s beliefs instead of working for a peace between everyone. I suppose that idea of change though attacks and disprove is what some call the New Atheists.

    If it were more about living peacfully together and less about attacking other beliefs and there were a convention near me then I would consider it, but so far I don’t see that even being a possibility.

  • We Are The 801

    Speaking from experience, teenagers and young adults are easy targets for churches and religious youth groups because its an easy demographic for those low in self-esteem or at least on shakier emotional ground.

    Add a bit of feel-good propaganda mixed with guilt, what’s not to like?

    Atheism (or more to the point, I think, humanism) means thinking for yourself, not relying on some transcendent being to watch out for you or point fingers at you. It requires a good sense of self-responsibility and confidence in oneself.

    Program children at an early age through the family, school and surrounding society with as much religious claptrap and you help to insulate them from all that. Cripple ’em at early age!

  • Shannon

    Jim, check out Dale McGowan’s blog. It’s under the blogroll and is called The Meming of Life. Particularly go back a few weeks and check out his silo series 😉

  • I think the answer is in the name “BattleCry” itself. That sort of thing sells itself much better to the kind of people who go on, you know, crusades. It’s hard to get people riled up to that degree when they’re not battling the forces of evil in an epic struggle at the end of days.

  • muggle

    First off, you’re talking about the difference between herding sheep and herding cats. Uphill battle begun and good goddamn luck with that.

    We are Atheist because we’re not afraid to think for ourselves. Those of us who are out Atheists are out because we have the guts to speak our own mind and go our own way. Note: go our own way.

    We are largely not joiners.

    Add to that the money issue and parent issue when you’re talking about high school and college students or, hey, anyone still relying on their parents for help of any sort in these tough times. Richard just had a letter from someone with that problem who wondered if she should have lied about belonging to a church. Bigger issue still.

    Personally, I didn’t have any interest in such community until about 15 years ago, in my late 30’s, and that’s because I was living somewhere (Denver) where Atheism largely wasn’t accepted. And I was there because I had skipped state with my daughter to protect her from an abusive father, an isolating condition in and of itself no matter what your religious ilk or how strong a person you are. The only advantage, if you can call it that, is that I know what I am made of: that I am a good, strong person who will do what’s right. I’m not bragging but I am proud of it. It does not incline to make me a follower.

    So I don’t know if I ever would have had the need if not for feeling so isolated to begin with and further isolated because I lived in a place where Atheism was not welcome and people were freaked out by New Yorkers even upstate hicks. My friends were mostly other singler mothers and my daughter’s friends’ parents but no other Atheists in a place where there was absolute hatred for not worshipping “God” and John Elway, neither of which I could.

    So I’d been saying for a few months that I wish there was some sort of Atheist support group when lo and behold a “miracle” occured (yes, that’s said tongue in cheek without thinking it’s anything more than a coincidence) and some group with the promising name of The Freedom From Religion Foundation was on the news for protesting a 10 commandments monument I’d long hated and walked by near every day. I’m still a member 14 years later and will be until I die.

    My experience in Denver has made me very conscious of church-state separation. It never occured to me to be in the closet. I came from New York where (at that time anyway, less true now, sadly) people shrugged at my nonbelief and said you think what you think and I’ll think what I think. Cool! Exactly. Thank you very much. I was very caught off-guard by the hostile reactions I encountered in Denver (and since have in NY upon my return, to my even greater shock and disappointment, things have gone downhill here in the last 24 years).

    So I had a rude awakening and sought out, yes rather politically motivated though also wanting Atheist comraderie, groups. I’m (obviously) very pleased with FFRF but I was not so pleased with American Atheists or the Secular Humanists. The former seem way too hostile and want to go the other extreme of melding nonbelief and state. They just don’t seem to get it when you don’t paint all believers with the same brush and blame the innocent with the guilty. The latter are just plain snobs and, yes, too damned religious with a set of commandments, uh, I mean affirmations or whatever the fuck it was they called them. Laws are necessary evils but I don’t want anyone handing me a set of moral rules to live by. Anyone.

    I belong happily to FFRF, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU and the Feminist Majority (I didn’t like NOW for much the same reasons I didn’t like American Atheists, what hostility) and I love this blog but that’s about the extent of it and only one of those organizations is Atheist. If I had to pick one group and one group only, I’d probably pick them but it’d be a hard choice between FFRF and AU.

    I actually value the diversity in AU. We need all kinds of voices to really make religious freedom work and AU’s got that. Plus I like hearing from believers of different stripes that are broadminded and likeable to remind me not to prejudge.

    because I fear that at the first mention of by-laws, mission statements, parliamentary procedure, or the election of officers, I’m going to run screaming for the door. Gaaaaaaahhhhh!!!!

    LOL, I hear that. Absolutely. Me too. One thing I like about FFRF — at least the Denver chapter at that time; we don’t have one locally — was that it was a small intimate group who’d start off every meeting saying we should use proper protocol followed immediately by throwing it out the window. They had officers and all and would put any action to a vote but other than that the meetings were freeform, like discussing things with friends and they welcomed my then young daughter (12-13) into their midst and listened to her respectfully, not indulgently, when she shyly offered an opinion.

  • Andrew H.

    I’m 14 years old, and I’ve been an atheist for about three years now. What originally converted me, I can’t say, for I’m not particularly sure. I’ve not “outed” myself to my family per se, but I feel like they’ve taken the hint almost. A couple of my student friends found out, and my general friends are accepting of it, with the exception of one boy who has tried to convert me a number of times. I’ve been reading your blog for about six months now, and I think I do have an answer for your question.

    Because the general public isn’t really accepting of us.

    Most of us (being atheist teens) tend to shy away from the topic, because it’s a socially awkward topic for us to discuss, and moderately (at least in my town) is frowned upon. I do know several kids who are agnostic, or even consider themselves atheistic, who don’t bring it up because of this fear. These youth groups aren’t really widely spread enough, and the thought of them is practically unheard of in my town. Everyone just assumes someone is either Christian or Jewish, and that’s kind of the way it is.

    Many kids here are just reared from birth that way, and don’t see otherwise. Particularly now, as a lot of kids are going through the process of confirmation, whenever I talk to some of them it’s because mostly “their parents are making them do it”, but “I believe in God, why don’t you?”.

    So as someone else bluntly put it, we are hiding. And that’s it. My dad and I were discussing mild agnosticism and atheism on Christmas Eve day of all times (not my case, but in general) and his one response as to why it was “pointless” is that “there are some things you learn in church that you should learn, and really can’t learn anywhere else”. I posed him a question, “So are you saying that there’s no such thing as a person who can’t be moral without a God?” The discussion promptly ended.

    The most ironic bit of it all is that I’m named after my father’s church from his youth.

    And it does hurt, to not tell someone what you think. I get the feeling that they kind of know, but I would like to truly talk about it, but I’m still afraid. My friends know, and they’re typically accepting, of course I always get the “You’re going to hell, you know that?” answer, and I always say “I don’t care, because frankly I don’t believe in it.” They can have their own way and that’s fine with me. I don’t push my beliefs on other people.

    A lot of people think we’re just “confused”. That’s really not true. We’re just scared. I’m not even in the worst situation. There’s got to be kids questioning their beliefs in areas around the country that couldn’t imagine even considering atheism, and yeah, I feel it’s something that should be brought up.

    I hope I answered your question.

    Would my mom let me go to an atheist convention? When pigs fly.


  • unique.smile.within

    As a young atheist myself, I can say with certainty if I could, I would, but as it stands, I’m very isolated. The internet is the only outlet I have to connect with other atheists, except my uncle – but he only likes to talk about hockey. read: boring lol

  • phoenixphire24

    The area I lived in had an atheist group, but most of the people involved were adults that worked full time and maybe had kids. It was just too difficult to get everyone together, even though the group wasn’t that large. Personally, I don’t get that much out of an atheist group, but as a kid and now, I probably would have enjoyed a science or skepticism group. Much more to talk about and get involved in.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    After two millennia we can laugh again

    But don’t you realize . . . that your fine site is the sort of meeting place you want?
    Here we are, talking to one another —

    When I was young I was alone in my rejection of xianity for a very long time. In the Bible Belt with whom are you going to share the delicious anti-xian humor in the second essay of ‘On the genealogy of morals’? Nietzsche became my guide.

    It’s only in the last 15 years that having an electronic agorá has become a reality. Now we are free once again after 2,000 years to laugh at Saul of Tarsus when he tries to present the notion of a bodily resurrection to “a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers [who] began to dispute with him.” (Acts 17:18 NIV)

    If you are seeking atheist political action, you could look at the Freedom from Religion Foundation. I expect my right to disbelief under the Constitution to be respected by all religionists. If you imagine that you enjoy “freedom of conscience” think again.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • 1) Because Xtians, like sheep or lemmings, follow the leader mindlessly… over a cliff to mass suicide, or into mind numbing superstitious nonsense.
    2) because atheists don’t have a creed or belief system. we only share non-belief in god/gods…not much upon which to base a convention.
    3) because atheists don’t need other atheists to bolster their non-belief…xtians need to have their faith reinforced by the similarly deluded lest independent thought and questioning rear its ugly head.

  • Didn’t read the comments so apologies if this is covered already. I’m an club officer with the University of South Florida Atheist Student Alliance so I can speak with a bit of authority.

    First there’s the cost – Students are poor, traveling can be pricey. Christian youth groups expenses are heavily subsidized by the churches they are affiliated with and there’s a large pre-selected pool of potential donors available to hit up for cash assistance.

    Two, motivation – why would the young people want to go? I frequently attend other ‘adult’ atheist organization meetings but I’m an older non-traditional student with a full-time job, an apartment, bills, pretty much the whole ‘life’ except the wife and kids (happily doing without). There’s not a lot of appeal for the younger group. Quite frankly many of the people that I meet at the ‘adult’ meetings seem hopelessly disconnected and are stuck in the us vs them mindset. It’s not so much us vs them if you live on a college campus. Yeah there are the campus christian groups and the hopelessly hilarious public preachers but they can be safely ignored. To the young people who can easily connect with and surround themselves with other like minded people there’s no reason to want to travel to a conference.

    Three, the reason I have the least actual evidence for but the one I suspect is probably the most right, hook-ups – I have it from an authority that I respect that the primary reason that many young people go to christian youth conferences is the ease of scoring an easy hook-up. Hotel rooms are plentiful and when the chemistry of youth ignites it burns extra fast because it’s over as soon as you leave. There’s not nearly as much sexual tension in an atheist organization. Lounging around for some of the student social meetings I’ve seen some sexy stuff as people joked around but there’s no tension, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about it. It doesn’t matter to the atheist student group (well voyeurist curiosity maybe) if someone hooks up with someone.

  • HP

    @ Muggles — herding sheep vs. herding cats — that’s it exactly. I think “Sheep vs. Cats” would make an excellent webcomic for anyone so inclined.

    About the Humanists — one of the reasons I’m reluctant to describe myself as a small-h humanist is because of the capital-H Humanists — all the charm of Unitarians, with added dogma.

    Apropos of nothing, I found myself driving behind a car today (a Saab — go figure) with a bumper-sticker of the Atomic-A that the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs uses to mark the graves of atheist soldiers (many of whom, presumably, died in foxholes). (See #16 here.) I was really tempted to follow the driver and find out why that particular symbol of atheism was on his car. It seems an odd and unpopular one, at least compared to the Scarlet A that’s proved so popular on the Internet.

  • Matt D

    so many comments spot on the mark.

    my 2 cents, as Muggle said, people who think for themselves are less likely to need group reinforcement – we just arent joiners.

    and of course, “not” believing in something isn’t much of a basis for a group.

    Unlike Xians we dont have a whole bunch of related views that are party line.

    I’d bet we are generally more liberal/left-leaning than the general population, but I’ll bet there’s misogynistic, homophobic racist athiests out there too.

    Hey, happy New Year everyone – only 11hrs til 2010 in my part of the world!

  • Meg

    Here’s to a different voice. I’m in my mid-40s and I’ve always been atheist.

    I was raised without religion by parents that left the Unitarian Church about the time I was born.

    OTH, I was never outspoken about it until the last 10 years spent living in the religious depths of Indiana. Around here, not being Christian is unheard of.

    My DS is 19 and part of a college atheist organization and fairly outspoken about his views. Probably caused by the same 10 years living in this environment.

  • LK

    As a young atheist, I think another reason is because it is quite common within religious organizations to congregate and meet up and do stuff together, but personally—as someone who has never identified with a religion—this concept of meeting up with people to talk about things of this nature is completely foreign and odd. And, frankly, not something I feel like doing.

    I already talk about atheist things with my friends (who all, coincidentally, are also atheists, though I did not screen them before becoming friends with them). I just don’t see a reason to talk about these things with people I don’t know. And to what end, exactly? I don’t feel like I’d really learn anything new at these conferences. Now, I’m perfectly willing to read stuff on wonderful sites such as this one, but as far as going somewhere for a conference? That sounds like too much effort, when a vaguely similar experience can be had from reading blogs such as this. At least, presumably. Show me why going to one of these conferences is a valuable use of time and maybe I’ll go. But “young” people do massively tend to prefer virtual experiences over real ones, especially when it concerns conferences with speakers who give lectures—which sounds far too much like school.

    Not trying to be intentionally snarky with this comment, just really really honest.

  • Alec

    Well, I’m fourteen, and I’d love to go to some of these events, but I either a) don’t have the time, b) don’t know about them, c) don’t really want to travel to go to one, especially since content is usually posted online, and finally, I’d have to get my parents to drive me, and that’s a problem because they don’t really care (they are agnostics though, so they’re not opposed to it).

  • I think the problem Hemant identifies (which many of us have noticed) is a subset of the larger problem that it’s difficult to organize people around an *absence* of something. Issue- or activity-driven organizations where people can meet each other are more successful. Trips to local museums or parks, gay marriage canvassing, building houses with YIKES! religious groups – all fun and usually successful.

  • Staceyjw

    There are 2 types of social groups that atheists have access to- political and social. It’s important to think of them separately , even though they can overlap.

    I understand that many atheists have lives that don’t revolve around their atheism- this is healthy! However, it’s our common “lack of god belief”, that makes us targets of hatred and unites us against religious tyranny. If we weren’t subjected to religiously motivated laws, it wouldn’t matter if we organized politically*. Those who wanted a social atheist community (MANY DO) would make one, the rest would go about their business. But we ARE affected by fundies and their laws, so we have to do something about it.

    We may be growing in #’s, but still have little impact on current affairs. In order to change this, we need to be seen as a real group. You don’t have to socialize, but PLEASE consider joining a national association, even in name only, for political reasons. Strength in #’s!

    Young people are important, and atheism IS growing in this age group. We could learn from churches, by making FUN, affordable, and well publicized events of our own. We may be the minority, but so are Jews, and they still manage to have fun summer camps, temples, social clubs, etc. It takes money and time, but we’re getting there. Enough people have to think its important enough to bother.

    *(If unicorns were trying to ruin science education, ban abortions, and legislate away civil rights, you BET I would join an “Anti-Unicorn Association”.)

  • Richard P

    I also think there is really just a lack of interest.
    I asked my daughter if she would want to go to an atheist social event. Her answer was, “no, there to concerned with religion.” She basically explained she just wanted to be left alone and let others be. She says it seems silly to be so preoccupied with a non-issue as she put it.

  • Noir the Sable

    Well, one does have to keep in mind that Christianity is a distinct religious group, whereas Atheism can come in forms spanning the spectrum from mere indifference/apathy about religious matters to militant anti-theism. You can’t exactly, to use an extreme example, expect an Atheistic astronomy professor from Oxford and an Atheistic Confucianist acupuncturist from Shanghai to have similar beliefs and/or interests, would you?

  • My children may be atheists by default but I’m not going to actively encourage them to attend events about atheism. I’ll support them if they want to go but the decision has to come from them.

    Opposing that I imagine that Christian parents encourage their children to attend Christian events and become active in religion.

  • MattB

    @Andrew S

    I totally agree. There is no common goal with people who don’t believe in god. I have to say, I think it’s Atheist conventions etc that give people the impression that Atheism is a religious type organisation.

    Maybe the reason for the lack of young Atheists at these events is that they’re happily going about their business god-free and in no need of gathering with other Atheists in order to get validation for their non-belief.

    I don’t believe in god but I don’t feel the need to convene en masse with others who feel the same way.

    It all feels a bit, religious to me.

  • That is easy. Atheists have nothing to offer as atheists.

  • Quite a few of you mentioned this but Parents are the biggest obstacles.

    I don’t know about some of you but if i came out to my mother when i was in middle or high school, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.
    My mother is an awesome mom btw.

    Let’s be real, being that age, the world is kind of scary and you want everyone on your side.

    Some have noted that their parents finance their education and they don’t want to mess that up.

    I also have to blame our piss poor education system that doesn’t teach critical thinking skills.

  • MattB

    @Sabio Lantz

    If by that you mean Atheism promises no rewards or threatens no punishment and offers no pipe-dreams and pie-in-the-sky fantasy’s then yes, you’re right

  • Danielle

    I think the younger you are the harder it is to break away from your parents and stand up and say you’re an atheist.

    I’m a college student and am lucky to have a supporting family when it comes to my atheism (even though they don’t agree with me), but the reason I haven’t gone to any conferences is definitely a financial issue.

  • Ellie

    I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t even realize I was an atheist until I went off to college. Looking back, I can see that what I felt about religion wasn’t really belief, but I didn’t even bother to challenge my own ideas until I was several hours away from my conservative family, and could explore the ideas in my own way.

    I think parents also support their children in going to these Christian conventions when both the parents and the children are Christians. Many young atheists come from religious families, where the activities may not be supported.

  • I would suggest three reasons:

    First, in general, herding atheists is like herding skeptics or cats. You have a heterogenous, willful group. So it is difficult to get them to agree on anything.

    Second, the vast majority of atheists aren’t active atheists. And that makes sense. In a world with no little or no religion, there would be no atheist conferences. But in a world only of only a single religion, people would still gather for specifically religious purposes. If one is an atheist one doesn’t necessarily see any overarching obligation to spread the faith, so to speak. However, most religions have direct obligations to either proselytize or engage in activity that keeps people within the faith.

    Third, some no so really religious youths go to religious conferences/events as a way of meeting other young people or as a place to hook up. I’m more familiar with Jewish youth events than Christian ones, but a lot of the kids seem to go simply for the chance to go get some. This applies even to those going to nominally Orthodox events.

    I suspect that many of the kids going to Christian events are in the same category. You aren’t going to get those sorts of hangers on unless you already have a large critical mass. That’s especially the case if atheism is seen as uncool or unpopular.

  • Jen

    Atheists aren’t joiners. lulz

    (We’re voters, though)

  • Dan

    Im a young atheist hoping to get out to as many groups and conferences as I can once I get out of my parents’ house.

    College ftw

  • I think it’s pretty simple, a lot of young atheists probably have a lot of theists in their lives who would disapprove, and who they might rely on or might not yet be willing to let down with the news. They might want to go, but that would mean coming out, and they are just not ready yet.

  • Mita

    When you’re a high-school-aged atheist like me, there really isn’t a whole lot openly available to you. My school has groups for every religion and race: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Indians, Asians, etc…but there is no group for atheist students. I know for a fact there are atheist teachers at my school..they should take the initiative to create a group for us as well.

  • WCLPeter

    I remember reading an article somewhere that found a correlation between intelligence and lack of religious belief, essentially the smarter you are the less likely you are to be religious.

    In my experience, smarter people tend to be shy and socially awkward. I know for myself I find it *very* difficult to function socially in larger groups, I become quite shy and stammer a lot. I can only imagine that a young atheist who is perhaps a bit shy and socially awkward, who might also have non supportive parents and friends, will have a very difficult time showing up for one of the events.

    Now, if some atheist group wants to organize a trip to a sci-fi convention (sign me up, a bus full of 18-30+ year old women in anime costumes could be interesting 😉 ), science exhibits, art exhibits (culture is also important too); maybe go hit a mini golf / laser tag / go kart course followed by a buffet place with a private room.

    If you want young people to come, you should provide fun, relaxed, events where they could downplay the whole “atheist gathering” issue.

  • Brian Macker

    I have the same issue with my anti-UFO meetings. No one seems motivated to show up. I wonder why?

  • For me, atheism has never been a big deal. I’ve always been one, and it hasn’t caused an issue with anyone in my life. Perhaps because of this, getting together with a group of strangers to talk about atheism has never really appealed to me. I’m just not much of a joiner in general. Thinking back to when I was a young atheist in middle school and high school, I had a lot of other things going on in my life with school, homework, friends, etc. Heading off to a conference to talk about atheism would have been rather low on my list of priorities, even if I had been aware of them at the time.

    Apropos of nothing, I found myself driving behind a car today (a Saab — go figure) with a bumper-sticker of the Atomic-A that the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs uses to mark the graves of atheist soldiers (many of whom, presumably, died in foxholes). (See #16 here.) I was really tempted to follow the driver and find out why that particular symbol of atheism was on his car. It seems an odd and unpopular one, at least compared to the Scarlet A that’s proved so popular on the Internet.

    I used to have one of those on my car. This was about 10 years ago, so it predated Richard Dawkins’ campaign. I had to take it off after the police told me I needed to put a regular license plate on the front of the car rather than a novelty plate, but I do remember no one had any clue what it was. Incidentally, does anyone know if you can buy Scarlet A car emblems?

  • Kevin M

    Because to our generation, atheism is natural. We don’t need to put ourselves through programs to perpetuate our beliefs. Christian beliefs are so ridiculous that they need to be re-enforced on a regular basis.

  • MG

    The reason I am not active in the atheist community is my parents. They are conservative and god-loving.

  • ben

    MG, i can not relate. Is there any possible way? I am part of an atheist society at my local university and we are just begging to get people interested, i feel like heaps of people with your situation are impossible to reach. Is there anyway that people in my situation can help people like yourself be active?

  • I’ve read through most of the comments on this post, and thought it fitting to make a couple of my own. What I wanted to say in my articles was that with regard to getting young people involved in atheist causes (1) this is what Xtns are doing, (2) this is what atheists are doing, and (3) this is what atheists can “borrow” from Xtns to do a better job. But somehow the conversation changed to why do we need or want atheist communities or events to begin with.

    My response is that it depends on what event or community we’re talking about. Some are about getting dinner and drinks with semi-like-minded people. Some are about community, charity, and replacing church, and can devolve into group therapy sessions. Others are about promoting science, where some of the greatest minds in bio, physics, genetics etc gather to give presentations on their fields. And some are about taking political action to defend the separation of church and state from politically active Christians. To me the first of these four can be fun; the second can be silly; and the last two can be informative, and perhaps even necessary.


  • Ait Chapel,

    The thing is…again, there is *not necessarily* anything “semi-like-minded” between atheists. The only guarantee is that we both don’t believe in gods and we are likely to have a slew of coincidents relating to living in the world because of that. We may, but do not have to, share a position on any other issue. So, there goes reason no. 1.

    I don’t want to sound evil, so I won’t talk about charity (other than to say again: why have an atheist charity instead of picking a positive cause and joining that? No need to devolve around theist vs. atheist on that…) BUT regarding community, replacing church, and devolution to group therapy meetings…a few things.

    1) If I were looking for community, I’d go to church. Despite my nonbelief, my church is my culture. It is my upbringing. It is my community. But I’m not looking for community.

    2) If I were looking to replace church, I’d go to church. Atheism is not a surrogate of church. It is part of my saying, “I don’t care, want or need a church.”

    3) Finally, devolution into group therapy. Here is most troublesome. Firstly, this again highlights the differences. As an *atheist*, I don’t have much in common with other *atheists* that would help for group therapy. HOWEVER, as an *ex-mormon* (which, for me, is an overlapping role), I do have shared experiences to help with other *ex-mormons*. Secondly, I am even selective about my “group therapy” groups. Some ex-Mormon groups/sites are just too whiney. Again, some beliefs that others have taken do not do anything for me, so again, our “similarity” as ex-Mormons doesn’t even go that far. FINALLY, and most importantly, “group therapy” is impermanent. It ends. People move on.

    Now, about promoting science. This is a good one! BUT again, it has little to do with atheism. In fact, it probably hurts the science cause to make it seem so attached to atheism, when really, scientists must realize that they have to deal with a society of believers if they want to protect science education. If I want to talk about science, I’ll join a science club…which need not be atheist at all. My point with science also relates to the issue I’ve made a theme…again, this is not something all atheists share in common. I am not a scientist. Biology and physics do not really interest me, although I have a passing affinity for chemistry SOMETIMES.

    Political action is probably the best item on the list, but I can’t really argue against this much other than to point out my political apathy in general (which I doubt is generalizable to other atheists, so I don’t submit this as an argument along with my others.)

  • Mo

    I’m 17, and I know many people who, like me, wouldn’t be allowed to attend by their parents or are apprehensive about asking.

  • kaylakrowa

    I’ve always has skepticism even as a young child in a catholic church. I was forced to be confirmed. I’m still a closet atheist to me family, it would never go over well. society can not handle differences. living in the bible belt does not help the secular organization I head.

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