Christians Turned Atheists Discuss Decision to Leave Family Faith Behind

Thursday, October 17, 2013

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a full 1 in 4 millennials, those born between 1981 and 2000, do not affiliate with any faith. They haven't just lapsed in observance, but have chosen to leave organized religion altogether.

Why are atheism and agnosticism on the rise? And what does it take to go against your family's faith?

As part of our series on the changing role of religion in America, The Takeaway hears from three young atheists. They discuss how they began to question their faith and what it was like to leave the church.

Emily Peterson is a humanist from a conservative Christian background. Daniel Munoz is an undergrad student at the University of Texas and president of the student organization “Texas Secular Humanists." Amber van Natten is a former conservative Christian who is now a self-described atheist. They join The Takeaway to explain why they left their faith behind.

Join Takeaway host John Hockenberry tomorrow for a live online chat on the changing role of religion. Get the details here.


Daniel Munoz, Emily Peterson and Amber Van Natten

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Megan Quellhorst


T.J. Raphael

Comments [27]

mark from New York

I see nothing wrong with converting to a faith or religion different from the families training if one discovers that the training does not meet with the truth that you have discovered. Truth is to understand things as they really are. Opinions or viewpoints may not always reflect what really is. In my view, religious views, faith and actions should bring great peace and joy into a persons life. I see it as an absolute necessity in life to search until one finds and confirms what is true and what is not, and to live what you know to be true. In this process, one must honor the right all have to find what they believe to true and let them live it without being made to feel uncomfortable because they might be different. I witness God himself honoring this right because with all the power He has to persuade by revealing things as they really are, he does not interfere with mankind's quest to find truth for themselves. It is an act of love to let people find their own way and God is love. Religion, faith and the truth should not hurt the heart or rob the moral agency of mankind. It can be challenging to live, but should satisfy and bring peace to the heart of the believer. If people leave family training and faith, we all should allow it because it is a moral right that we all share. It is reasonable to feel sadness and heart break but not make others feel small or hurt them in anyway because they have left the families way of belief or traditions. Family bond should be rooted in love and fellowship not compliance.

Oct. 26 2013 09:10 AM
Gordon Abbo

I rejected religion and became spiritual, where I developed a personal faith which can be summed up as follows: I regard God as a universal cosmic force, not some separate being. We are interconnected and the divine is within us. We are to believe in ourselves and make this world a better place. We are responsible for our actions and create our own heaven or hell. And we are on a journey of personal and spiritual growth to learn love and respect for self, others, and the environment. My way is not the only way, but it works for me.

Oct. 23 2013 08:48 PM
Owen from Miami

I heard commentary on the show to the effect that as millenials age they will reconsider what's important and return to their church for socialization and ritual. For me, an atheist and a pre-millenial in my 40s, it has been exactly the opposite. Having kids has shown me how important it is to be honest with the next generation about our conviction that reason trumps faith. Although we teach our kids to be respectful of others' beliefs, and discuss ethics from a humanist perspective, we are openly hard atheists who do not consider religion to have any relevance in our family life. As I have gotten older my atheism has become stronger, not weaker, especially as I have traveled to and lived in other parts of the world among people who have equally strong beliefs that contradict each other. Sure, we can't disprove that god exists, but we have much more important tasks to accomplish for each other and for those we love than to argue over the merits of ancient superstition.

Oct. 19 2013 04:50 PM
Jerry Furth from Newark, NJ

It may be too late to post on this subject and it doesn't really apply to the millenials. I am a physician with a hospice program. I find that people who are very religious have in general a much harder time coming to terms with death because they are very fearful that they have "not been good enough to get to heaven," and are fearful of going to hell. This, in my opinion, is a terrible legacy that religion imposes and makes a difficult but inevitable process hard on family and on the patient in his/her terminal moments.

Oct. 17 2013 08:38 PM
Ryan from TX

Christians turned atheists? Oxymoronic. They were never truly in His grip, had they been. No one may snatch them from His hand.

Oct. 17 2013 05:41 PM
tom LI

To Ed from Larch...

Re-read your posts and discover - if you're intellectually and spiritually honest - WHY so mnay reject your Religion.

Its this notion of absolute and Special knowledge about the "world". You have no special insight, and most especially no special knowledge about life and how to and what to believe for anyone BUT yourself.

Your reasons for faith can never be the same for any one else. In my POV you're a sheep who must align to the status quo, must be part of a system that preaches community, etc - but has been a major cause of divisiveness and hatred towards more people than any other Religion. (barring the rise of Islamic fundamentalism over the last three plus decades, but Xtianity has a longer run at it)

Where we differ is that while I see you as a sheep, afraid of the world at large, afraid of the dark, and superstitious to a fault - I will not normally tell you that. I dont care about your faith - till you shove it in my/others face! (contrary to what Jesus told you about that!) And when I was Religious I didn't have the hubris to do the thinking of my God. You can not threaten people with condemnation as that's not your role as a believer! But we know that's what American Xtianity has mostly become - a Belief that who You point a finger at is being marked by your God! You actually think you have any power to determine the fate of anyone but yourself!

And the previous story about Bullying...listen to it again and take it to heart. Xtians/xtianity are/is Historical bullies!

Oct. 17 2013 04:34 PM
Mariella from Florida USA

I grew up in a fervent Cattolic family in Europe. I am a secular Humanist now, in my sixties. I rather love and respect a human that I see every day, than a deity that I have no way of seeing, touching or talking to. I compare the notion of God, to the notion of a fantastic figure,like an immaginary friend, created by men to subjugate the feeble minded, women and children. A rational mind cannot accept that. Why, I ask myself, a supernatural being, that is omnipotent, omniscent, loving and just, hides somewhere in the universe. Why isn't that being among us? to guide us, to sustain us? Because that being does not exist!!!

Oct. 17 2013 04:29 PM
tom LI

To Mary from Detroit. Dare I say, dare I accuse you of being a typical reactionary, knee-jerk American Xtian? The shows with Muslims were broadcasted prior to today's show...apparently you missed them. And leapt to a grand accusation of bias. Common enough among American Xtians...this absurd notion of persecution.

BUT - Xtianity is the mainstream Religion in the US, and former Xtians are typically more likely to discuss their de-conversion that perhaps Muslims and Jews who might suffer more marginalizing from family, community than Xtians. (but backlash is common enough among some Xtian clans)

Please don't tell others about Xtianity in this nation is rife with such problems. As American Xtians (as a collective, and often individuals) never refrains from telling others their beliefs are absolutely wrong! Followed by a quick sentencing to hell.

I suggest you, like most reactionary Xtians stop drinking the persecution kool-aid, and investigate what truly is going on with the push-back to Xtianity.

Hypocrisy in the Western world was pretty much invented by the Xtian collective...its entire history is super-saturated with hypocrisy.

Oct. 17 2013 04:22 PM
educated in the history from Springfield,Or

I grew up in the Baptist church. All I new of the Bible I learned from there. When I got older and found the history of the Bible and how "Man" changed the Bible to fit their needs, that's when I had my eyes opened. I decided on my own that "Man" made this thing they call the Bible. I have faith in me, that I can do anything that I put my mind to and don't need to be told I need faith in something to have it fulfilled. If I want something bad enough then I have to work hard to get it.

Oct. 17 2013 03:27 PM
Angel from Miami FL

Religion is an ancient constitution and bill of rights. Both are meant to create the foundation for civilization. Both are subject to the fallibility of the clergy or politicians who administer it.

Oct. 17 2013 03:19 PM
Shawn Caswell from Austin, TX

I am curious as why the show hasn't told race, regional, and income backgrounds from the Pew study. John Hockenberry asked that question from the Pew researcher, but he never answered. My understanding from the initial study's release is that the largest loss of faith among Millennials are from upper middle-class, white youth from the Northeast or the West Coast. The poll regarding faith among other minorities found relatively negligible results.

Oct. 17 2013 03:15 PM

If you have a brain in your head, no matter what religious persuasion, anyone, and everyone will at some point in their life question what they believe or are supposed to believe. Otherwise, FEAR keeps persons from questioning. Fears, both real and imagined holds every human from truly being free-thinking.

Religious institutions count on this fear as do their leaders who don't have jobs/support without the fear keeping attachments in place.

My own questioning journey has freed me. I count on myself, not God to keep me aware of my weakness and strengths. When I am fearful, I have come to recognize I'm manifesting what I believe, and may be overly-invested, and/or overly-emotional about that fear. Once recognized, and questioned, I can deal - accept myself at this time. It's an ongoing sort of Aware Living that just takes practice.

Oct. 17 2013 01:25 PM

I am a Jew. Every time I see discussions on religion and talk of God I find one thing missing. No one states what God is to them. How can you discuss a belief in a God without knowing what that person believes in. My sense of God is not of a super being or that there are any "relatives" of God on earth. I don't know what God is. Furthermore, I don't believe any one person has the "truth" of God's words. In Judaism we all agree on some basic tenets of how we should conduct our life, but there are many other parts of our religion that we don't agree on and that's ok, except in the fundamentalist part of Judaism (which is just like all other religions).

Oct. 17 2013 01:24 PM

God’s existence cannot be proved or disproved. At least no one has done it yet. So faith is a choice, made without proof. Why would one choose to believe something one can’t prove? As Joel Osteen, the Houston-based minister advises, “Choose faith over fear.” Fear is undoubtedly a major factor. After all, the world is a scary place. But when the proof of an idea is uncertain, the only honest response I can have is, “I don’t know.” It’s why I no longer go to church and recite the Creed. The only honest thing I can say about God is, maybe.

Oct. 17 2013 12:39 PM
Daniel Muñoz from Austin

Hi Ed!

You asked how it is that I think Christian morality gets it wrong. In the interview, I gave an explanation: Intuitively, it's never right to do something just because someone told you to do it, even if that someone is God. There has to be some reason why they told you to do it.

If you friend tells you to walk into the middle of the highway, you don't assume that now you've got some reason to do it. You ask why on earth your friend would tell you to do such a thing, and she'll give you some explanation (maybe there's some animal sitting in the middle of the highway and there's no traffic right now). If the explanation is bad, or if your friend just says "no reason," you don't have any special reason to go run into the highway. But according to some versions of the Divine Command Theory, all reasons to act come from God's commands, and there's no reason why God gave his commands. God's just like the friend who tells you to run onto the highway for no reason.

(A common defense for the Christian here is to say that God's commands flow from God's nature. This seems unhelpful. For why does God have the nature that he does? Why is it part of God's nature that murder is wrong? The only suitable answer, I think, is that murder was already wrong before God said it was. But these are deep and murky waters.)

I don't think anything I've said refutes of all possible kinds of Christian morality—that may not even be possible. But it's at least a start.

Maybe you'll understand my position if you ask yourself this question: "If I were to lose faith, would I no longer believe that it's right to be kind towards my loved ones? Or would I think that it's morally okay to just go around murdering my friends and family?"

Oct. 17 2013 11:35 AM
mary from detroit

-T. J. Raphael
Digital Content Editor
The Takeaway
I hope others will seak it out and read it , the anti Christain segment was braodcast for all to hear it. Big difference.

Oct. 17 2013 10:51 AM

Hi Mary from Detroit,

We did speak with Muslims and Jews wrestling with their faith. You can find those segments in our series page right here:

Thanks for listening!

-T. J. Raphael
Digital Content Editor
The Takeaway

Oct. 17 2013 10:39 AM
Mike from Westchester

Atheism is on the rise as an inevitable result of the increasingly visible, reasonable, logical arguments supporting it. Many young people, such as myself, who perhaps have benefited from a better education than previous generations, are persuaded by such arguments. Additionally, we can't help but be affected by the global pain, suffering, oppression, and discrimination being done in the name of this or that religion. As Hitchens articulately brought to light in his debate with Tony Blair, the bad outweighs the good. (google this debate, it's good)

To enhance this WNYC religion segment, I strongly suggest inviting influential thought leaders onto the show, such as Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins.

Oct. 17 2013 10:29 AM
mary from detroit

I find it interesting that you spoke with only Christain, what you couldn't find a Jew, Muslim or Hindu who removed themselves from their parents religion. This was so one sided and there is such a backlash againt Christain in the media. These young people you interview, who did not want to be told how to think, good for them actually, but then told many who find solice in religion that what they beleive is wrong. You can't have it both ways, that's why we have Freedom of RELIGION. I will let my Christain friends who live in poverty stricken countries trying to grow vegtable for the poor that there beleifs are wrong. Look at the good Christianity does rather that just the superstitions, is that all you got of this.

Oct. 17 2013 10:20 AM
Angel from Miami FL

If you live helping not harming yourself and others, have a sense of worth and love for life, does worshiping god really matter? Or is god such an egotistical entity that your faith and devotion is what's truly more important?

Oct. 17 2013 10:03 AM
Ed from Larchmont

How does Christian morality get it wrong? Let's hear it, should be interesting. Morality can be based on reason alone.

Someday you will want the friendship of God.

Oct. 17 2013 09:57 AM
Ed from Larchmont

That's very good. Be the best person you can be, very good.

Superstition? Really?

Eventually you will encounter God.

Oct. 17 2013 09:55 AM
Ed from Larchmont

If you know enough science and philosophy to leave Christianity, you need to learn more about science and philosophy.

It's normal for young people to search and to find out for themselves, keep your mind open.

Do you listen to the pope's speeches online?

Forget the culture, it supports evil things.

Nones - not atheists, but people who don't affiliate with a denomination.

Oct. 17 2013 09:53 AM

The first two comments are part of the reason so many of us have left organized religion. Ed's last sentence is particularly offensive.

Oct. 17 2013 09:53 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Many are unaffiliated, but many are not atheists, many believe in God but aren't affiliated with a religion.

Oct. 17 2013 09:50 AM
Oscar from NY

..and on the end when the devils have triumph in guiding you into the wrong side than you will be explained about the universe and the worlds, there you will find out how clever they were and how incredulous you were and all those earthly gains will be of the past, even your kids or what you love, and the sky should turn into a bronze color shade and the moon black as hair, and there you should be completely naked and you will be surrounded by a multitude of everyone you ever knew and they also should stand before The Lord who judges, and you will see hell and the main warden at the base of door should be pharao king of Egypt and Angels who will drag with brute force the evil doers of this earth to hell where you should see 19 in top.
But heaven will be soothing to our hearts and mind and stomach, there you will live free of sin and reside to do the work you most desire for as long as you can anyone listen to these devils who give nothing and their is no fruit in their trees..
So I recommend do your best in this earth and give thanks for the things you have been given thru the mysteries of The Lord and don't put all your eggs in one basket, ..for nothing will be available for ransom when satan drags you to he'll along with his demons, better to be in the alert and do the right thing...

Ps:free Bansky the artist

Oct. 17 2013 09:29 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Is atheism on the rise? How about the 3 million young people at the pope's last Mass at World Youth Day in Brazil?

Young people leave because they don't know enough about their faith, never been taught, and are influenced by other people. If they knew what the Church is, they would not leave. (It's actually pretty natural for young people to wander from their faith while they search to make it their own.)

Or, they belong to Christian denominations which have strong points, but which are flawed, and they reject it because of the flaws. There is a group, though, that has the fullness of the faith, the Catholic Church.

Remember what Jesus said about leading young people away from their faith, 'It would be better for that man if he tied a millstone around his neck and threw himself into the sea'.

Oct. 17 2013 09:18 AM

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