The Next Generation of Atheists is Here

They represent a modern and more inclusive group of non-believers, and they’re determined to call out the repressive religious beliefs they left behind.

Sarah Olson
Mar 1 · 10 min read
“More than one-third of Gen Z (37%) believes it is not possible to know for sure if God is real, compared to 32 percent of all adults.”

There are approximately 64 million Americans today who identify as atheists, according to sources cited in an April 2018 article on Scientific American, “The Number of Americans with No Religious Affiliation is Rising”. If atheism in America today is truly growing, we can expect to see the next generations — Millennials and Gen-Z — to have a higher percentage of individuals with no religious affiliation. Whether or not this will actually be the case, though it certainly looks that way, young adults in America today are finding themselves at odds with the religion they were raised. For students pursuing careers in STEM, this becomes even more of an issue when some find their religious beliefs called into question for the first time.

While many young adults studying degrees in STEM are able to keep their studies and religious beliefs separate, some are forced to reexamine why they believe in a god. Some leave behind religion altogether. I am one of the latter.

This article will focus on the next generation of atheists — those who have left behind the religion they were raised with, or who never believed at all. I sent out a request for individuals between the ages of 18–26 to contact me and share why they left religion, how it impacted their lives and pursuit of a career in STEM, and what their beliefs are now. I received quite a few responses. It was humbling to read the powerful and personal stories other students shared with me. I have included a selection of them here with their explicit permission — and a few asked to remain anonymous.

I decided to focus solely on college-age individuals because university is a time when many students begin to explore their beliefs and identities. One such woman, a twenty-two year old who requested to be included anonymously, wrote that, “Not long after going to university to study medicine I started to question my religion for a few reasons. As a science student I found it near impossible to take [the] Catholicism side of evolution/creationism.”

“Another issue for me was the opposition that the Catholic Church has [toward] abortion,” she wrote. “I consider myself a feminist and pro-choice student, this conflict made me question my religion hugely. To achieve gender equality, access to safe abortion is essential to protect the health of and empower women around the world. The Catholic Church’s opposition to both homosexuality and transgender people was another sticking point. I found this so deeply unacceptable.”

Her experience was quite similar to my own. Although I was raised non-denominational, I was a part of the Students for Life organization and ardently anti-abortion for several years as an adolescent. As I grew older and came to better understand women’s issues and gender inequity, my opinion changed to reflect a shifting value system: one that emphasized gender equality and women’s rights. Abortion — but also access to birth control and affordable reproductive healthcare — became important things I now crusade for instead of against, because they help ensure women have control over their own bodies and choices. Likewise, recognizing that homosexuality is a natural and important aspect of many people’s lives made it difficult to accept the Biblical stance that homosexuality is a sin.

Although both our anonymous contributor and I were able to transition out of the repressive beliefs of conservative Christianity, for some young women, cultural constraints and expectations make this more difficult. Another individual who reached out to me is a 25-year-old Muslim-American woman graduating with a degree in Physics. She asked to remain anonymous to protect her safety, so I will refer to her as M.

M started to question her religion and the existence of God at fifteen. She wrote, “Growing up as a young Muslim woman I was told that women don’t have a full brain. But at the same time I was doing better than my five brothers ever did in school. So in short, I left religion because of sexism, homophobia and because it conflicted with my logic and my reality.”

She added, “I am an atheist right now.”

An anonymous, 20-year-old female also struggled with the tension she saw between reason and religion: “As someone who values logic and science, a lot of what was preached at me as I was growing up just didn’t make sense to me.” She is studying science and wrote that “When I finally moved away from home to go to university I told myself that I was free to be who I want to be, so I am no longer a catholic. I don’t even really consider myself a Christian. But, not having to follow any sort of invisible set of rules or no longer thinking about how ‘God is always watching’ has made me feel very free.”

The restrictions religion imposes seem to be a universal struggle for young atheists. For Marlene Q, the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents raised in a Mormon community, the pressure from the Latter-Day Saints community was inescapable. They were her family and friends, and they influenced her life choices— such as convincing her to attend Brigham Young University.

She wrote, “At BYU, I realized how much I didn’t fit in. Not only was I one of the very few [people of color] there (over 82% attending are white), I just wasn’t as religious as everyone wanted me to be. I struggled really hard with trying to fit in and be religious, but I just didn’t see any point of it. The introduction of ‘mandatory religion classes’ every semester was insane and weird to me. I wanted to learn about exercise science and kinesiology and anatomy, not about the Book of Mormon. I felt suffocated and I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”

Marlene added that, “I literally left Provo [Utah] right after my last final and never looked back since. I haven’t gone to church since, haven’t met with any church officials, nothing. I just completely left that part of “me” back in Provo because it just felt so toxic and suffocating and not fair to who I really am. I’m not religious. I don’t feel like a sinner at all hours of the day anymore. I no longer feel like I am pretending to be someone I’m not and I’ve gained this new sense of control over myself and it is so amazing. I continue to study exercise science and I am on track for graduate school to get my doctorate in physical therapy. I am able to focus on my studies and things I like with all my attention now and without feeling like I’m doing something wrong by being devoted to science.”

Marlene’s frustration resonates through her words and echoes the experiences of so many other young people who find themselves at odds with their religion during college. When people start to question their beliefs, they start seeking out more information: so what kinds of things help inspire or influence a budding atheist?

For Jaedyn L., who is 22, “The major things that influenced me to grow out of my religion were learning about evolution, the internet, and exploring my sexuality,” she wrote. “My uncle that I’m very close to is also an atheist, and he is a science teacher. He never pushed atheism on me, but he showed me how amazing science is. I remember him teaching me about the physics of fire, the biology of evolution, and the process of science. He showed me how amazing the natural world is — and that all of it is possible without a supreme creator.”

The source of freedom from beliefs and encouragement in science were an important positive influence. Jaedyn also went on to explain some of the downsides of discovering atheism at a young age: “Atheism affected me when I was younger because most of my friends were still religious and we would get in some heated arguments. Over time we learned how to agree to disagree and we are still friends. For a bit, I was that “stereotypical” atheist who saw religion as a “virus”, something detrimental to society, and completely pointless. I supported Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.”

She now has a more balanced worldview: “I matured and became less of the 'firebrand militant atheist’. I now see there are some comfort, culture, and sense of community that religion may provide to others.”

For one 23-year-old named Tyler, science was reason enough not to have a religion: “I think studying astronomy and having a general understanding of the other realms of science lets me answer many of the questions that theists hope to seek through their beliefs. In my opinion that kind of takes away many of the reason for me to believe in anything.”

Like Jaedyn, he has also come to have a more measured approach to religion.

“I don’t believe being atheist has affected me much as a scientist or in my career,” he wrote. “There are a subset of atheists that are hostile toward people who are religious, but I have never been that kind of person, in fact two of my closest friends are a youth pastor and a (former) creationist. I think if I were not tolerable toward people with beliefs then I would be affected.”

Still, some young people are able to reconcile the religion they were raised with and their pursuit of a career in STEM. McKenzi B., age 20, found her love for science through her Christian upbringing: “I was born and raised in the Bible Belt. I was raised Christian and spent nearly my entire K-12 school career in a private Christian school. I also knew that I wanted to study space from a very young age. Ironically, it was my school that sparked my love for everything space.” Soon, the situation changed, and “As the years went by I became disenchanted with my school. The science and math department was a joke. My mom supported my decision to leave and I transferred to a more secular high school. I was able to learn about evolution and real geology for the first time.”

But having an opportunity to learn about secular science began to impact her. “I was struggling with my faith. It seemed like the tighter I was trying to hold on and the more I learned, the less I felt secure in my beliefs. I felt like I was constantly being told by society that I had to choose between faith and science. I was either unintelligent because I chose to believe in God or I was a person who had been fooled by the world.”

Luckily, McKenzi B.’s story has a happy ending. She wrote, “I had very nearly lost my faith by the time I walked into my Astronomy and Geology classes. Both of my professors were open about being women of faith. Both believed in the Big Bang and evolution. In fact my geology professor said, “Don’t ever let someone tell you the Earth is only a few thousand years old and here’s why.”

That was an immense moment for her. “I felt a weight being lifted when I walked into their classrooms. Here I was being told (and lead by example) that my passion for my subject and my faith were compatible. I wished I could tell my grade school that the key to truly understanding the phrase ‘lean not on your own understanding’ was a healthy dose of curiosity and science.”

McKenzi B. considers herself a Christian and a scientist, but she understands that pairing the two isn’t for everyone. She’s disappointed that some nonbelievers might use her beliefs to discredit her work in science. She has her supportive, liberal family to thank for helping her come to reconcile her beliefs with her passion for science. She recognizes this situation is unique; not everyone has had a positive experience with their religious upbringing, and not everyone is able to cleanly separate their beliefs from their work.

Ultimately, the decision to become an atheist after being raised religious is deeply personal. For a young person in STEM, it has an effect not only on their life, but the way they view their career. While a religious scientist may see their work as a celebration of creation and better understanding God’s handiwork, for atheists, science and math are simply the language we use to understand the universe. For atheists, there doesn’t need to be an underlying higher power at work, and the existence of the universe doesn’t require a god. That’s all atheism really is, anyway: a lack of a need for a god because we don’t see evidence for one. As an atheist, I find that science and trusting my own inner moral compass are enough to guide me through life.

For 25-year-old Nathan, coming to terms with his atheism gave him a sense of relief in more ways than one.

“Finally coming out of the closet helped me also admit I was an atheist,” he wrote. “I had realistically been an atheist for years, but had forced myself to try to believe long after I was no longer convinced. Atheism informs my desire to do science by making me comfortable to pursue my own desire without guilt. If something is interesting, I don’t need to question if it is godly or not. If I place my desire to be intellectually fulfilled at the center of myself, that is perfectly fine.”

As the next generation of atheists goes out into the workforce and the world, I believe there will be a positive mindset change towards a greater acceptance of nonbelievers. Their religious upbringing will help young atheists sympathize with and understand other people’s beliefs. But perhaps more importantly, they will have less tolerance for the repressive side of religion — the side that is antagonistic towards science, medicine, and gender equality. They will stand up for a more inclusive and diverse world, one in which religion is a deeply personal source of comfort and strength and community, not an excuse to reject education and equality.

My generation is the new face of atheism, and we’re changing it for the better.

Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student in microbiology at Oregon State University. She writes about science, religion, and feminism on Medium. Sarah reviews popular science books on her website readmorescience.com and advocates for science literacy on her Twitter, @ReadMoreScience.

Sarah Olson

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I write about what matters: science, feminism, and the pursuit of truth. Learn about science literacy at readmorescience.com