How to Raise an Atheist in Church

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Lots of folks are asking the tough questions these days about why Christian children grow up, go to college, then never return to the faith of their youth.  I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons for this phenomenon, but certainly one of them is the deplorable way the evangelical church uses the Bible to teach doctrine and oppose alternative worldviews.  One sphere where this occurs is in the discussion/debate over origins (yes, the ol’ creation vs. evolution issue).  This is a HUGE topic in the Church and secular scientific community, and it has manifested itself recently in the theory of Intelligent Design (ID), which has cause quite a stir in the secular scientific academies because of the way creationism has been packaged this time around.  In my opinion, the strategy employed by those in the ID movement is honestly a breath of fresh air to methods employed in the past.  But old methods and strategies die hard, as a recent issue of a publication from Answers in Genesis indicates.

The small 8-panel publication called Kids Answers is a popular Sunday School handout for grade-school kids.  Obviously it is meant to encourage kids, who are being introduced to the theories of biological and cosmic evolution in the classroom, to believe what the Bible says about man’s origins.  This particular issue deals with the question of dinosaurs, one of my absolute favorite topics as a kid.

Dinosaurs capture a kid’s imagination like nothing else.  I remember asking Mom to read our big picture book about dinosaurs (published by Golden Books) over and over and over again.  By the time I started kindergarten, my knowledge of dinosaurs included everything in that book (and a few others).  My teacher was astonished that I could list off the top of my head the names of about 20 different dinosaurs.  I can still do it to this day, which is pretty amazing to me.  I can’t think of anything from any other field of knowledge that I still remember from my early childhood better than dinosaurs.  Now, I don’t say this to brag about my memory skills.  My point is that when the topic is dinosaurs, the odds are Little Johnny is listening more closely in Sunday School.  And he’s going to be really interested in what else he can learn about them.  “Does the Bible have something to say about dinosaurs?  Wow, now THAT makes me want to read the Bible.”

If Little Johnny is handed this issue of Kids Answers, what is he going to learn?  He will read:

  1. “Did dinosaurs ever live with people?  Yes!  God made people and all the kinds of land animals on Day Six of the Creation Week.  Genesis 1:24, 26”
  2. “Did dinosaurs live millions of years ago?  No!  God created the universe just 6,000 years ago.  Genesis 1:1”
  3. “What did dinosaurs eat at first?  Not other animals!  They ate plants, perhaps including fruits and vegetables.  Genesis 1:29”

Let’s say Little Johnny’s curiosity is piqued, and he decides to crack open his Bible and try to find these verses.  What is he going to find?

Genesis 1:24, 26.  And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so…Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Johnny: No mention of dinosaurs here, but whatever, it mentions all kinds of animals.  I guess dinosaurs fit in that category.  Is this all the Bible says about dinosaurs and people living together?  I wonder what the next verse on the list says?

Genesis 1:1.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Johnny: Hmm.  This verse doesn’t talk about dinosaurs either.  Is this what the Bible says about when dinosaurs lived?  And I don’t read anything here about the world being 6,000 years old.  My Sunday School teacher says that the world is not millions of years old.  Is this where she gets that idea?  Why does this paper tell me to look at THIS verse?  There’s only one more dinosaur verse on the list.  Let’s see…

Genesis 1:29.  Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.

Johnny: This verse doesn’t talk about animal food.  It talks about people food.  Why didn’t they put the next verse here, verse 30?  THAT verse talks about animal food.  Looks like they got the verse wrong.  Hmm.

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Little Johnny is not likely to begin doubting the Bible or what his pastor, parents, and Bible teachers tell him at this point.  But the seeds of doubt have been planted by poor biblical reference selection and bad exegesis on the part of young-earth creationists at Answers in Genesis.

The back of this Kids Answers issue confirms that the verses referenced on the front are no misprint.  There it reads:

You may have heard…”The universe is billions of years old.”  The Bible says the universe had a beginning…6,000 years ago!  Genesis 1:1.  Science confirms the Bible: Astronomers have found evidence of a young universe, including comets, blue stars, and spiral galaxies.

So, Answers in Genesis.  Which is it?  Does the Bible trump modern scientific theories, or does modern science confirm the Bible?  Sounds like you are being a little selective on which science facts you say support the Bible’s account of creation and which you would rather discard as contradicting the Bible.

All the Little Johnnys inevitably grow up to be John Does who leave their parent’s homes and venture out into the world to find their way.  Some of them go to college.  Some of them take college courses in science.  Some of them take courses in critical biblical studies.  Many abandon the faith of their fathers, and one reason is that they don’t trust their childhood Bible teachers because they were taught poor doctrine and poor methods of reading and interpreting the Bible.  Most of them were probably never taught to read the Bible, but just listened to someone tell them about the Bible and looked up a few proof-texts.

Let me be candid.  If you identify with Little Johnny’s experience, then let me tell you that you were ripped off as a kid.  You were probably not LIED to maliciously, but you were probably taught by well-meaning folks who were simply not qualified to be teaching the Bible.  They probably didn’ know how to answer your honest (or even skeptical) questions.  But that doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t true, or that the Christian faith you were raised in is a bunch of hooey.  If you care to investigate another interpretation (not the only viable alternative) of what the Bible says about origins and the age of the world, then I suggest a chapter (pp. 8-13) from biblical theologian Meredith G. Kline’s book Kingdom Prologue (which is a commentary of sorts on the book of Genesis).  Decide for yourself whether paying close attention to the literary aspects of the Bible, and reading passages in literary, historical, and canonical context offers a more viable alternative to the way of Answers in Genesis.

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2 Responses to How to Raise an Atheist in Church

  1. You raise some excellent points that are applicable to many aspects of Sunday School teaching, not just origins/age of the earth. And while I believe the jury is still out on the whole “age of the earth” question, you are absolutely right: We need to approach these subjects with much better Biblical and thoughtful study.

    This post is sobering for me on a personal level since I teach Sunday School. May I teach accurately, well, and in a way that reinforces their faith instead of undermining it.


  2. Thanks for commenting. I think you are right. Keep up the good work for the kingdom in your Sunday School teaching. Remember God can use our mistakes to teach us and the kids we teach. What really damages kids is dishonesty and an unwillingness to deal with tough questions and anwsers that may be unpopular in our particular corner of the Church.

    God bless.

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