NIU is the primary target of our college ministry at Christ Community Church the university where I am college pastor. It is a university embedded in mid-western farmland with over 18, 000 undergrads plus another few thousand grads and post-grad students. The AAFT group only boasts of meetings of around 10-25 people according to the article, but it is significant that they are getting the attention of a major newspaper like the Tribune. One may be justified in thinking that the Tribune had something of an agenda in devoting so much print to a rather insignificant story. There could very well be an interest in doing more than reporting culture here. This skepticism notwithstanding, the story does raise the issue of Atheism on campuses in the US and I imagine this would true also in universities around the Western world.
The story's primary point is that atheism is on the rise among the young and educated and these are a different breed of atheist than those of a former generation. Far from being belligerent, these atheists are "kinder, gentler religious skeptics". According to the story these young atheists are more interested in joining forces with their theistic neighbors to do humanitarian work than to engage in a debate.
Truth be told, I am no apologist and I avoid debates like the plague. So I’m glad that the new atheists are not generally interested in arguments. Still, the Tribune story points to the fact that books like the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins have emboldened young skeptics to “come out” of the closet so to speak. Now I have not read Dawkins’ book, but I have read Alister and Joanna McGrath’s response to the God Delusion published this year by InterVarsity, The Dawkins Delusion? The main take away for me from this very brief book was that to many, even those who are atheists, Dawkins has written a polemical book that is both thin on evidence and shaky in its scholarly integrity. While I don’t suppose a person fond of Dawkins’ book will wish to read the McGraths, I think it is a useful read for those of us who are uninitiated in these topics.
The most disturbing point raised by the article in the Tribune was the story of a young woman whose faith in the Christian God was shaken by the “non-fiction aspects of the novels ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angles [sic] & Demons’" and by “her Internet research into world religions”. The fact that emerging adults are allowing these things to be the primary influence for their views of the Christian God is horrifying. We as the church need to do a much greater job of communicating and providing a relevant alternative to this strong cultural propaganda.