I was highly intrigued when this article came up on my Facebook newsfeed a while ago. Go ahead. Read it. In case you didn’t, though, here are the things that many self-identified atheists of my generation apparently have in common:
- They had attended church
- The mission and message of their churches was vague
- They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
- They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
- Ages 14-17 were decisive
- The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
- The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism
I think that the Second Vatican Council can be helpful in further illuminating the way in which these young atheists’ experiences with church services may contribute to their atheism:
Gaudium et Spes 19
Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.
Vatican II anticipates every single factor except 5 and 7, which are themselves unique to this generation, but which are not for that reason unworthy of consideration. I know that I started getting seriously involved in the Internet at about that same age. So why am I still Catholic? It may have something to do with the fact that I first started involving myself in online debates as a Catholic apologist: I started out with a Catholic identity that I was determined to explore and defend. If I had encountered in my fellow Catholic apologists a refusal to confront facts, I may well have gone away discouraged, but instead, I encountered mentors who knew the faith well and who encouraged me to learn more about Catholicism and to defend my beliefs.
Of course, if Catholic apologetics has an “easy mode,” it would have to be arguing with people who get their arguments from Jack Chick. Resources for arguments against such such forms of Christianity were readily available to me through sites like Catholic Answers. As time went on, though, I found myself confronting more difficult arguments and more rational interlocutors (which is really just another way of saying that I finally started paying more attention to people who weren’t easy targets), and I could rely less and less on what I could glean from my old resources. However, by that time, I had integrated my Catholic beliefs more fully into my personal and intellectual identity; Catholicism was not just something I had grown up around and embraced just because my family did, but something that I had come to recognize as worthwhile in its own right.
But again, that was on easy mode. It seems as though many people of my generation encounter more difficult arguments earlier on, and so have not had the chance to build up an intellectual understanding of Christianity to go along with the identity with which they were raised. They encountered a church that was not prepared to help them address difficult questions, that did not have the intellectual or pastoral resources to lead these young people into a mature faith that is not ultimately dependent on charismatic pastors or welcoming communities (as helpful as those things can be), but on Christ. I am Catholic today not primarily because it has brought me into community with good people, or because understanding Catholicism makes me feel smart, but because I know that there is more to the Church than the people I can see.
This leads us at last back to Vatican II: it is declared in Lumen Gentium 48 that “the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect.” Christ is made only imperfectly present through the Church, through its communities and intellectual traditions, and a faith that is placed either in a feel-good community or intellectual pursuits is a faith ultimately misplaced. It is necessary to convince people that faith in Christ Himself is worthwhile even when we are left alone and without answers.
This faith in Christ is not and cannot be an excuse to stop seeking answers to problems that confound us (if I thought that were the case, I would have no business as a Theology major). Rather, this faith ought to give us the confidence to proceed even if we cannot see the answer immediately. Faith assures us that that there is a divine Reason which (or, rather, Who) is drawing us into ever-greater communion with God.