Apologists, catechists, theologians: Wake up!
September 26th, 2016
By Bishop Robert Barron
After perusing the latest Pew Study on why young people are leaving the active practice of Christianity, I confess that I just sighed in exasperation. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who responded to the survey, but the reasons they offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling. Any theologian, apologist, or evangelist worth his salt should be able easily to answer them. And this led me (hence the sigh) to the conclusion that “we have met the enemy and it is us.”
For the past 50 years or so, Christian thinkers have largely abandoned the art of apologetics and have failed (here I offer a “j ’accuse” to many in the Catholic universities) to resource the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in order to hold off critics of the faith. I don’t blame the avatars of secularism for actively attempting to debunk Christianity; that’s their job, after all. But I do blame teachers, catechists, evangelists and academics within the Christian churches for not doing enough to keep our young people engaged.
Many evidently felt that modern science somehow undermines the claims of the faith. One respondent said: “Rational thought makes religion go out the window,” and another complained of the “lack of any sort of scientific evidence of a creator.” Well, I’m sure it would come as an enormous surprise to St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Blessed John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Joseph Ratzinger – all among the most brilliant people Western culture has produced – that religion and reason are somehow incompatible.
To focus on the issue of “scientific evidence,” the sciences cannot even in principle address questions regarding God, who is not a being in the world, but rather the reason why the finite realm exists at all. There simply cannot be “scientific” evidence or argument that tells one way or the other in regard to God. This is by no means to imply that there are no rational warrants for belief in God. What these arguments have lacked, sad to say, are convinced and articulate defenders within the academy and in the ranks of teachers, catechists and apologists.
One of the young people responded to the survey using the formula made famous by Karl Marx: “Religion just seems to be the opiate of the people.” Marx’s adage is an adaptation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s observation that religion amounts to a projection of our idealized self-image. Sigmund Freud, in the early 20th century, further adapted Feuerbach, arguing that religion is like a waking dream, a wish-fulfilling fantasy. It all comes down to a dismissive, patronizing psychologization of religious belief. But it is altogether vulnerable to counterattack. I think it is eminently credible to say that atheism amounts to a wish-fulfilling fantasy: If there is no God, no ultimate moral criterion, I can do and be whatever I want.
A third commonly cited reason for abandoning the Christian churches is that, as one respondent put it, “Christians seem to behave so badly.” God knows that the clergy sex abuse scandals of the last 25 years have lent considerable support to this argument, already bolstered by the usual suspects of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the persecution of Galileo, witch hunts, etc., etc. Yes indeed, over the centuries, lots and lots of Christians have behaved wickedly. But why, one wonders, should this tell against the integrity and rectitude of Christian belief?
A number of young people said that they left the churches because “religion is the greatest source of conflict in the world.” One hears this charge so often today – especially in the wake of 9/11 – that we tend to take it as self-evident, when in fact it is an invention of Enlightenment-era historiography. Voltaire, Diderot, Spinoza and many others in the 17th and 18th centuries wanted to undermine religion, and they could find no better way to achieve this end than to score Christianity as the source of violence.
In fact, the bloodiest wars in history, those of the 20th century, which produced over 100 million dead, had practically nothing to do with religion.
An earlier Pew Study showed that for every one person who joins the Catholic Church today, six are leaving, and that many of those who leave are the young. This most recent survey indicates that intellectual objections figure prominently when these drifters are asked why they abandoned their faith. My “cri de coeur” is that teachers, catechists, theologians, apologists and evangelists might wake up to this crisis and do something about it.
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron is an author, speaker, theologian, and founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry.
Examples of reasons why people are unaffiliated
“Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”
“Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”
“Religion is the opiate of the people.”
“Rational thought makes religion go out the window.”
“Lack of any of sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.”
“I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it.”
Dislike organized religion
“I see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.”
“I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.”
“I no longer believe in organized religion. I don’t attend services anymore. I just believe religion is very personal conversation with me and my creator.”
“Because I think religion is not a religion anymore. Its a business … it’s all about money.”
“The clergy sex scandal.”
“The church’s teachings on homosexuality.”
From September 29, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.