The following comes from an Aug. 31 column by Bishop Robert Barron on the L.A. archdiocese news site, Angelus.
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 for a moment the sincerity of those who responded to the survey, but the reasons they offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling. That is to say, 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 fifty 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. These studies consistently demonstrate that unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we’re going to keep losing our kids.
Let me look just briefly at some of the chief reasons offered for walking away from Christianity. 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….
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, of course, is an adaptation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s observation that religion amounts to a projection of our idealized self-image. Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century, further adapted Feuerbach, arguing that religion is like a waking dream, a wish-fulfilling fantasy. This line of thinking has been massively adopted by the so-called “new atheists” of our time. I find it regularly on my internet forums.
What all of this comes down to, ultimately, is a dismissive and patronizing psychologization of religious belief. But it is altogether vulnerable to a tu quoque (you do the same thing) counter-attack. I think it is eminently credible to say that atheism amounts to a wish-fulfilling fantasy, precisely in the measure that it allows for complete freedom and self-determination: 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. We could, of course, enter into an examination of each of these cases, but for our purposes I am willing to concede the whole argument: 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? Many, many Americans have done horrific things, often in the name of America. One thinks of slave owners, the enforcers of Jim Crow laws, the carpet bombers of Dresden and Tokyo, the perpetrators of the My-Lai Massacre, the guards at Abu Ghraib Prison, etc. Do these outrages ipso facto prove that American ideals are less than praiseworthy, or that the American system as such is corrupt? The question answers itself….