In a retreat for Catholic youth here in Magadan, Russia, I asked how many of their classmates went to church. The answer was, one or two. I then asked how many believed in God. Again, just a few.
The youth of my parish daily experience fellow classmates claiming it’s not logical to believe in God, it is old fashioned to believe in God, it’s a crutch for people who are weak.
Most young people didn’t know how to respond and feel helpless when faced with this “new atheism.” Not that it is particularly deep but it is presented repeatedly and as fact — God is not for the contemporary, educated person.
In the midst of a secular society that preaches its doctrines from modern university classrooms and secular media platforms, we need to represent Christianity not as merely a good option, but the very best option for human flourishing and happiness.
Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor in New York, has laid out some fundamental building blocks when presenting Christ to a skeptical culture. I’ve adopted some of these ideas.
Perhaps most importantly, this presentation must be done in great humility and hope. When Saint Thomas Aquinas debated opponents of Christianity he presented their objections so well that his detractors had little to say. Then with clarity and respect he would present his side. We need to do the same within our own culture. Present objections to Christianity with clarity and respect so we can better understand the doubts and objections that many young people have against Christianity and the church.
Pope Francis has called Catholics to embrace a new humility that attracts while holding faithfully to the Gospel. This is very different from condemning and judging non-believers. I find this approach deeply Christ-like, and one which shows respect for the views of others. It helps to open hearts and minds when people know they are understood and listened to.
Ask your young parishioners if they have friends who deny the existence of God. Ask if they know how to answer this new form of culturally vogue atheism. Most likely they don’t.
I have been studying modern objections to Christianity and the church in order to dialogue with non-believing Russian youth who come to our English language classes. They are open to dialogue but don’t want to be preached to. They prefer a free exchange of ideas to obvious attempts to get them to convert.
In our efforts to answer questions and challenges posed by modern men and women, we must keep a few things in mind as we assist in their search for the truth.
In a recent poll, U.S. young people gave six reasons why they did not believe in the teachings of Christianity. They are not always well argued but here are the six objections:
- It is not possible that one religion is true and all others false. Christianity is too exclusive.
- There cannot be an all-powerful, loving God if there is so much evil and suffering in the world. If he is all-powerful, he must not love us because he allows so much suffering. If he is all-loving then he is not all-powerful because he can’t do anything to stop the suffering.
- If Christianity is the greatest and deepest way to live then why are so many terrible things done by the church — why so much corruption and scandal?
- The Bible contains historical and scientific errors and cannot be trusted as a guide to truth. It also promotes things like slavery and other oppressive ideas.
- Christianity imposes itself on everyone else and threatens true freedom. Christianity does not respect the truth of other religions and does not promote tolerance. Such a world religion will never bring peace because it will always demand that others follow its moral precepts.
- Why would God demand the sacrifice of his son? At best it like the old pagan religions that demanded appeasement. At worst it is like cosmic child abuse. The cross makes no sense. If God wanted to forgive us and he is all-loving and all-powerful why doesn’t he just forgive us?
So there you have it. This is an honest appraisal of how the world views Christians and the church. How should we respond? With respect and humility and also with a truth that saves and liberates the human heart. We have the answers to all these objections and more.
Over the course of the next few columns I will begin to answer these objections. Until then talk to your kids and see if they don’t find these objections part of their daily life. If you want them to grow up as believing Catholics, then we must help the youth answer these questions today.