For Joshua Schwartz, the questions have become routine.
“How can we believe in God when there’s so much suffering?” “Is the Church opposed to science?” “Do we have to think the world was created in six literal days?”
The teens asking those questions belong to the youth group Schwartz leads at All Saints Catholic Church in Dallas. But the questions don’t originate with the youth group attendees. They originate with the teens’ secular peers, peers who, according to Schwartz, are evangelistic in their fervor for leading other teens away from the Faith.
That fervor is a problem. A bigger problem is that many of those unbelieving teens sat in parish pews just a few years ago. They attended religious education classes, received the Sacrament of Confirmation, then, soon afterward, embraced a much more secular worldview.
“It’s as if they think they graduated from Catholicism,” said Schwartz.
They’re not the only ones thinking that way. Nationwide, young people are leaving the Church and religion altogether at a record-breaking pace, with the Pew Forum’s most recent study on religious affiliation finding that 16 percent of young people now subscribe to atheism, agnosticism or no organized religion at all, the highest percentage of any demographic group. Only 3 percent of young adults subscribe to atheism specifically, but again, that’s more than double the number of self-professed atheists in their parents’ generation.
According to Christian Smith, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults” (Oxford University Press, $24.95), the lack of belief now so common among young people isn’t simply a question of old-fashioned teenage rebellion. Rather, it’s a complex phenomenon, watered by many streams.
The most obvious of those streams is the case against God made by the so-called “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc. — who depict religion in general and Christianity in particular as a destructive societal force — violent, irrational and divisive.
According to Schwartz, those are the arguments his teens most frequently encounter.
“The kids parrot Dawkins,” he said.
As for why those arguments resonate so powerfully with the younger generation, Smith believes much credit goes to the events of Sept. 11.
“This is the first generation to grow up in a post 9/11 world,” he explained. “Terrorism created an atmosphere where arguments that religion is dangerous sound plausible.”
The media culture also plays a part.
“Television and the Internet help define ‘normal,’” said Smith. “According to the media, to be a normal young adult is to drink, hook up and live on your own. Religion isn’t perceived to be part of life in your 20s.”
Throw in the fact that religious belief makes taboo the lifestyle choices glorified by the media, and it’s even more understandable why faith appears unattractive to young people. It makes it easier to justify their choices, as well as fit in with their peers who have already embraced that lifestyle.
And “fitting in” matters.
“For a teen, the most natural thing in the world is to want to be at the center of things,” said Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, author of “Rocked By God: Teens’ Experiences of God” (Franciscan University Press, 2000). “They don’t want to be marginalized. But the world is controlling the cultural dialogue in such a way that kids who are believers find themselves on the outside. That makes it tempting to do what it takes to be welcomed at the center.”
Add it all up, and the rise in unbelief among young people makes sense. But while unbelief is understandable, it’s not inevitable.
Teens may have a natural desire to be “at the center,” but according to Father Pivonka, they also have a natural desire to believe in something greater than themselves.
He explained, “The great beauty of young persons is the desire to believe. That’s why we talk about the faith of a child. The move toward agnosticism is a bastardization of what’s at the heart of being a young person.”
Recognizing that desire and channeling it toward its proper end — a relationship with Christ — is the first step to both leading young people back from unbelief and preventing others from going there.
Parishes can help that process along, said Schwartz, by making youth ministry less about fun and games and more about catechesis and evangelization.
“You need the pizza parties and good times to attract the kids,” he said. “But if it doesn’t go beyond that, if we impart no depth, we’ve failed.”
According to Schwartz, the young people he sees drifting away from the Faith are those who’ve never encountered Christ in a personal way. To them, Catholicism is about rules, not a relationship. For that reason, Schwartz has teens who do come to youth group spend ample quiet time in prayer, especially Eucharistic adoration.
“Again and again, I’ve asked the kids where they have the most profound encounter with Christ,” he said, “and their answer is almost without exception, ‘In adoration.’”
Role of parents
Even the best youth ministry program, however, can only supplement — never replace — the witness of strong, faithful parents.
“Parents are the key,” Smith told OSV. “Parents who are seriously committed to the Faith and practicing it.”
As most research shows, the rise in unbelief among young people strongly correlates to a lack of faith or, more commonly, lukewarm faith among their parents. Teens are far more likely to reject God or organized religion if they grew up in a home where faith wasn’t a priority.
Conversely, children who see that their parents believe what the Church teaches and live what they believe tend to continue religious practice. Accordingly, regular family prayer, an active life of charity, and frank discussions about faith, including its challenges, all play an essential role in equipping young people to reject temptations to unbelief.
“The kids I know who have the strongest faith, also have a strong and open relationship with their parents,” said Father Pivonka. “They know if they have questions, if they have doubts, they can go to their parents without worrying they’ll be met with anger.”
That, however, requires parents to know the Faith well enough to answer the questions their children raise.
“If the Church is concerned about young people, the best thing it can do is invest in the education of their parents,” said Smith. “That’s the bottom line.
“And as a parent,” he concluded, “the time to work on knowing your faith is when you’re pregnant, not when your kid is 14 and coming home saying he no longer believes in God. Things that matter get established early.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.