It’s 11:00 p.m. Do you know where your atheist child is? An alarming number of Catholic parents these days have seen their deepest fear come true. Not only have their children rejected Catholicism, they no longer believe in God.
It is something Church leaders have noticed, as well. In 2009, Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George said, “In Chicago, we now have atheist clubs in high schools. We didn’t have those five years ago. Kids confirmed in the eighth grade say they’re atheists by the time they’re sophomores in high school. Not only did they stop going to church, now they make a statement. I think that’s new.”
This phenomenon is obviously not restricted to Chicago or even to big cities, but it is mostly restricted to young people. While only 2-5 percent of people nationwide profess atheism, 20 percent of young people describe themselves that way, a 9 percent increase since 1988. Indeed, were it not for those 18-50 years of age, atheists (73 percent of whom are in that age bracket) would be just 1 percent of our nation’s population.
In 2007, 80 colleges had Secular Student Alliance chapters on their campuses. Today, there are more than 200. Indeed, as teens move into adulthood, a Pew Center study shows they become more likely to abandon belief.
This all seems very alarming, as if atheism was some contagion preying on children and rapidly spreading throughout the nation.
Why people become atheists
The good news, however, is that it is not a contagion. Rather, according to those who spoke with Catholic Digest, atheism most often comes after a set of life experiences and only gets a set of intellectual theories built around it after the fact.
Every former atheist with whom Catholic Digest spoke noted that they either came from a broken home, had a terrible father figure, or both.
For instance, Matt Simmons of Lincoln, Nebraska, was raised in a broken home. His mentally unstable, non-practicing Protestant mother abandoned her family when Matt was three, leaving Matt’s atheist father to raise him and his sister. His mother’s “presentation of Christianity” wasn’t the most edifying. His father, on the other hand, worked all day and then went out “all evening.” This required Matt’s sister, seven years his senior, to raise him. Simmons says she, a child herself, made her unhappiness over the situation evident. All of this, Matt relates, “fed into a deep sense of fear and insecurity.” He felt “so unwanted and unloved” that he couldn’t fathom “a personal God who loved me and wanted a relationship with me.”
He remembers asking himself, “If my life is like this, then how is there a God? Why is my family a mess?” That was probably the underlying issue, he thinks now, and then over time, he worked in the intellectual constructs: “It was obvious that the world is not a pleasant place, and I couldn’t see how a good God would be involved in that. I didn’t see good. I didn’t see love. The face of God I did see was rigid, inflexible, and unloving.”
Raymond Vincent of Sacramento, California, also came from a less-than-ideal home. His non-practicing Catholic father spent most of Raymond’s childhood years in jail. His unaffiliated mother had a drug habit. He and his brother lived with their aunt and uncle, who, although they didn’t attend Mass, nonetheless put the boys into a parochial school. He left unimpressed with Catholicism, however, because “the Faith wasn’t really instilled at that school. At that time, my atheism was prescientific reasoning. That is, it was just my childhood experiences and sorting out the trauma of those. I distinctly remember as a child telling God about all of these things that were happening and telling him how, if he didn’t make things right, I wouldn’t believe in him anymore. I just decided that he didn’t exist.”
Jordan Signor of Nashua, New Hampshire, although he had parents who professed Catholicism, says, “My dad wasn’t a really a good example of a good Catholic. He’d tell us to go to church, and he’d go sometimes, but most of the time, he wouldn’t. He also cheated on my mom, and they ended up getting divorced.” When the Signor kids got in trouble, his dad would make them recite the Hail Mary as punishment.
Others leave the Church out of a desire to live life without restraint. Jane, from Buffalo, New York, says, “It was very convenient. The rest of the world looked like it was having a grand ol’ time not adhering to a One True God belief system, and I was finally ready for some good times to begin.” She soon saw, however, that “good times” weren’t necessarily that “good.” “Dark times set in,” she admits.
Though they are easily refuted, others fall for the arguments of Christopher Hitchens or author Dan Brown. For instance, one woman told the Pew Center that her “faith was rattled by nonfiction aspects of the novels The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons and shaken by her Internet research into world religions, with their competing claims and dire warnings to non-believers.”
Happily, with God’s grace and lots of prayer, all of these issues can be overcome.
The importance of relationships
For Raymond Vincent, it was his friendship with his evangelical Christian Kung Fu instructor that led to reassessing his atheist principles. Furthermore, their first conversation about faith did not take place until a year into their knowing one another.
Matt Simmons says his life was “empty” and “out of control,” and nothing filled “the hole” he felt inside, which left him “suicidal.”
His friend presented him with a choice: It’s either God or more of this. To humor his friend, he “prayed a prayer of surrender, and I was immediately flooded with God’s grace.”
Next, there has to be an authentic Christian witness. “Hypocrisy was a big deal for me,” says Jordan Signor. “It was such a turnoff.” What did appeal were people like his former pastor, who exhibits an affirmative faithfulness. There was also the “faithful witness of the RCIA leaders” and the example he remembers from his youth, when members of the local parish brought dinner and Christmas gifts to his family’s home during tough financial times.
Part of being an authentic Catholic witness includes being authentically Catholic. When he began looking into RCIA, Signor decided to not enter the program at the parish across the street because attachment to the Church’s teachings “was not strong, and the people didn’t seem happy. Even the priest wasn’t into it. I didn’t see anyone smile. It seemed like people didn’t really care what was going on, like they didn’t think anything special was going on at Mass.” A nearby parish, however, “was solid, and that was very appealing.”
As Vincent puts it, “If you want your kids to be Catholic, be Catholic yourself. If that’s going well, they’ll be more open to practicing the Faith, too.”
That means not relying solely on CCD programs or the parochial school to impart the Church’s teachings.
“Don’t think sending your kids to Catholic school will be enough, because it’s not,” says Vincent. “In high school or college, the teachers will attack your beliefs with a third-grade understanding of the Faith, and that’s not the Faith. So make sure the practice of the Faith is something living in your household and not just some sort of side note. That includes frequenting the sacraments.”
The empty nest
What if your child is grown and out of the house, and you are their main reason for rejecting God?
“If the kids are young adults, I don’t know if there’s much parents can do as far as speaking to them,” says Vincent. “They probably won’t be open to it. But they might be open to speaking to someone else. It took some outside source to talk to me, even though he was saying the same things my aunt and uncle were.”
“You earn the right to be heard,” observes Simmons. “If you’ve damaged things so they don’t hear you, the way you earn back that right to be heard is that you repent. Spend time in prayer and identify all things you did wrong. Go to confession, get it taken care of, go back to your kids, and make amends. ‘I was wrong. What can I do to make it right?’ As long as you’re reasonable, now you can show Jesus to them. It may take a day, a month, a decade. It may never happen, but that’s the only way to earn their trust back and earn the right to speak into their lives again. It’s never too late to start over.”
If you want to lead atheists to Christ …
Things to say:
- Ask probing questions.
- Speak to the inability of things—or even people—to fill the emptiness so many feel.
- Seek areas of agreement.
- Let them know God created us for union with him, we fell away from him in sin, and Jesus came so we could be united with him again. Also, don’t hesitate to talk about original sin. Atheists recognize that people often do things they don’t want to do and are self-destructive; they are aware that no technological advancement can cure this.
- You can say: “No sin is greater than his mercy. You can dare to hope in Jesus Christ who waits for you with open arms, who has loved you into existence and from the beginning of time.”
- Let them know you are willing to listen. “Should you ever wish to discuss your beliefs, I’m available. I’d like to hear about your beliefs and how you arrived at these.”
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know how to answer your question, but I will next time we speak.”
Things to not say:
- Walk the walk. For instance, don’t gossip, swear, or use the Lord’s name in vain.
- Don’t judge them or say they are doomed to hell. Such judgment is reserved to Jesus alone. Also, do not chastise them or rebuke them for leaving the Church. Instead, invite them back.
- Don’t water down the Church’s teachings to make them more palatable. Most atheists value truth above all else, so give them the unadorned truth. Be sure you know what you’re talking about, though. Don’t guess.
- Don’t say: a) Your position is irrational; (b) Deep down, you’re really a believer; (c) There are no atheists in foxholes; or (d) You’ll see things differently when you have a personal crisis.
- Don’t communicate the belief that atheists can’t be moral without believing in God. That is obviously false. Atheists act morally all the time, and theists act immorally all the time.
- Don’t say, “You just need to have faith. Then you’d understand.”
- Don’t attack their intentions, even when they’re argumentative and angry. Understand that most atheists don’t intend to be malicious. Rather, most sincerely believe in doing what they believe is best for themselves and humanity.