• on September 3, 2016

“Religion and reason are somehow incompatible?"


Some more thoughts on why young people are deserting the Christianity, this
time courtesy of 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 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 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.
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. And to focus more precisely on the issue of
“scientific evidence,” the sciences, ordered by their nature and method to
an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within
the universe, 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. Mind you, this is by no
means to imply that there are no rational warrants for belief in God.
Philosophers over the centuries, in fact, have articulated dozens of such
demonstrations, which have, especially when considered together, enormous
probative force. I have found, in my own evangelical work, that the
argument from contingency gets quite a bit of traction with those who are
wrestling with the issue of God’s existence. 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, 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 20th 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. In a
word, the psychologizing cuts just as effectively in the opposite
direction. Hence, the two charges more or less cancel one another out—and
this should compel us to return to real argument at the objective level.

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.

Relatedly, a number of young people said that they left the Christian
churches because “religion is the greatest source of conflict in the
world.” One hears this charge so often today—especially in the wake of
September 11—that we tend to take it as self-evident, when in point of
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. Through numberless
channels this view has seeped into the general consciousness, but it simply
does not stand up to serious scrutiny. In their exhaustive survey of the
wars of human history (*The Encyclopedia of Wars*), Charles Phillips and
Alan Axelrod demonstrate that less than 7% of wars could be credibly blamed
on religion, and even the most casual reflection bears this out.

In point of fact, the bloodiest wars in history, those of the 20th century,
which produced over 100 million dead, had practically nothing to do with
religion. Indeed, a very persuasive case could be made that ideological
secularism and modern nationalism are the sources of greatest bloodshed.
And yet the prejudice, first fostered by the *philosophes* of the
Enlightenment, oddly endures.

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.
– See more at: aleteia.org/2016/09/01/apologists-catechists-theologi
ans-wake-up/#sthash.EOmrTU5z.dpuf

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