Listening to Young Atheists – A reflection
The June 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine included an article by Larry Alex Taunton entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” I was very interested in what the author had to say, even though I don't know any atheists personally.
Go and read the article, but here is a summary of their findings: (paraphrased by me)
1. Most had experience with Christianity in some form, and reacted negatively against it.
2. Those with church experience thought that their church's mission and message were vague
3. They asked hard questions, and were given superficial answers
4. They still had respect for Christians who believed and practiced their faith seriously
5. Most chose atheism between ages 14 and 17
6. The choice to embrace unbelief was in part an emotional one, not a purely rational one
7. The Internet, specifically Youtube videos and forum chats were significant influences
My thoughts about the article and its findings:
On point one, It is implied not stated that most of those interviewed came from Evangelical or Mainline Protestant churches. As these are the expressions of Christianity with the most adherents in this country, that is a reasonable assumption. Orthodox Christians should absolutely not assume that this is just a Protestant thing, and our children will not have to deal with this. We're all human. Anyone's kids can be led down this path. I do not think I can emphasize this point too strongly. Most all of the atheists surveyed became atheists in reaction to Christianity or some experience within a Christian setting. In a country where it is so easy and acceptable to be passively irreligious, there has to be some strong motivation for a person to become actively or even militantly irreligious.
On point 2, how well are we communicating the centrality of our faith to our kids? Whether the Liturgy is in English or another language, we must take time to explain and inform. Orthodox liturgies are beautiful, and rich in worship and doctrine. Make sure the lessons are being caught. We may also want to explain them to visitors. Can we as parents explain the doctrines of the Church, especially justification sanctification and theosis? If we can't, we are simply a cultural artifact with nice artwork.
On point 3, I don't think that this is as serious of a problem for the Orthodox. I hope I'm not wrong, but I might be. With centuries of Church Fathers who spent their lives pondering and inquiring into the mysteries of God, there are probably few topics that the Church has not already tackled. So any question should be answerable, if we are willing to do some reading. Our kids deserve to be taken seriously when they ask serious questions. This could even be a time to grow together as you seek answers to questions.
Evolution & creation? Yes, the Church does speak to those things, but without the essentially Enlightenment & Rationalist mindset of some Heterodox groups. Sexuality? Orthodoxy has a very well developed theology of the human person, which includes sexuality. It is holistic, balanced and grounded in Scripture – like all of the Church's doctrine. What it is not is agreeable to the modern secular 'personal fulfillment uber alles' mindset. Biblical inerrancy? Here the Orthodox may surprise many in that it is the Church, not the Bible that is given highest authority. The Bible exists within the life of the Church and is interpreted by her. The Orthodox do not adhere to rigidly literal interpretation, so textual disputes have less significance. This is not to say that there is not discussion or disagreement about some matters, but not major issues of doctrine.
I just have to take issue for a moment with the inaccurate equating, in
this article and American culture generally, of Christianity with the
Bible. Jesus created the Church at Pentecost (celebrated recently in the East) and the Church compiled the Bible. The Bible is part of the Church's expression of its fullness. Clear? Moving on.
Only one way? Orthodoxy has a very elaborate and rich Christology. Christ is the Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos. We cannot with our limited understanding declare with certainty who is or is not a part of Christ. What we do say is that the Church is what Christ gave humanity as the way to Himself, as our Rule and Practice.
Purpose? Significance? We bear in our humanity the Image of God! We are called by God to assist in the redemption of the Cosmos! How much more significant can we be? Orthodoxy does not accommodate the ethical standards of any age or culture. The Church's ethical teaching is consistent, unified and clear. The right thing to do is not hard to know, it is hard to do.
On point 4, how are we responding to visitor or inquirers? I've heard many anecdotal accounts of cultural Americans entering Orthodox churches and being asked “why are you here (since you don't look like us)?” We had better not think that the Gospel and the Church belong only to people like ourselves. If we don't want to share the Faith, then maybe it doesn’t' mean much to us either.
Orthodox evangelism is in my experience more subtle and less transactional than the approach favored by some other groups. “Come and see” is an often used invitation. Still, I think we could be more willing to accept as the article says “socially awkward"-ness to initiate conversations about the Church. Always, of course with “gentleness and respect”.
I have yet to meet an Orthodox priest who does not take his calling and the Gospel entrusted to him seriously. A priest is no more likely to become wealthy than any given Protestant pastor. Most every priest of my acquaintance works a 'civilian' job on top of their clerical duties to support their families.
What about us lay folk? It is a lot easier for us to be passive and think 'that's the deacon's/priest's job' instead of confronting attitudes habits and behaviors that are not Godly. For my own part I admit to often avoiding this because I don't want things to be 'socially awkward', even with young people at my own parish.
On points 5 & 6, teenagers are emotional critters. This is common knowledge. If something in or at the Church is creating an emotional situation for your kids, let them talk about it – even if they're angry. Take it seriously and never assume that they won't decide to leave on emotional grounds. For one example, what will they do if their heterodox or irreligious girl/boy-friend does not want to join the Church? Do we really think that our kids would never walk away from the Church for 'love'? There are plenty of other touchy situations that could go badly if not handled with care – refer back to points 2, 3 and 4. The teenage years are tough, with lots of changes coming fast and from all directions. We the parents and the Church should be the rock, the stable point that they can rely on as they work and grow towards the maturity we all want for them.
On point 7, this is just one more reason why parents in particular, but Church family as well should know what the kids are up to online. I am glad for all of the Orthodox blogs and sites that communicate the Faith, and some that engage the atheist world view with the Truth that has endured. I wonder, I don't know, if we Orthodox Christians should seek out and engage the atheists on these forums, presenting the Church that takes the Faith and the Bible very seriously, that has a firm purpose and message, and that has the hard answers to the hard questions. If we do, it cannot be to pick fights and hit people with our doctrine stick but always to share the fullness of the Faith, the true Life who is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Lord, have mercy on all who have been deluded by atheism, and have mercy on me a sinner.