January 25, 2013

Follow the Dinosaur

Sad when true. (HT)

A common claim is that kids raised in church tend to fall away from their faith in college, and the inference for some is that most of the blame should fall on the hostile public school system in which the kids were educated. Despite the best efforts of the church and the parents, this argument goes, the impact of the sheer number of hours in which the little minds are being molded at school is too large to be overcome. While this is surely true in some cases, my guess is that most students reject their faith in college even when raised in Bible Belt communities whose public school teachers attend the same churches as their parents. 

Here are three key and interrelated reasons why church kids would walk away from religion after high school:

1) Because much of their "faith" through high school was little more than herd behavior or emotionalism.

I don't fault churches for trying to provide activities that will hold the attention of their kids. I don't fault them for wanting youth group to be a safe place to relax and have fun. I'm sure most of them are doing the best they know how. I just don't think that lock-ins, bowling, concerts, or Kumbaya around a campfire do much to prepare kids to take a stand for something controversial or to keep going against the flow when emotions run dry. Christianity is more than social events, but this is often the focus.

2) Because much of what kids heard in Sunday School and church about why they should agree with their religious elders was anti-intellectual groupthink if not downright error. 

College professors have their own blind spots and emotional weaknesses, of course, but they generally are much sharper when it comes to critical thinking. And, in the cases of religion, philosophy, science, history, and Bible-as-literature classes, these professors are far more educated then most people our kids ever meet in church. As a result, kids in college are, for the first time, maybe not exposed to but required to respond to philosophical, historical, scientific, religious, and textual ideas that are common knowledge in academia. These include arguments for non-literal interpretations of Jonah, the Flood, and Creation; the challenge of the problem of evil; debates about Biblical authorship; the non-Christian heritage of the United States and its Founding Fathers; support from multiple academic disciplines for evolution; blatant inconsistencies in how the Bible is interpreted by its adherents; and the fact that most beliefs held by one Christian denomination are disputed by other denominations—on topics as varied as heaven and hell, speaking in tongues, the role of women, the nature of baptism, the nature of Communion, whether or not we even have free will, what Old Testament sins are still sins today, what happens to people of other faiths when they die, how we are saved, etc.

If our kids are sheltered from or uneducated about almost any of these facts and intellectual debates, and taught to parrot their church's party line instead, it is almost child's play to send them into a mental and emotional tailspin. A couple brief arguments by someone with a little more knowledge, and suddenly the kids' parents and churches look ignorant or even foolish. Nice people, sure, but unqualified to speak authoritatively to these kids about what they should believe in the real world. Why would anyone believe someone who only understands—or even is aware of—one side of debates that have gone on for centuries if not millennia? As highly as I value catechism, being presented with a simple answer to a complex question rarely acknowledges the real worth of the question. And, too often, most of what passes for "Bible study" in a church class is on roughly this level. Churches and religious parents don't teach more than one side, typically, and that one side is often a lot weaker than it could be. In contrast critical thinking demands an understanding of opposing points of view. This is a huge difference between the church and the university—or even many schools before a kid goes off to college. I suspect the battle is already over before most kids finish high school; they don't need the university to put the final nail in the coffin.

When many churches do try to enter the intellectual arena, they often choose to champion topics like Creationism or a literal Noah's ark. As if this is the real battleground where our kids will struggle in their adult lives.... The arguments for these points of view might sound OK in Sunday School, but they don't fare well against educated critics. I fear giving our kids weak support, something that only sounds intellectual, more than providing them with no answers. When they think they have been given a strong defense, and then it gets blown out of the water at a university, they are likely to crumble. Few college students are going to stand alone and fly the Christian banner in front of their professors and classmates when the image on the banner is a dinosaur instead of a cross. It's just not worth dying for.

3) Because they didn't have an actual, Spirit-powered relationship with Jesus.

This is the primary reason, really. If you actually know God, you won't be thrown by atheist professors or classmates who say that they don't. It would be like visiting Plato's cave and listening to ravings about how there is no such thing as light. Not so convincing. I remember talking with someone like this once. His intellect and knowledge were quite intimidating, but when his arguments turned to "There can't be a god because I've never experienced him," I couldn't help but feel bad for him. I've never experienced skydiving, but that doesn't mean that other people are lying, crazy, or mistaken when they talk about jumping out of airplanes. If you know God, the worst an atheist can do is cause you to question your grip on reality ("Hmmm.... I thought I felt love, peace, and joy; I thought I was enjoying a relationship with God; I thought I was gaining wisdom and guidance from prayer—but maybe I'm just making it all up!").

In my own college experience, I was introduced to tons of new ideas and new challenges to my Christian faith, but I wasn't completely thrown by it because I actually knew God. This bought me some time while I worked to educate myself on the new views I was hearing in my classes and from my new friends. Some of these new views I quickly rejected as flawed once I understood them. Others I have gradually come to accept, enriching my faith and life even if requiring me to replace simpler answers to big questions with more nuanced or complicated ones. And a few I expect to wrestle with until the day I die. Through it all, I have known Jesus, however. And, for me, relationship trumps argument every time.