Today we’re going to talk about how older Christians are dealing with the growing tide of disengagement among their younger adherents.
When I talk about “disengagement” among Christian youth, I’m talking about the steady rise in people walking away from formal activities within their old religion. People who disengage from religion stop praying, reading their source books, attending services at their religion’s holy centers, sharing whatever “good news” their religion pushes, and giving money to their religion’s representatives. That doesn’t mean they fully deconvert; many of these young people still kinda consider themselves at least to some extent Christian. But it does mean that they’re not doing anything specifically Christian, and many of these young people later on will actually deconvert–as one of this blog’s friends has mentioned recently in a comment.
And as chirpy as Christian evangelicals can get about how fast their religion is spreading (in completely dysfunctional third-world nations, for the most part), the simple truth is that membership in Christianity in civilized countries is falling rapidly, to the point where one prominent Christian leader is predicting Christianity’s fall into irrelevance within this lifetime. Disengagement is a huge and pressing problem for Christian leaders. We’ve talked before about the high rate of disengagement among young Christians, and I’ve cited before this link about some studies done on the topic that ought to scare the hell out of older Christians.
The problem is, nobody knows quite what to do. Or rather, the stuff that they are being told to do, they don’t want to do. Rachel Held Evans, a prominent young Christian author and speaker, illustrates exactly this point in a story about how she gives lectures to churches about why they are losing young people (emphasis mine):
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness. I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt. Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”
And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.
But is anybody really surprised by their willful refusal to hear what she’s saying? Her anecdote shows the Christian bubble in its whole glory. It’s a whole lot easier to think about young people as dumb, vapid, shallow, or vain. It’s much easier to imagine that younger Christians just need to be entertained better, and then they’ll return in droves. Older Christians can easily dismiss younger ones by ignoring their real concerns and pushing bright shiny loud things at them in lieu of addressing those concerns, and they do it all the time.
It’s a lot harder to think that maybe these young people are correctly perceiving the problems Christianity has, and are going to need a lot more than smoke machines, a cool youth minister, and a rockin’ rap beat to get them interested in a religion they are seeing, more and more, as overly politicized, whiny, oppressive, willfully ignorant, and delusional.
I used to hear from Christian leaders that they weren’t super-worried about their young people leaving church because they were so sure the kids would return after they got married and had their own kids. I’m not hearing that assurance much at all anymore, now that it’s becoming abundantly clear that not only are a big number of these young people not getting married or having kids, but that once they do, they’re not necessarily returning to church like they might have done once. More and more young people raised without a lot of religion–or who were but left it–are discovering that one need not be religious to raise happy, well-adjusted, morally-upright children. Churches are not the bastion of safety that people used to think they were, and whatever social benefits church membership confers on its people can usually be gotten elsewhere without the waste of time and the manufactured guilt that Christianity drags along in its wake.
So yes, Christian parents have every single reason to be downright panicky about their children. The traditional Bible wisdom tells them that if you train a child up the right way, when the child matures he or she will continue in that way, but we’re discovering nowadays that this is simply not true (another Bible verse found to be inaccurate? Say it ain’t so!). Even the most rigidly-indoctrinated, on-fire children can and do later deconvert and disengage. Here is a link to ex-Christians’ “ex-timonies” if you don’t believe me–most of the people who have shared their stories on that link were raised in the faith and left it.
What to do, what to do?
Enter a blogger who has a list of 65 Apologetics Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Learn to Answer.
A seminary-trained friend of mine has said before “only shitty theology requires apologetics,” and nowhere does that seem more true than in this list. But this list does tell us something very important:
It tells us about the threats that adult Christians perceive to their faith.
Did you ever see The Russia House? I love that movie. It has Sean Connery playing an inverted riff on his old James Bond persona as the “boozy Barley Scott Blair,” a British publisher during the height of the Cold War who finds himself mailed an incredible series of documents written by a top-level Soviet dissident scientist who wants the West to know that the Soviet Union is hopelessly inept and no threat whatsoever to anybody. Barley gets caught up in British and American espionage as various governments try to figure out how reliable these documents are. At one point he is given a written list of questions that the government wants him to give the scientist to answer.
As Barley trots away with the list, heading off to talk to the scientist, the professional spies pace and fret and worry back at HQ. The problem is that their list shows the Soviets what they don’t yet know and can’t answer. The questions they ask show exactly where their knowledge is; anybody looking at it has a good idea of what the West knows and doesn’t know about Soviet secrets. And they just handed it to an alcoholic reprobate of unknown allegiance and motivation. You’ve seriously got to see this movie (it has the same guy who played Captain Hollister from the BBC series Red Dwarf), so I’m not going to spoil it for you, so just focus on the list of questions.
When you see a list of questions from someone, remember that these show us not only what the list-maker knows, but does not know as well. These show us what the list-maker views as the big problems. You can learn a lot about someone’s mindset and worldview by looking at what they regard as the big questions.
But they also show the willful ignorance that this Christian parent must engage in to make the religion make sense. This blogger’s list doesn’t ask Christians to learn actual science or history, but just how to answer common criticisms of their religion. She wants Christian parents to memorize and learn how to recite apologetics arguments. For example, one of her “red-letter” questions, the super-most-important ones, is this:
24. What are the four minimal facts of the resurrection that are “so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones?”
The problem is that she doesn’t realize that none of these “four minimal facts” are actually strongly attested at all. The Resurrection is impossible. Nothing in the accounts matches up with reality in any way, and I don’t know any skeptics who would say otherwise. The accounts in the Gospels as a whole are very obviously wish-fulfillment and allegorical in nature, filled with contradictions, historical impossibilities, mishmashes with misapplied Jewish mythology, pagan Greek allusions, and obvious later insertions, and if she seriously thinks that these “four minimal facts” are universally embraced even by “the rather skeptical ones,” and she then tells her children this obvious lie, then when they go to college and discover that no, actually, nothing in the Gospels could possibly be really true, that a growing body of evidence and scholarship suggests that the New Testament’s version of Jesus isn’t a real portrait of a specific person at all, that the character of Jesus might well be one of a concept rather than of a real guy, that the Resurrection narrative is not only not corroborated by a single piece of non-Biblical contemporary accounts but couldn’t possibly have happened, and that really there is not a thing about the New Testament that is really corroborated by contemporary sources at all, what do you suppose her children are going to think about the rest of the stuff their mother has taught them?
The mere fact of how she presented the question tells me she actually thinks there even are “four minimal facts” around the Resurrection. Like the Westerners in The Russia House and their list of questions, she’s asked this question in a way that tells me exactly what she knows and doesn’t know about real Biblical history and just how much apologetics stuff she’s read and internalized. She’s made the mistake of trusting apologetics over real historians’ work, and she’s passing that same mistake down to her children.
And I’ll tell you what they’ll likely think. Kids ain’t stupid, especially not the kids of today. They’ll be okay with the apologetics to a certain point, but sooner or later the facts will whap them in the face and they will have to seriously examine her claims. They’ll find out those claims are untrue. And they’ll think what I thought when the exact same thing happened to me, when I found out that most of the New Testament was made up decades and centuries after the events it breathlessly recounts as if its totally anonymous and unknown authors were actually eyewitnesses to those events rather than Greek scholars riffing on Jewish mythology in a complex written dance of inversions and wordplay: that if the adults around me were totally wrong about this one thing, then they just might be wrong about everything else. Little lie, big lie. What else is totally wrong?
Apologetics exists, as a field, to try to make reality conform to the fantasy of a religion’s narratives. Obviously prayer doesn’t actually influence events like a magic spell, but apologetics swoops in to save the day with half a dozen rationalizations about why the Christians’ god doesn’t seem to be answering their prayers. Yay! Now Christians can convince themselves that their prayers (as long as they fit a huge apologetics-driven list of asterisked conditions) are totally really answered, just not in the way they’d expect or want. And outsiders stare at them and wonder just what they’re smoking to be able to say so blatantly that black is white and up is down. Apologetics tells Christians to rest securely in their junk science and fake history, in their conviction that Jesus really existed and the Bible’s really a history book, and in their knowledge that the Christian Taliban vision of society is the best of all possible worlds.
And that will work, too, for a little while, on minds that haven’t been trained to sift information to assess truth claims like the ones this Christian mother is making. She doesn’t include answers for any of the questions she’s asking, but I know that when most Christians ask, “18. What extra-biblical evidence is there that Jesus existed (as a historical person)?”, those Christians are going to answer this question by parroting all the junk history and pseudo-science that pseudo-archaeologists and fake historians are spreading about his existence, but that isn’t real evidence, just wishful thinking on the part of people who are not honestly answering a question but just trying to quell doubts and dissension.
And that will work, too, for a little while, till those kids hit college and get out from under their churches’ and parents’ thumbs and get exposed to the real truth about the total lack of extra-biblical evidence for anything that happened in the Old and New Testaments. Those kids will parrot her apologetics with bright eyes and bushy tails like I did long ago, expecting victory and won souls by the boatload, and they will get absolutely creamed for it, and they’ll maybe start to wonder why those parroted apologetics don’t seem to hold muster in the light of actual facts. They’ll wonder why reputable historians and scientists don’t agree with what they were taught. They’ll get curious about how we actually know what we know about real science and history, and they’ll see to their shock that the scientific method and historical processes we use are not the unreliable goofing-around BS and Satanic propaganda machines that apologetics authors present them as to make their own work look more reasonable and reputable.
And they’ll wonder why their religion depends so heavily on made-up apologetics and can’t just critically examine the truth of its source material. They’ll wonder why their religion can’t just be honest about the total lack of historical corroboration around the Bible’s claims. They’ll wonder why a religion based around morality is okay with lying.
Christianity is definitely having a big problem right now. I’d even call it a total catastrophe. People are leaving their religion in numbers I can only term a “hemorrhage.” Their public image is suffering an all-time low. And these things are happening, first off, because Christians themselves are doing stuff that is completely antithetical to their professions of love for others and insistence on holding the monopoly on morality and grace. But second off, they’re happening because Christians are indulging in and spreading obvious untruths about real stuff and are perfectly content to wallow in those untruths, as if a comforting untruth beats a scary truth any day.
And nowhere are we going to see those comforting untruths in clearer focus than we do on Christians’ own self-reported lists of what they view as the biggest questions facing their faith.
Don’t get me wrong. This blogger’s list of questions is indeed a very good list of questions for many reasons. I’m glad she is asking those questions and hope that her answers to them are not actually the ones most Christians would expect to hear. I think that every Christian, not just Christian parents, needs to ask these questions.
But if Christians answer those questions from their typical toolbox of apologetics authors and pulpit-approved bumper-sticker slogans, then they are going to see their efforts backfire in a way that wouldn’t have happened at all had they just left their kids alone to stumble across the answers by themselves. Oh, they’d still discover the truth and be crushed to find that their childhood faith was so much smoke and mirrors, but at least then they wouldn’t have the added burden of having to deal with their own parents telling them stuff that wasn’t true.
A house built on a shifting foundation cannot be a good house. The Bible’s right about that. Such a house is going to fall eventually. In the same way, a faith built on lies is doomed to collapse. Any faith based upon apologetics-based answers to the questions on this list is doomed because those answers are not solid facts but wishful fantasizing. They do not survive a clash with reality.
The problem here isn’t “not enough apologetics.” And the solution is not “add more apologetics!”
The problem here is “not enough truth.” And the solution is “add some actual truth.”
If Christians really want to keep their kids in the faith, they’re not going to do it by spreading lies and fake history and junk science. They’re going to need to be brave enough to find truthful answers to their lists of questions, and they’re going to need to be courageous enough to accept that pretty much every single thing they’ve ever thought about their religion’s underpinnings is completely false. Until they can be honest and truthful, their religion will continue its long slide into total irrelevance.
Either they learn to be honest and survive as a valid faith system, albeit in a slightly different form, or they cling to their delusional apologetics and bumper-sticker slogans and ride them all the way into the sunset.
Either way, humanity wins.
We’re going to talk about those “four minimal truths” of the Resurrection next, since I hadn’t heard this latest trendy bit of apologetics till seeing her blog entry. Obviously you and I both know they’re not truths at all, but we’re going to apply a little critical thinking to those “truths,” since most Christians clearly aren’t. It must be getting on toward Easter, since the Dove chocolate bunnies are showing up in grocery stores, so this seems like a good time to talk about this subject. Please do join me.