Every Child Left Behind: “Smart” Atheism or “Stupid” Faith?


Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

            Catholic children as young as 10 years old are renouncing God and quitting Church, claims a new study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown.  According to lead researcher, Dr. Mark Gray, children are finding that faith is “incompatible” with what they are learning in school, and the older the child becomes, the more this is the case.  According to Gray, “this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations.”

This is disturbing news for faithful parents. Our children are being besieged with the message that atheism is “smart” and faith is “dumb.” But there is a more provocative challenge presented to Catholics by this dilemma. Namely; how long will we keep teaching our kids to have a stupid faith?

“Stupid” Faith?

By “stupid” faith I mean one that doesn’t make experiential sense. Faith is only “stupid”—and, therefore, susceptible to allegedly “smart” atheism—when a person has not experienced Jesus Christ in a real and personal way. An experience of Christ is even more essential than good catechesis. Why? Because if I have experienced Christ personally, I know he exists.  If Stephen Hawking wrote a book denying the existence of my mother, I wouldn’t have to be an expert in quantum physics to know that he was writing nonsense.

Of course, intellectual formation in the form of good catechesis is also critical.  The second component of a “stupid” faith is the inability to explain why we believe what we do.  Sadly, many Catholic kids are afflicted with this malady as well, but this is actually of secondary importance to experiential encounter with the person of Christ. If I have a Ph.D. in theology, but haven’t experienced God’s love personally, my faith is a house built on sand. Essentially, the only reason atheism seems so “smart” to today’s youth is that while most Catholic kids are sacramentalized, and some are even adequately catechized, very few are actually evangelized.  That job falls squarely on mom and dad.  The Church will baptize our kids, and Catholic schools may catechize them, but parents are best equipped to bring their children to a meaningful, personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Every Child Left Behind

Because of this, the Church tells us families are the first “schools of faith.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of these Catholic “schools” are getting a failing grade. A separate study, also conducted by CARA, found that only 17% of Catholic families pray together and only 13% say Grace at Meals together. This research sadly shows that most Catholic families are not living their faith in any demonstrable way at home.  If 83% of kids came out of school unable to read we would, rightly, be up in arms. Well, 83% of Catholic kids are “graduating” as spiritual illiterates from their family schools of faith. What are we going to do about it?

What Happened?

            Our post-Christian culture has not caused this problem.  It simply shined a light on it.  It used to be that Catholic parents who did a poor job evangelizing their children could at least count on the culture to nudge their kids back to Church.  Maybe they wouldn’t be “Christian heroes” (as Cardinal Marx recently put it) but at least they would go through the motions and, in time, maybe they’d catch a deeper faith by marinating in the smells and bells.  This approach—which never worked well—is now hopelessly doomed.  The prevailing culture now sneers at churchgoing.  More and more, you will have to choose to go to Church—not because anyone will be disappointed if you don’t—but because you care deeply about the person you’re going to encounter when you get there (i.e., Jesus Christ in the Eucharist) or you won’t go at all.

Today, it falls more and more to parents to give their children a personal and meaningful experience of the love of God—not by simply dragging them to Mass and enrolling them in religious education–but by giving kids tangible evidence of God’s love in family life through meaningful family prayer, strong family rituals (e.g., specific times to work, play, talk, and pray together), casual but meaningful discussions about how God is impacting the family’s life, and an cultivating an intimacy within the home  rooted in each family member trying to love each other as God loves them.

A Call To Action 

            This latest CARA study is not a chance to impotently cluck about the godless culture.  It is a reminder to Catholic parents—and the whole Church–that if we want to raise faithful kids, we need to help our kids encounter Christ as the most important member of our families and the source of the warmth in our homes. If you’d like to discover more ideas for making this happen in your home, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids. 

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