Want young people to live the faith? Show them proof of God
More and more, today’s youths don’t believe science and the Church are compatable. Let’s teach them the truth.
The word “secular” has a proper meaning, articulated by the Second Vatican Council and stated specifically in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2002 document “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” which states: “The rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church — but not from that of morality — is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church” (No. 6; see Gaudium et Spes, No. 76). In contrast to this, secularism is the deliberate attempt to exclude God from all aspects of human origins and life — not only the political and civil sphere, but also the cultural, educational and formative spheres. As Professor Emeritus John Finnis of Oxford University wrote in “Secularism, Morality, and Politics,” a commentary on the CDF’s 2002 doctrinal note, the origins of secularism go back to the time of Plato, who disputed its three major expressions:
• The denial of God (atheism).
• The denial of a providential or caring God (deism).
• The denial of a God who makes any moral demands beyond superficial appeasement (esotericism or superstition).
Secularism is rampant today, and, according to Finnis, it may be worse than the Athens of Plato or even Leningrad of the 1970s. It is not nearly as overtly oppressive as those two instances, but it nonetheless is successful in persuading young people today to abandon their belief in a providential God who calls us to a high moral standard. The result is not only a sharp increase in agnosticism and atheism among young people, but also a sharp decline in all areas of ethics and moral conduct.
Blessed John Henry Newman implied long ago that the future of morality is dependent on the strength of our individual and collective consciences, which in turn are dependent on the strength of our belief in God. If Newman is partly correct, then the confrontation of secularism today will require a two-step process: first, a strengthening of belief in God and Jesus Christ, and then a concerted effort to restore the weakened ideas of deadly sins, virtues and principles.
We face a very challenging — but not daunting — problem of secularism that will require focused effort on the part of clergy, Church leaders and educators in not only the Catholic Church but all churches. Failure to respond to this challenge will lead to an even more rapid decline in religion and moral standards that will bring the United States to the same level as Western Europe within 15-20 years: more than 55 percent unbelievers with a concomitant decline in Christian moral standards — a pessimistic scenario, at best, for world culture.
The rate of religiously unaffiliated millennials is increasing rapidly. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that millennials were abandoning religious affiliation (becoming agnostic or atheistic) at a much higher rate than previous generations. Thirty-five percent of older millennials (born between 1981-89) are unbelievers, as well as more than 36 percent of younger millennials (born 1990-96). Approximately 40 percent of those born after 1996 are likely to become unbelievers. This is more than triple the 11 percent of unbelief in the silent generation (born 1928-45) and more than double the 17 percent of baby boomers (born 1946-64).
Many young people who were raised in religious households are leaving not only their church but a life of faith after their 18th birthdays. By extrapolation from 2016 survey data from Pew, we might expect that about 41 percent of our Catholic young people will abandon belief in Jesus Christ and God between the ages of 16-35. This rate is likely to increase at about 1.2 percent per year.
Why are millennials abandoning belief in God at such increasingly high rates? Surprisingly, it is not because they are bored by homilies or liturgies, or affected by scandals or disagreements with the Church’s moral teaching — though these reasons do impact a small percentage of those leaving the Catholic Church (but not necessarily religion or faith). It seems that the majority of our young people (including Catholics) are leaving because of an intellectual problem — particularly the problem of science and faith. In 2016, the Pew Research Center Survey reported the following:
About half of current religious “nones” — agnostics, atheists and religiously unaffiliated — who were raised in a religion (49 percent) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention “science” as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said, “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” Others reference “common sense,” “logic” or a “lack of evidence” — or simply say they do not believe in God.
Science, logic and “lack of evidence” are the most prevalent reasons given for atheism and agnosticism among millennials who come from a religious background. There appear to be four major intellectual topics from which these doubts are derived:
• A perceived contradiction between God and science.
• A lack of evidence for God from science and logic.
• An implicit belief in metaphysical materialism (“I am only a bunch of atoms and molecules — nothing more”).
• A general disbelief in the historicity and divinity of Jesus.
In addition to the science, logic and verification problems mentioned above, there is one less prevalent (but influential) problem of the heart: human suffering. This is expressed in one central question: “Why would an all-loving God allow suffering?”
Readers may be asking, “Why is this extensive problem of rapidly increasing unbelief not daunting, but only very challenging?” It seems that providence has left us with an abundance of contemporary scientific evidence to mitigate millennials’ doubts. When this evidence is presented in a clear and objective way, the vast majority of students who previously had considered abandoning their faith in God change their minds. This is explained below.
Furthermore, when the above fundamental problems are cleared up, several subordinate problems connected with a church community, or specifically with the Catholic Church, diminish in intensity. Some of these problems are:
• Hierarchically organized religion seems to cause more problems than it resolves.
• The moral teachings of the Church seem discriminatory and needlessly moralistic.
• The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist seems to be a myth from a bygone age.
• Personal problems with Church or parish leaders.
If faith in God, and particularly faith in Jesus Christ, are increased significantly, then even those individuals formerly inclined toward unbelief likely are to give greater benefit of the doubt to Jesus’ and the Church’s teachings. Moreover, if they can find liturgies and communities that speak to them and feed them, they will begin to increase their participation.
The lesson is clear: In order to help a majority of Catholic millennials remain believers and active participants in Church, first we will have to respond to their fundamental problems of belief in God, the soul, Jesus and miracles with credible contemporary scientific evidence. This will infuse rationality and credibility into millennials’ belief in Church authority and moral teaching. If we fail to do this, we build a beautiful statue of bronze and steel atop clay feet. It takes only one peer, teacher, YouTube video or television program (from a new atheist) in high school or college to undermine years of Catholic formation and education. If we respond to the above fundamental problems in middle school and high school with successive layers of evidence, we can reverse the majority of students’ decisions to move toward secularism, materialism, agnosticism and atheism.
A Workable Solution
|About the Magis Center|
According to its website magiscenter.com, the Magis
Center’s mission is to restore, reconstruct and revitalize belief
in: God; the transcendent dignity of every human person; the
significance of virtue; the higher levels of happiness, love and
freedom; and the real presence of Jesus Christ. For more information
on what the Magis Center can do for priests, or to find out about
training courses for educators, contact Michael Noggle at 949-
244-5251 or mike@ magiscenter.com.
What is the credible contemporary scientific evidence that effectively can reverse millennials’ decisions to move toward unbelief? The Magis Center of Reason and Faith (magiscenter.com) has tested several areas of evidence among high-schoolers and college students and determined that seven areas are particularly positive (if not essential) for reinforcing students’ faith and reversing the direction of those who were considering unbelief: 43 percent of the students responded that the information was “positive” and 54 percent indicated that it was “very positive” for maintaining their faith and responding to doubts. The college students who were given this evidence indicated that it would have made a significant difference to their faith lives if they had learned it earlier. We have found the material to be quite effective even in seventh and eighth grades (though it has to be modified to meet the less developed critical and logical capacity of those students). Presenting the material in the following order helps students appropriate and integrate the information in all seven areas:
• Proof of a soul from contemporary peer-reviewed medical studies of near death experiences, medical studies of terminal lucidity as well as the five transcendental desires.
• Evidence of an intelligent creator from contemporary science, including the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Proof, entropy and the fine-tuning of universal constants at the Big Bang (explained below).
• An explanation of six prevalent questions about faith and science: the Bible and science, evolution, aliens, why some scientists are atheists, Galileo, and the “God particle.”
• The evidence for the historicity and resurrection of Jesus from recent scientific studies (post-1998) of the Shroud of Turin.
• Contemporary scientifically validated miracles, including three Lourdes cases, analysis of the Guadalupe tilma, and the Eucharistic miracle overseen by Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
• Four levels of happiness and purpose in life.
• Why would an all-loving God allow suffering — and how to suffer well.
|Growth of the “Nones” by Generation|
Silent Generation (1928-45)
Religiously Affiliated 89%; Unaffiliated 11%
Baby Boomers (1946-64)
Religiously Affiliated 83%; Unaffiliated 17%
Generation X (1965-80)
Religiously Affiliated 77%; Unaffiliated 23%
Older Millennials (1981-89)
Religiously Affiliated 66%; Unaffiliated 34%
Younger Millennials (1990-96)
Religiously Affiliated 64%; Unaffiliated 36%
Source: Pew Research Center
Readers may be asking, “Isn’t it a little excessive to dedicate five of these areas to proof and evidence?” In a word, no; this is precisely what the students want and need. Even though they may not directly confront a teacher with, “Prove it!” or “Do you have any proof for that?” more than 60 percent of the class is thinking it. They want proof for themselves and for their peers to defend their intellectual integrity amidst accusations of being naive, unscientific and wishful thinkers. Without this evidence, the faith of the majority will begin to falter and, eventually, will fade away. I will review a few highlights in four of these areas below. For readers desiring technical explanations and original sources to scientific studies, please go to magiscenter.com and view or download the multiple free articles and videos.
Though this material can be quite technical, the Magis Center has prepared two sets of seven modules with age-appropriate content, voice-over PowerPoints and embedded videos for presentation to seventh- through ninth-grade confirmation, catechism and middle school classes, as well as 10th- through 12th-grade confirmation, catechism and high school classes. The response is overwhelmingly positive: 97 percent ranked the modules as “positive” or “very positive” for maintaining faith and responding to doubts.
These modules are free of charge and can be viewed or downloaded online at crediblecatholic.com.
Reversing the Trend
Let us now proceed to look at some highlights in the first four of the above-mentioned “7 Essential Modules.”
1. Proof of a Soul
Image Books has republished “Would You Baptize an
($16.99)by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Father
Paul Mueller, SJ. The book, full of humor and written
as a conversation among these two Catholic scientists,
tackles a number of subjects at the crossroads of faith
We have found that contemporary medical studies of near-death experiences particularly are persuasive for both high school and college students. Three dimensions of these studies made a “crucial” impact on students’ faith:
• Eighty-one percent of blind people can see for the first time when they are clinically dead through souls that have left their physical bodies (which is virtually impossible to explain physically, because there is no visual image in their brains to project or hallucinate). This is reported in several peer-reviewed medical studies.
• Highly unusual or technical data occurring during clinical death is reported 100 percent accurately by a large percentage of clinically dead patients. This is reported in all major medical studies of near-death experiences.
• Complete loss of subconscious death anxiety by virtually all people having a near-death experience throughout their lives, compared to high death anxiety in the normal population. This is reported in several medical studies.
It is noteworthy that virtually every person who goes “to the other side” has an experience of a loving white light, Jesus or deceased relatives and friends who express two common themes about heaven consistent with Jesus’ teaching: spiritual transformation and an ambiance of love — even unconditional love.
Medical studies of terminal lucidity where Alzheimer’s and dementia patients with severely atrophied cerebral cortexes suddenly attain lucid consciousness one week to one hour before death also have been persuasive because of the patients’ incapacity to think with their physical brains.
2. Scientific Evidence of an Intelligent Creator
A large percentage of students (post ninth grade) are aware of scientists’ conjectures about the possibility of a multiverse, a bouncing universe or a higher dimensional space string universe, causing them to conclude that physical reality can be eternal and therefore uncreated. This has made the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Proof (from three top physicists at MIT, Tufts University and UC Santa Barbara) very important, because it shows the necessity of a beginning of all hypothetical multiverses, string universes and bouncing universes leading to the conclusion that physical reality is probably created by a causative agency beyond space and time.
Contemporary fine-tuning evidence, such as the Penrose Number for low entropy at the Big Bang, also provides convincing evidence of the intelligence of that creator. This evidence, along with that of near-death experiences, has been so convincing that many students (10th grade and above) consider it to be a vital foundation of faith.
3. Explanations of Pressing Scientific Questions
Strange as it may seem, nearly half of our students are misinformed about the Catholic Church’s position on evolution, the Bible and science, aliens and Galileo. This causes considerable tension with what they are learning in their science classes, causing many of them to detach from their religious beliefs. The third module is vital for warding off these tensions.
Students need to know that the Catholic Church not only permits belief in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, but that it permits belief in evolution in its contemporary form, and that Pope St. John Paul II declared in a presentation to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “today … some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. … The convergence in the results of [many] independent studies … constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”
Millennials also need to know that the Church does not require a literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, but rather has provided an interpretation compatible with contemporary science in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. They also need to know that the Church is open to the existence of aliens, and that there are reasonable explanations for Galileo’s censure and treatment.
If we do not correct these misimpressions, we allow the Church to be marginalized as unscientific when, in fact, 27 priests have been instrumental in major scientific discoveries — for example, Gregor Mendel (genetics), Nicolas Steno (stratigraphy) and Georges Lemaître (the Big Bang theory).
4. Evidence of Jesus and His Resurrection
Students viewing the History Channel and YouTube videos very likely get the impression that Jesus was at best a prophet and at worst a mythical figure, and that his resurrection was a fantastic story designed to win over converts. Thus students must be made aware of the important arguments for the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection (from, for example, N.T. Wright and John P. Meier).
Of particular importance is the scientific evidence for Jesus’ passion and resurrection on the Shroud of Turin. Many students believe the shroud was debunked in a 1988 carbon dating that showed the shroud to have originated in the 15th century. Throughout the last decade, four additional dating tests have been performed that position the shroud at around A.D. 50 (plus or minus 150 years) with 95-percent confidence level.
There are three other indications that also confirm an origin in Jerusalem in the first century — Roman coins on the man’s eyes, pollen grains embedded in the cloth and 124 similarities in blood stains to the Face Cloth of Oviedo.
What is most important is that this completely unique, perfect three-dimensional photographic negative image had to be produced by light radiation (not heat, chemicals, vapors, etc.) because it is restricted to the surface of the fibrils. In order to produce such an image, the dead body would have had to become spiritual (mechanically transparent) and would have to have emitted several billion watts of light energy lasting only 1/40-billionth of a second (to prevent the shroud from being vaporized). This can only be replicated by lasers in a laboratory, and there is no known physical cause that would have enabled a dead body to do this. This implies a supernatural cause that may well be a relic of a spiritual resurrection in glory.
When the students hear this, their faith in Jesus’ existence, his passion and resurrection is galvanized and greatly increased. The majority of students indicate that this has a big impact on their faith.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The first step in meeting the above challenge is to direct diocesan and parish confirmation, catechetical and school directors and educators to obtain the “7 Essential Modules” and review them. As noted above, the version for 10th through 12th grades can be viewed or downloaded free of charge by going to crediblecatholic.com and clicking on “programs.” For more on the program, see the sidebar.
The second step to reversing the trend toward secularism is to contend with the problem of moral relativism. Though confirmation teachers will not have the possibility of doing this in detail, catechetical and Catholic school educators will have a much better opportunity. As Blessed John Henry Newman conjectured, if belief in God is strong, then the potential to form conscience (on the basis of Christian principles) also will be strong. This will allow students to appropriate vital information on the deadly sins, virtues, principles and practical steps to moral conversion built on their stronger intellectual conversion. The restrictions of space do not permit an explanation of how to do this here. However, interested readers may want to proceed to magiscenter.com and order the video resource “Virtue and Freedom” for high school students. Free resources also are available at crediblecatholic.com.
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In conclusion, our students have terrific hearts and are open to faith, but they are besieged by secular stimuli of every kind. We have found that if we present the evidence for God, Jesus, the soul and the foundations of morality to them, most will respond at least partly, and many almost fully, to the call of Christ.
FATHER ROBERT J. SPITZER, SJ, Ph.D., is president of the Magis Center and the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership. He is the former president of Gonzaga University.