A perennial issue for churches is how to keep their children in the fold when they become teen-agers and adults. Why do so many young people seem to "check out" of religious faith?
It's dangerous to make generalizations, especially on the basis of just a couple of data points. But I do wonder whether my own youthful abandonment of faith, and then my son's markedly different experience along the same lines, might offer some things to think about.
I started having doubts about Christian doctrine at an early age. I was learning in school (for example) that the earth was formed over millions of years, but I was being taught in church that God created the entire universe in six days. Which was right?
A couple of times, I asked my parents or other adults, "how do we know X," where X was some element of doctrine. I don't remember getting much by way of answers, other than "because it's in the Bible" or "because that's what the church teaches." In third or fourth grade, I put some of my questions to the parish priest, his answers weren't exactly satisfying either. I reluctantly accepted that understanding would have to come later.
But understanding didn't come; I never did "get it." And, I started noticing that my Protestant friends and teachers didn't seem to be any worse off for not believing all the doctrines I was being taught. (At that point I wasn't even thinking about non-Christians.)
As an avid reader and science nut, I was learning that scientists seemed to have a different attitude. In science, there's no such thing as doctrine in the religious sense. You're expected to look for real-world evidence with an open mind. Your goal is to discover and understand the truth; if the truth happens not to fit with your preconceived theories, then you're expected to change your theories. That non-doctrinal mindset was very appealing to me.
Making the Break
I finally decided that I simply didn't know whether God existed, or whether any other theological doctrines were true. I concluded that I must be an agnostic.
I can pinpoint exactly when that happened. I was a freshman in a Catholic high school in suburban Washington DC, where my Air Force father was then stationed.
One day in Theology 1 class, we were discussing free will. I asked the teacher, how can free will be reconciled with God's omniscience? If God knows everything, then he must know what I'm going to do a minute, or a lifetime, from now. But if God knows that, then how can I truly be acting with free will?
The teacher had an answer, but I didn't come close to understanding how it made any sense. For some reason, that was the last straw for me. Sitting there in class, I decided, "that's it, I'm out of here, I don't believe any of this stuff." I vividly remember how liberated I felt.
I still stayed in the theology class (not that I had a choice). I still kept going to church throughout high school and college, and then off and on while I was in the Navy. At first it was only to keep my parents happy (it took a long time to work up the courage to say I was an agnostic). Later, it was because I enjoyed playing guitar for folk Masses. But eventually I quit going to church altogether.
My Son's Different Experience
Fast forward 30+ years. My teen-aged son declined to be confirmed with the rest of his Sunday-school class. He explained that he simply didn't believe the doctrines that he was being asked to affirm. It sounded all too familiar. (Yes, I had returned to faith in the intervening years -- although not exactly to orthodox Christianity -- but that's another story for another blog posting.)
I doubt very much that our son was alone in his lack of belief. When I I taught high school Sunday school at our church, I asked the students to write down any questions they had about their faith and to hand them in anonymously. The most frequently-asked question was, in various forms: How do we really know there's a God?
Anyway, we told our son he had to go through the confirmation class, but the decision whether to be confirmed was up to him. I also told him I was proud of him for having the courage of his convictions. The priest in charge of our parish's confirmation program was supportive too.
The following spring, I taught an adult Sunday-school class that outlined some of the scientific evidence in support of belief in God. As I was working on the class materials, I would sometimes bounce things off our son to get his perspective. When the occasion offered, we would compare points of view about various Christian doctrines that I was covering in the class. I explained my take on doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus and on expressions such as "Son of God." (My current project is to adapt some of the materials from that class for this blog.)
That summer, our son announced out of the blue that he was ready to be confirmed. The priest was again very supportive; she didn't make him repeat the confirmation class, but simply had him show up one Sunday (wearing a coat and tie that he had to borrow from yours truly) to be confirmed with a group of adult confirmands. We made a family celebration of it, with grandparents and friends in attendance, a brunch at the house afterwards, and so on.
Our son still doesn't go to church all that often. But I'm pleased, and relieved, that after abandoning faith, he was able to return to it without have to spend years searching for a way back.