Atheism and Juvenile Rebellion

There are people out there who have rejected Christianity because they have had genuine bad experiences with its representatives, or with fellow churchgoers who have made them feel unwelcome. There are also those who have legitimate theological objections to Christianity or Theism in general to which they feel they have not been given adequate answers. However, I am beginning to realise, through regular discussion with and observation of atheists and/or those of an anti-clerical persuasion amongst my friends, family, and acquaintances, that there is a third, and much more prevalent factor in their unbelief – a spirit of rebellion.

Furthermore, the sense of rebellion which I sense in many atheists is more often than not of a singularly juvenile nature. This is particularly the case in those of my parents’ generation (those who were born in the 1950’s and grew up in the ’60’s and ‘70’s), who seem to be unable to let go of the anti-establishment feeling that was de rigueur as they came of age, even if they are now fully fledged members of various established institutions themselves.

This holding on to a spirit of rebellion when there is little left to rebel against, and in nurturing an anti-establishment disposition whilst remaining blind to one’s place within ‘the establishment’ seems to be bound up with another phenomenon, which is still very much in evidence – that of reaching early adulthood as quickly as possible (ideally between the ages of twenty and twenty-five) then remaining there as long as possible. Hence the growing proportion of people from the ‘60’s-‘70’s generation that seem intent on aping the behaviour of their progeny in every possible regard. The only new element to this cult of youth today is that we seem to be encouraging children to leave their childhood behind at even earlier ages as well.

However, the rejection of God and/or the Church out of a misplaced sense of juvenile rebellion also has its roots in something deeper – the skewed concept of freedom that we are beholden to nowadays. For it is not just my parents’ generation, but my own as well, who seem to be embracing atheism and anti-clericalism out of a sense of mutiny, and whose arguments often take the form of a temper-tantrum against God and His representatives. How often does one come across objections whose undercurrent is along the lines of ‘nobody is going to tell me what to do with my life/body/soul’, for example?

It is this attitude which underpins the contemporary railing against God, and its roots are the same as those which led to the widespread embrace of anti-authority, anti-rules, anti-anything that might restrict me attitude of the 1960’s and later on. The roots can be found further back though – in the nominalism of William of Ockham (1287 – 1347). Nominalism teaches that universal concepts do not exist in reality, only in our minds, and so there is no such thing as ‘human nature’, for example. Thus, there is no universal moral law that can be elucidated from human nature, and the divine will is outside of us, something imposed.

This vision inevitably leads to a situation where the will of God is in competition with our own, and our own wills are also in competition with one another. So freedom becomes not only simply a matter of choice, but the choices we make are means of asserting ourwill over and against the will of another. The implications of this philosophical school (which subsequently became very influential) could already be seen in Martin Luther, whose theology of justification was predicated on a world where the human will cannot participate in the divine will, but either competes with it or is subjugated by it.

Thus it is not hard to see how this radically attenuated concept of freedom – which did not lose its hold on Western thought, but developed and intensified over the centuries – has come to be expressed as a theory of strict individual liberty and ‘rights’; a deeply atomised individualism which sees any claims to obligation for the individual as an imposition or restriction. Within this vision of human freedom, God, who almost everybody intuitively recognises as a source of objective moral principles, can only be seen as a threat, and must be rebelled against. Divine commandments of any kind conflict directly with the ‘me, myself and I’ philosophy of liberty.

The first thing that we can (and must) say to the non-believers we know, when the opportunity presents itself, is that there is another, and certainly more excellent, way. The vision of human freedom as presented by the Church (and given its most thorough explication by Saint Thomas Aquinas) is one that sees freedom as a capacity to choose wisely and act well – i.e.; in accordance with and participation in the divine will. This is a freedom for virtue, as opposed to the modern concept of freedom from restriction.

This model of freedom recognises that there are objective universal principles – particularly the good, true and beautiful – and thus sees the will of God as something, that with His grace, we can wed ourselves ever closer to, and in doing so become ever more ourselves, and so ever more free. A good example is when someone learns to play the piano – at first lessons may feel difficult, but as one grows in capability, they become freer to express themselves in playing ever more complex and pleasing pieces of music. Conversely, the radical autonomy vision of freedom translates as someone having the ‘right’ to play the piano anyway they like, but never growing in the skill required to express themselves properly – they are not truly free to play the piano at all.

Secondly, when we recognise this underlying current of juvenile rebellion beneath the arguments of our atheist/anti-clerical friends and family, we must be ready to gently, calmly, and lovingly, expose the thinness of some of the arguments used to support their position, which very often are not robust arguments in and of themselves, and only made to seem impressive by a mixture of rhetoric, posturing, and condescension (the Richard Dawkins phenomenon if you will). To do this though, we must equip ourselves properly, by learning the history of our Faith well, and taking the time to do so from sources that don’t misrepresent the Church’s story (the Galileo case being one prime example of where facts are consistently obscured by a scientistic apologetic).

We must also familiarise ourselves with some of the basic arguments for and against Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general, so that when atheist arguments are presented their fallacies can be exposed, and counter suggestions can be made. It is surprising how often I have come across atheists who claim to have confounded an RE teacher as a teenager and continue to use this as ‘proof’ that religion gives no answers. There are a lot of people out there who either didn’t bother to ask any more questions (or do any research themselves), or who have since relied on the superior attitude so encouraged by our society to convince others they know more than they do, and to scare Christians into believing they cannot possibly counter their arguments.

The final point I would like to raise though, is a hopeful one, and it is that surely there is a limit both to the spirit of rebellion we see in so many atheists of an earlier generation, and to the individualistic brand of freedom so popular today. The inherent ridiculousness of people acting like teenagers way into their middle years cannot likely continue without folding in on itself for too much longer, and there have already been small but significant signs of the younger generations embracing Christianity as something counter-cultural, much to their parents’ chagrin (witness the huge crowds at successive World Youth Days for example).

The modern vision of freedom which sees each individual will in competition with one another is also unsustainable in the long term. Already we see the claims of secularism to neutrality being made a mockery of, as certain rights time after time trump others (e.g.; LGBT lobbyist claims vs. Christian values) – something that is finally being noticed by a wider range of commentators. Also, it is becoming increasingly obvious that families and communities are in a steady state of disintegration, and some secular thinkers are already beginning to realise that this is happening precisely because of a skewed vision of liberty, as well as the wholesale rejection of Christianity, which preserved a more participatory model of living.

It is not clear how many rounds of ridiculous alternatives our leaders and supposed public intellectuals will come with up in their desperate attempts to solve our problems whilst continuing to exclude Christianity from public life (e.g.; Alain de Botton’s secular temples), but the fact that the nature of the problem is being recognised, and that significant numbers of young people are realising where the true solution may be found, does give some small grounds for hope. And as always, Christ waits patiently, with the arms of His Church open wide, for us to awake and follow Him home. He is always there, ready to receive, forgive and truly free us – it is up to us though, to realise that we really have journeyed into a ‘far country’, and need to make our way back.


18 thoughts on “Atheism and Juvenile Rebellion

    • With all due respect, I think that this is precisely the opposite of what I’ve done (or at least tried to do) here. I’ve deliberately tried not to be disparaging of atheism, and if I thought it in any way worthless or unimportant, I wouldn’t have written about it.

      The main contention of my post is based on many discussions and observations (which I mentioned in the post) and I deliberately stated at the outset that the particular theme I’ve noticed (that of rebellion) is to be separated from genuine theological objections or bad experiences. I have also deliberately tried not to let my argument devolve into anything like a personal attack.

      If you feel that there are particular parts of my post that are disparaging of atheism, or elements that show I have not taken the issue seriously, I would be happy to address them, but otherwise I’m afraid I do not see the grounds of your objection.

  1. Ok, let’s start from the beginning…

    – Bad experiences are not a good argument against Christianity. Even if ALL Christians were horrible people, that wouldn’t make Christianity wrong. And most atheists didn’t have any really horrible experiences with Christians.

    – Personally, I would call most arguments against religions as philosophical and not theological, but that’s probably just a personal taste.

    – And now we come to the bad part… You are trying to explain your enemies away, even worse, you try to take away the need of having to take them seriously. It leads to the same point as if I said “Most Christians just never lost their childish belief in an invisible friend” – nowhere. It’s not an argument against Christianity, it’s an attempt to silence people, to take away the need of taking them seriously. And that’s, sorry to be so blunt, pathetic.

    • 1. I agree that bad experiences are not good arguments against Christianity per se. I was simply acknowledging the fact that many people cite bad experiences they had during their earlier years (exclusion, hypocrisy, etc) as reasons for becoming atheists later in life. Obviously this wouldn’t apply to people with a secular upbringing. But my main point was to simply recognise the validity of these sort of complaints and distinguish them from what I was discussing in the post.

      2. There is a complex relationship between the two, and this would depend on one’s definition of each term, but yes I take your point. Again, not really much to disagree with here.

      3. Your last point is the most serious one, and is really a fuller explanation of what your meant by your initial comment, so thank you for elaborating. However, my intention was very much not to explain away atheism (and I certainly do not consider atheists to be my ‘enemies’ – as I mentioned in the post, many, indeed most of my friends and family are atheists or agnostics), but to consider a dominant undercurrent that I see in many atheists, and to try to understand this in the light of our modern concept of freedom.

      This, I would contend, is precisely the opposite of not taking atheism seriously – it was an attempt to see why it is that some people feel the need to rebel against God or see Him as a restriction on their liberty. It was certainly not an attempt to ‘silence’ anyone, and I have to say that I find the tone and direction of your objections a little disproportionate to what I’ve actually written.

      Also, just to reiterate – this post was only addressing one aspect of atheist belief. I was not trying to explain (let alone ‘explain away’) all atheist convictions – I made this very clear at the outset of my post, and in my previous reply.

      • 1) Not many, no. Or at least not compared to the overwhelming majority who simply lacks belief (and the silent minority who is officially Christian but behaves like atheists and simply doesn’t care).

        3) “opponent” would have been a better word, you are right. Enemy is to negative, I was just thinking of the two sides of the debate, not a war.

        And the problem with communication is always, that it has two sides. Your usage of words like “many”, etc. implied, to me, that you are making a statement about a big part of atheists. If we are only talking about some here, then I wouldn’t even disagree with much stronger words – words that you will not use for your family and friends (hopefully *g*).

  2. Hi! Well put: “This vision inevitably leads to a situation where the will of God is in competition with our own, and our own wills are also in competition with one another. So freedom becomes not only simply a matter of choice, but the choices we make are means of asserting our will over and against the will of another.”

    Yes, for some reason, freely choosing to, say, stop at a red light instead of blowing on through it just isn’t recognized as a legitimate act of free will – rather it is seen as subjugation to authority. And that’s partly because with regard to the red light, many do not think that a free act of will is involved in the decision to obey the law. And that points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what free will actually is, as you point out in your post.

    Also, regarding the disintegration of the family and skewed ideas of liberty – though you did not explicitly state it, I agree that they are related – in that both have an impact on how one understands, lives, and works in an hierarchy. Hierarchy has negative connotations to most it seems, but the word simply points to the fact that things and people are in relationship with each other. Strictly speaking a man is not an employee until they are employed. A woman is not a mother until she has a child. A son is born a son. There is a hierarchy, an ordering, that simply *is*. And we all are exposed to an understanding of relationship through the family. Current society simply presents concrete examples of the value of family in the development of a child, if anyone will look with their eyes and minds open.

    So, great post – I think the juvenile rejection of authority as an underlying reason for atheism has some traction, at least when I look at the people I know that profess their freedom from the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” that some seem to think captures the Christian understanding of God.

    • Thank you very much for your comments – they are most welcome! I particularly enjoyed the illustration of stopping at a red light here – this does indeed show a misunderstanding of what free will actually is. Furthermore, it reminds me of another issue that makes debate about moral law difficult – the conflation of what is legal with what is right. In the case of the red light, people stop at it because the law says they must, but also because (for the most part) they recognise it prevents accidents. In other cases though (as we are increasingly seeing) when the law is changed, allowing people to do things they couldn’t before, the automatic assumption is made that whatever has been legalised is morally sound. This is a digression I know, but is sort of connected insofar as it shows how the moral law is seen as arbitrary and exterior to such an extent that it can be equated with civic law.

      Also, excellent points here about hierarchy in society. This is something that I feel cannot be emphasised enough, especially given contemporary debates about the various ways in which human rights can be invoked. We are all equal before God as human beings, made in His image, but to say therefore that we are equal in all other respects (where equality means sameness, as it seems to nowadays) is to misrepresent most of our basic roles and interactions in society (and in the family). This is one of the reasons why I think it is so important to protect the family as traditionally understood, and (I suppose) why it is so hard to get many people, who have bought into ideas of equality and freedom antithetical to my own, to see why.

      Many thanks again for your comments – they brought out a lot that, as you say, was not explicit in the post, but was certainly in the background, and have given me plenty more to think about 🙂

      P.S. Yes, agreed re the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ version of God – unfortunately I seem to encounter this sort of thinking more and more often!

  3. I’ve talked to many atheists and haven’t come across one who is rebelling. We all have different stories as to how we became atheists, but, for the most part, we are atheists because we simply don’t believe that any gods exist. We aren’t angry and we don’t just want to sin. We are happy, well adjusted people who simply don’t agree with you where religion is concerned.

    • Hello, and thank you for your comment.

      I agree with you that atheists have many different stories as to how they became so (something I tried to acknowledge in the opening of my post), and yes, it is clear that the definition of an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe any gods exist 🙂 However, this is not the reason someone is an atheist – this is the conclusion that they have reached, whereupon they then identify as such.

      I also agree that there are happy, well adjusted atheists out there too, and I certainly don’t think that atheists are all angry all the time either. I am now starting to think that I didn’t make this very clear in my post, but what I meant by a spirit of rebellion against God is not an overt, day-by-day, railing against God (though of course this kind of atheism does exist as well), but an undercurrent.

      This undercurrent of rebellion, which I have linked to a particularly modern idea of human freedom, is not something that very many atheists would give as a reason for being atheist, I know. However, I have noticed, over a long period of time, in discussion with many friends and family who are either atheist or agnostic, through observation of how they articulate their atheism and/or respond to arguments for Theism and mentions of religion in conversation, that there (it seems to me anyway) exists a definite spirit of rebellion, of the kind I have described above, for a great number of these people, as a background factor if you will.

      I am not trying to say to you that this is definitely the case, as I am sure you will disagree, but I just wanted to clarify what I mean by rebellion in this case – not something positively invoked by atheists, or part of their temperament, but a background factor in the choice to be and remain an atheist. Again, these are just my personal observations – I may well be wrong! 🙂

        • Hessian,

          I’m not really sure what else I can say here to make my point clearer. My basic contention here is that in many atheists I have noticed an underlying disposition of rebellion – not something that they themselves would give as a positive reason for their atheism, but an attitude or underlying spirit – which seems to be a significant factor (if not the dominant one) in their decision to disbelieve in God in the first place.

          I refer you also to the comments made here by Kathleen, who has provided some excellent testimony of what the period of time in which this spirit of rebellion was expressed most vividly in society was like to live through, and the impact it had on many people’s choices of worldview.

  4. Atheism is at base emotional. And born of pride, masquerading as a kind of smart and brave rebellion. In any case, it is not an intellectual position, no matter how much intellectual posturing atheists do. Most of the atheists I know are shallow and hedonistic, many are conceited, and a few are obsessed with proclaiming grievances. And all of them are only pseudo-smart on this topic.
    My source: Evidence!

  5. @ hessianwithteeth

    If you don’t mind that I butt in here in your conversation with Michael, I feel I must say that I think he makes the idea of the rebellious spirit of the “baby boomers” (for that is what the post-war generation up to around 1960 are) openly clear. They did not want to be told what to do – humility and obedience was total anathema to them – and the ancient “non serviam” (to ANYONE and of course that includes God and His Church) was first and foremost in their unspoken battle cry.
    I know; I lived it. I was caught up with this “rebellion” all around me in the late 60’s and 70’s, in spite of attending a convent school and being blessed with devoutly Catholic parents. With my high-spirited nature I could easily have joined up with the ever-growing crowd of rebels around me rejecting God and His Divine Law.

    Why didn’t I? Because I have been blessed with faith in God. I KNOW He exists and I love Him and all His works. I believe He made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him and to one day be with Him and Our Lady among all the angels and saints in Heaven (and all other men too). To reject God and throw caution to the wind by willfully living a life of selfish hedonism would be impossible for me, hypocritical and certainly foolish in the extreme.

    And just in case you might think I see myself as some sort of martyr, forget it. I confess I am just as much a sinner as anyone….. perhaps even more so, for unlike many, I am fully aware that when I transgress God’s Law in any way, I am offending His Goodness and Holiness.

    • What I forgot to say earlier is that there is great joy that nothing else in the world can offer when one loves and obeys God. True, it means one has to obey the laws of the Church He formed to guide and teach us, and thus acquire self-discipline and make many sacrifices along the way to avoid falling into sin, but all this done willingly and for love of Another becomes sweet to the heart.

      This quote from St. Francis de Sales says it so well:
      “Many men keep the commandments in the way sick men take medicine: more from fear of dying in damnation than for joy of living according to our Saviour’s will. Just as some persons dislike taking medicine, no matter how pleasant it is, simply because it is called medicine, so there are some souls who hold in horror things commanded simply because they are commanded . . . On the contrary, a loving heart loves the commandments. The more difficult they are, the sweeter and more agreeable it finds them, since this more perfectly pleases the Beloved and gives Him greater honour.”

      • Thank you Kathleen for providing some examples of what it felt like to live through that period of great upheaval, which we are all feeling the after-effects of now!

        Also, thank you for this quote from Saint Francis de Sales – it really gets to the heart of the matter! 🙂

  6. Thanks Michael.

    I was only a small child at a convent school at the onset of “the rebellion”, but none of us was oblivious of what was going on “outside”. In fact in many ways it was already seeping into the convent itself! 😉 Some of our nuns began to be “contaminated” by these rebellious ideas too, and sad to say, that order has practically disappeared from UK now, for they no longer attracted vocations to their order once they jumped on the misguided bandwagon of Modernism.

    Perhaps what I found hardest to bear was seeing some of my school-friends get caught up in the anti-establishment furor, and subsequently lose their faith. It was the chic thing to do after all! Really sad. I hope and pray they have (or will) find their way “home” again. I keep hearing heart-warming tales of re-conversions back to the Church through God’s grace, so we must never give up hope… and we must keep praying for this. “But Lord, where shall we go? Only You have words of Eternal Life” – St. Peter to Our Lord.

  7. ‘sad to say, that order has practically disappeared from UK now, for they no longer attracted vocations to their order once they jumped on the misguided bandwagon of Modernism’

    This is something that both pains me to hear and (strangely) gives me hope. It pains me because this has happened to so many orders (and parishes), where good, faithful communities have been undone by letting secular ideas trickle into their thinking (that slippery slope again!) and undermine their faith. It gives me hope though, because it has provided us with a wealth of evidence that the slippery slope does exist, and that we cannot let even a sliver of this sort of ideology in without consequence – something that I think this current generation is already beginning to learn from. It is plain to anyone now that being ‘relevant’ does not draw people to the Faith at all – it does precisely the opposite – and so those starting out as priests or religious now have that lesson learnt for them. There is still the matter of bishops enamoured of that way of doing things, but they will (hopefully) eventually be replaced by others who can see the value of orthodoxy and will fight to defend it.

    The same I think goes for all those people you knew at school – one can only hope and pray that seeing the devastation wrought both in the Church and in the culture around them will recall them to their senses, and help them to see the value of what they rejected in their youth. This will not be the case for all of them, but I hope it will be true for a good number of them 🙂

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