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.