We all know people who have abandoned the Church. Among those who have fallen away, more than likely, the most prominent of them are our youth. For most of us, we see the situation clear as day; we just don’t know what to do about it. How can we help our children return?
Thus Brandon Vogt’s newest project couldn’t be more timely. Today marks the official launch of RETURN, a complete game plan for drawing our youth (and anyone else who has left) back to the Church.
Brandon has graciously taken the time to answer a few important questions in light of his new, exciting project. In this exclusive interview, he discuss the impact of the atheism on today’s young people, the importance of apologetics in the New Evangelization, and more.
Here’s the interview!
M: You’ve noted how the “hemorrhaging of young people” from the Church today emphasizes the need for RETURN. Presumably, many of these young people are attending a college or university where atheism and its related philosophies have permeated the academic landscape. In your opinion, how much of a factor is atheism in the declining religious affiliation of today’s young people?
B: It’s unquestionably a factor. Although atheists (3%) and agnostics (4%) make up a relatively small part of the U.S. population, I’m constantly surprised by the many stories I hear of young people who leave Catholicism and no longer believe in God. The number of skeptics continues to expand rapidly. Their numbers have doubled over the last decade, in no small part due to Catholics: 12% of former Catholics now identify as atheist and 16% as agnostic.
Why this sudden surge of skepticism? It’s been fueled, in part, by polemical books written by the so-called New Atheists. This includes writers such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), each of whom has written bestselling books denouncing God. Although the New Atheist rhetoric is more heat than substance, young people across the world have eaten it up–especially on college campuses, as you mentioned. Chances are high that if a young person has come out as an atheist, he has read one of these books.
To me, the biggest impact of the New Atheism is a general rise in skepticism. Atheism has touched almost every corner of the modern young person’s world, from the classroom, to entertainment, to social media, which means that even if he doesn’t (yet) identify as atheist, he’s likely become more skeptical about God and religion than past generations. In other words, the most prominent affect of the New Atheism so far is not necessarily an army of budding atheists but a tsunami of skepticism which has washed over our culture.
M: You are the founder of StrangeNotions.com, a first-rate online forum for intelligent Catholic-atheist dialogue. Has your experience with Strange Notions impacted your development of the RETURN project in any way?
B: One thing that’s surprised me at Strange Notions is the large number of atheists/agnostics who were originally raised Catholic, many of whom attended Catholic schools. Of course, when you start talking with them, I’ve typically found that their conceptions of God and the Church are badly distorted. And often that’s not their fault: they received poor catechesis and the schools failed them. This is precisely what Gaudium et Spes diagnosed at Vatican II:
“Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.” (GS 19)
So while preparing RETURN, I kept that in mind and devoted much of the content to correcting misperceptions about God and the Church.
M: There seems to be a growing interest in apologetics among Christians today. How useful are apologetics – that is, giving good arguments for “why we believe what we believe” – in helping fallen-away Catholics return home?
B: Apologetics is certainly useful, but we must remember that it is primarily a defensive tool. It’s used to defend the faith when challenged or attacked, which is useful for fallen-away Catholics who have a specific reason why they left the Church, such as disagreement with the Church’s sexual teachings or a belief that the Church is unbiblical.
But to draw back fallen-away Catholics, I’m convinced we need to place more focus on evangelization, which is a positive presentation of the Gospel. What most fallen-away Catholics need is not an answer to their challenges but a positive reason to return to the Church. They need the kerygma, the initial proclamation of faith and the first encounter with the Lord Jesus.
Now, I don’t want to downplay apologetics. If we can’t defend our faith, we’ll wither at the first objection. That’s why apologetics and evangelization should always be a package deal.
But as you’ve wisely noted in your blog posts on religious indifference, even before we get to the “why we believe what we believe” question, we need to answer the “why should I care?” question.
M: In your interview with Jen Fulwiler, you discuss today’s challenging spiritual epidemic of religious indifferentism. Many of today’s young people just don’t care about “organized religion” and couldn’t be bothered to talk seriously about such things. As a former fallen-away Catholic myself, I can vouch for the reality and depth of this apathy we face today. How can RETURN equip people to evangelize those who possess this deep-seated religious indifference?
B: People who are religiously ambivalent–I call them “shruggers”–are the toughest cases to crack. People who leave the Catholic Church for Protestantism or atheism typically have specific reasons for leaving, and thus offer a starting point for dialogue. But “shruggers” not only lack any reasons for drifting away, they just don’t even care about religion.
The main task, then, is to convince them that the Big Questions of life matter, that it’s worth seeking answers to questions about God, morals, and meaning. They need to see what the convert C.S. Lewis came to realize, that “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Similarly, when it comes to the person at the center of Christianity, Lewis notes that “Jesus produced mainly three effects: hatred, terror, adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”
In RETURN, I share several practical ways to get “shruggers” thinking about the Big Questions and especially about the Biggest Question of all–who is Jesus Christ?
M: I love the “seed gifts” that you offer as part of the RETURN game plan. Is there a “seed gift” success story that stands out for you personally as you reflect on your own evangelization experiences?
B: There are tons of great stories about people who point to a DVD, book, or CD that led them back to the faith (what I call “seed gifts”). One mother says, “My son was given a copy of Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism on the way out of church last Christmas. He stopped going to church regularly about ten years ago. We were away on vacation and I was amazed to see him reading it the next day. I was even more surprised the following week when he suggested we all go to church and then to brunch… You don’t know how happy it makes a mother to see her son return to church.”
Here’s another great story. My friend Josh grew up in a Catholic home, but, as with many Catholics kids, he went off to college and left his faith behind. His mom never gave up hope, though. She prayed for him and tried talking about the Church. But when none of that worked, she needed some other strategy. Her solution? Slip good Catholic resources into his life. She began covertly planting CDs in his truck, and she left Catholic booklets on his desk. Josh was frustrated. In fact, he distinctly remembers throwing at least one CD out of his truck window. But over time, Josh became more open and curious. He listened to one or two of the CDs, and one of the booklets particularly caught his eye. It was on the Eucharist. Despite years of religion class, Josh had never developed a clear understanding of what the Eucharist is, or why it matters. He certainly wasn’t aware that it was the real Body and Blood of Jesus.
But after studying the booklet, he became convinced, and that conviction led him back to the Church. He later became a parish youth minister, then a Catholic entrepreneur, and now runs one of the largest Catholic website companies in the world — all because his mother planted a few “seed gifts” in his life.
***You can visit the official RETURN website here.
Who Is Brandon Vogt?
Brandon Vogt is a bestselling Catholic author, blogger, and speaker. He’s also Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.Brandon’s work has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, FoxNews, CBS, EWTN, Vatican Radio, Our Sunday Visitor, National Review, and Christianity Today, and he’s a regular guest on Catholic radio.He has written six books and is the founder of StrangeNotions.com, the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists.Brandon was recently named one of the Top 30 Catholics Under 30 by FOCUS and one of the Top 24 Catholics to Follow on Twitter.