Be not afraid

October 16, 2007 | Struggles | 22 comments

Yesterday I talked to yet another mom whose child went off to college and decided that he’s an atheist. I don’t know if this is an epidemic or if I just hear about a lot because people know about my conversion, but it seems that not a month goes by that I don’t hear about some child of a friend or family member giving up their faith after they leave the house.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of this trend that I’ve noticed is that, quite often, the parents I talk to seem hesitant to say anything about it. Not that I think they should be starting dinner-table arguments or badgering their children — since, as I wrote about here and here, I finally clued in to the fact that prayer and simply living our Christian faith are by far the most important tools for evangelization — but a surprising number of the parents I’ve talked to have not said anything at all to their children.

The mom I talked to yesterday took this route (I’ll call her “Liz”), telling me that she hasn’t said much to her son about his departure from the church. When I asked her why, she danced around the issue for a while but finally admitted that her son’s loss of faith has made her worry about her own faith. “Honestly, ” she said, “I don’t want to have a conversation with him about it. The atheists have some good arguments these days, and I just don’t want to ‘go there’. My faith means a lot to me and I’m happy to keep it that way.” When she said that, I remembered that some of my other friends, acquaintances and family members have hinted that this is also the reason why they’ve shied away from discussing the topic with their own children.

When I told Liz that I’d gone the other way, finding God after a life of atheism, her eyes lit up and she immediately wanted to know more about that. I recommended some good books to read and gave a quick (OK, rambling) summary of my conversion story, and strongly encouraged her to, as she put it, “go there”. I told her that, from my experience as a person who asked all the tough questions simply because I was too ornery to accept Christianity on faith alone, she should absolutely be asking the tough questions and scratching the surface on her beliefs. She smiled for the first time in the conversation when I said, “Don’t worry. It’s all true.”

To the fact that other intelligent people have come to different conclusions, I don’t know what to say. As we know from looking at the world around us, smart people can be found in pretty much every belief (or nonbelief) system. All I can offer is my own experience, which is this: I lived my whole life as an atheist. My godless worldview, which relied on science and observation of the material world alone to explain everything, conveyed accurate information. But when I paused to give the benefit of the doubt to the idea that perhaps my information was incomplete, when I took a hesitant peek at what some of humanity’s great thinkers have had to say about that entire realm of human experience that cannot be measured in a laboratory, I found myself — at first unwillingly — on the fast track to Christianity.

Not wanting to be “one of them, ” those religious people who I spent so many years disliking, I asked every tough question I could think of. I read book after book after book, waiting to find at least one question for which atheism had a better answer. The problem is, I found none. In fact, I found that Christianity, the Catholic Church in particular, took what I already knew about the world as an atheist and added to it abundantly. The more questions I asked, the more my faith grew. The more I dug deep to really ponder the hard questions, the better I understood myself and the world around me, and the closer I got to God. An analogy I often think of is that atheism gave me a photograph of a chocolate cake, and Christianity has given me the actual icing-smothered item to taste and savor.

I share my experience in case it’s helpful to parents like Liz or to any other Christians who might be hesitant to scratch the surface on their faith for fear of what they might find. In the opinion of this former atheist, by asking questions and seeking answers you have absolutely nothing to fear, and everything to gain.

——————

UPDATE: Here is a Part II to this post with some recommended reading.

22 Comments

  1. Steph-Joy

    I started reading your blog a little while ago and really enjoy the insights which you often share. Next time I come up against a scary question I will remember this post – and try to not be afraid to look for the answer. So thank you!

  2. Translator Mum

    Hi Jen, my name is Alicia and I’m writing from Uruguay. I would like to know the list of books you recommend. I really enjoy your blog, thanks!

  3. Laura

    I’d love your list also. My husband is teaching a Sunday school class for college students and he’s trying to teach them how to respond to some of the arguments used to disprove God. I know that believing in Christ is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, but I know that God often has used books and intellectual arguments as the means for drawing many to Him.

  4. Jennifer F.

    Alicia – I’ll work on putting that together. Thanks!

  5. Amy Jane (Untangling Tales)

    The line about “atheists have some good arguments these days” made me smile.

    I’ve learned in the last couple years that most non-believers actually have a rather limited list of complaints, and they’re rather generic.

    I guess I’m referring mostly to the “comfortable” atheist who’s faith is simply against his idea of God (I don’t know about the one– like you?– who’s investing his thought and research), but I’ve actually felt my faith enhanced by these conversations.

    Not because I converted anyone, but because I found that I had answers (and *old* answers) to every objection raised. After 2,000 years, how many new objections can there be?

  6. LilyBug

    Thank you for this post, Jen. As a teacher of Catholic high school seniors there are many self-proclaimed atheists; they sadden me a great deal. My response is to pray that they will come back to the Church and try to answer as many questions as possible.

  7. Warren

    Jennifer,

    It’s very common, natural, and even in some ways not a bad thing that kids try out new and alternative viewpoints when they first leave the nest. I daresay that a number of them who were raised in atheist households flip into Christianity while in college. It can work both ways.

    My wife was raised Catholic and is now an agnostic. I was raised in a totally non-religious household and am now a devout almost-Catholic (I’m in RCIA). I think a lot of this is a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”. It’s extremely hard to have the right perspective on something you grew up with.

    This, it seems to me, is the great value of adult Christian converts such as yourself – they can show the cradle Christians all kinds of things about their faith that they never understood before. I am currently trying (gently) to perform this service for my wife, and I’ve seen it in countless other cases as well. This, in my opinion, is one of the many ways in which God continually “re-seeds” the Church.

    Love your blog. Although I was never an atheist, you and I are very much at the same stage and on the same wavelength as regards our new relationship with the Church. I often feel like your posts are something I could have written myself. Please continue!

  8. Louise

    Jen, I love your blog and I particularly enjoyed this post. I would love to see that list of books too! I’ve faced some challenging questions lately and I really want to be more knowledgeable. Thank you!

  9. Sarahndipity

    It sounds like Liz was almost scared of losing her own faith if she talked to her son. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that pretty odd. I guess I don’t understand why you would raise your kids Catholic if you weren’t sure of it yourself.

    The more questions I asked, the more my faith grew. The more I dug deep to really ponder the hard questions, the better I understood myself and the world around me, and the closer I got to God.

    I’m a cradle Catholic, but I feel the exact same way. I’ve always been amazed by the Catholic Church. There have been times when I’ve questioned or struggled with certain teachings, but whenever I delve into it, it always turns out they were right all along.

    One of my biggest fears is that my daughter or any future children we have will leave the faith. I know there’s only so much a parent can do, but I would feel like a complete failure if that happened. I’m certainly not suggesting that parents who’s children leave the faith are failures; you can do everything right and your child can still leave. I’m just saying I would feel like a failure, even if it wasn’t logical.

    In fact, my brother, who is only two years younger than me and was raised in the same environment, has completely left the faith. What is it that causes one person to leave and another to stay, if they were raised in the same environment? I have no idea. I’ve just always been powerfully drawn to the Church. I’ve always known it’s true. I feel like I would have become Catholic even if I hadn’t been raised Catholic (assuming I had been exposed to the Church and found out what it was really about).

  10. Tertium Quid

    Jennifer,

    As Flannery O’Connor said, “The talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you.”

    I continue to be impressed with the freshness you bring to questions of faith. I became a Catholic as an adult, and that is fresh, but I had not spent a lifetime without any faith.

    Please keep writing. TQ

  11. cordelia

    this for this post, my daughter leaves for college in the fall! we really looked very closely at where she (and our hard earned money) would go…it wasn’t a matter of, this school has a great football team or granpa went there or even it’s “catholic.” do not be decieved higher education is a wasteland… also faith must be lived at home as a family. pray the rosary as a family, go to adoration and confession as a family, talk about church issues and beliefs at the dinner table, talk about the homily on the way home from mass…

  12. Catholic Mom

    Jen,

    A year ago I did a series of posts on the book Keeping Your Kids Catholic by Bert Ghezzi. The last chapter deals with a child who leaves home and leaves his faith behind. I have probably read this book at least four times in the last fifteen years. As my children move into different phases, it resonates differently with me and there is something new to appreciate. I can also say that I am about to send my third child off to college and by the Grace of God, everyone is still attending Mass and involved in the Church, even when they are 1500 miles from home. It is not inevitable that children will leave the faith and it is also not a final act if they do. Many leave and then find their way home.

  13. Tony

    There comes a time when you have to commit the child you love to the enfolding wings of the Holy Spirit.

    When asked: “Why do you go to church?” a child living at home has a ready made answer: “My parents make me go!” A child no longer living at home doesn’t have that particular “safety net” any longer. When someone asks them: “Why do you go to church?”, they’re going to have to come up with an answer, not only to the questioner, but to themselves.

    This is the first time their mature faith will be tested. They may fail the first time, or the second, or forever. All you can do is keep living a holy, Catholic life, talk to them gently about your faith and why you hold it. If they have embraced atheism, ask them why and be ready to ask them pointed questions that make them think.

    One who trusts God has no reason to be afraid 🙂

  14. John

    I don’t know about higher education being a “wasteland.” What’s the alternative? There is some good in having one’s faith tested; the problem arises when what we thought was strong faith turned out to actually be weak.

    When I was in college, I dabbled in Protestantism because, at the time, my husband was Protestant. Though I gave it my best shot, I always felt there was something missing from the other denominations. Then, it came to me – the Eucharist. Not only did I return back to the Faith, I brought my now husband with me. Because of the test, however, I feel my faith is stronger than it was when I graudated from high school.

    So, no worries, Cordelia, your child will undoubtedly be lead by the Holy Spirit wherever she goes and by whatever route it decides to lead her.

    -LilyBug

  15. Abigail

    The Church is such a treasure trove of mystery and intelligence!

  16. Stephkneek

    This is a comment from one of those children that lost their faith after moving out.
    I strayed for about 4 years. My mother often made comments about church and about my unhappiness and how she knew that I knew in my heart what was right. And my gosh it got on my nerves so bad. But along with all those comments she told me how much she loved me and how much she was proud of me succeeding as an adult and she continued to love me just as much as when I was attending church and had a relationship with God.
    My mom silently prayed for me for those entire 4 years. Never losing heart, never losing faith. And I cannot begin to tell you what the prayers of a parent can do for their children.
    I am currently living back at home, I’m attending church, helping out with the youth group, singing on the youth group worship band, and leading a singles young adult home group. I’m tellin’ you what, when God grabs a hold of you, your whole life flips upside down.
    I encourage all of you parents that have children who have strayed away…pray for your children, tell them you love them, don’t judge them and try and make them feel guilty for things that I’m sure God is already convicting them about. Also, I would encourage you to read the story of the prodigal son, as much as necessary. I know for me, now that I am back to serving the Lord, when I read that story I fall apart with thanks to God for pulling me back in and his faithfulness in providing everything I needed to leave my old lifstyle.
    Anyways, speaking from experience, God really can grab a hold of your child even when all seems lost.
    -Stephanie

  17. cordelia

    putting an 18 y.o, in a “catholic” school where the catholic theology prof. is a former priest who is now a buddhist, and is telling your kid that everything they ever learned at home is a lie…i’d call that a wasteland…this is not the exception but the rule. (not to mention co-ed dorms that have poker parties with condoms as chips)it’s one thing to defend your faith in an argument say, once a week, but to live day by day under assault with no where to go to charge your batteries…that’s a lot to ask of a teenager.

  18. Tienne

    I’ll be eagerly looking for that list Jen!

  19. Karen E.

    Wonderful post, Jen!

  20. LilyBug

    Cordelia,

    What a terrible experience! And at a Catholic school? I attended a Catholic university for a short while and nothing like that was in my experience. In fact, every experience I have had with Catholic schools has been positive. It’s sad to say, though, your daughter may have had better luck at a state school with a solid Catholic center nearby. I don’t think it’s possible, though, to simply reject the idea of higher education altogether.

  21. Michelle

    I too would like to see the list. there is nothing like preparing yourself just in case and all the while strengthening your own faith!

  22. cordelia

    condoms as poker chips: Miami University, Ohio.
    former priest teaching Catholic Theology: Xavier University, Cincinnati.
    Never said I’m giving up on higher education said you have to be VERY CAREFUL where you send your kids.

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