The Secret to Evangelizing the Nones

The falling away from Christianity by young people is often the result of them cultivating shallowness, superficiality, and solipsism as a philosophy of life.

My redoubt in Swampland, Mississippi, often feels like the Alamo. Out there beyond the mission walls, or beyond the borders of Mississippi, lie Satan’s forces, vast and snarling. Openly repellent, they nevertheless swarm through our institutions and, to an extraordinary degree, capture the allegiance of our young. 

Like Colonel Travis, I have drawn my sword, carved a line in the sand, and invited volunteers to stand with me against the raging demons. But as you know, a morally courageous man is hard to find.

Too often I hear: “Thank you, sir, but I’ll cast my lot with the satanic forces of darkness—they’re not so bad.” To which I reply, “Then God go with you—you idiot.” 

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You idiot” is crucial to that exchange. It is, I believe, one of the most useful but neglected phrases in any effective evangelical strategy. 

It is one thing to tell the wayward, “I understand your decision and will love you forever no matter what.” We can concede, however, that that is not much of a dissuader. Something more arresting is required. 

This is especially true when we understand why so many young people are becoming “nones” (religiously unaffiliated). Their falling away from Christianity has nothing to do with startling critiques of St. Thomas Aquinas. It has nothing to do with profound philosophical rejoinders against St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God. It has nothing to do with deep textual analysis refuting the Gospels as reliable history. No, it is instead the result of young people cultivating shallowness, superficiality, and solipsism as a philosophy of life—and from a very early age. 

A recent, fascinating report from Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies shows that the recent sharp drop in religious affiliation in the United States comes not from adults losing their faith but from children losing their faith far earlier than parents realize. The risk is less that a young person will lose his faith in college than that he lost his faith before he was fifteen, when he accepted that social media, online computer games, pop culture, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe constituted all the philosophy he needed; religion was irrelevant.  The recent sharp drop in religious affiliation in the United States comes not from adults losing their faith but from children losing their faith far earlier than parents realize.Tweet This

According to Stone, parents of children born from the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century were “uniquely unsuccessful in passing their faith to their children.”  

For religious people, and especially religious parents, this has several important takeaways. Children, even 16 and 17-year-olds, are usually not having extremely sophisticated apologetics-style arguments. The arguments that persuade children to believe things are not necessarily rationally coherent or compelling, and by the time people are old enough to fully absorb the content of religious debates (their 20s), they tend not to change religion. In other words, most of the rise in secularism in America probably doesn’t have much to do with any actual deficiency of rational arguments for religion, or strength of arguments against it.

Rather, loss of religion is about childhood socialization.

That socialization has, in large part, left young people to their own devices; and as Pope Benedict once said (before he was pope): “Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.” 

“Self-made” meaning is generally not even that; it is, rather, a callow adoption of the madness of crowds; it is also a denial of objective reality. Just as you don’t make up your own version of math or science and call it good, the same is true with real religion, which is why “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious” is such a weasel phrase. 

At Lisbon’s 2023 World Youth Day, Bishop Robert Barron commented, 

We’ve dumbed down the faith for way too long. My generation got a dumbed down Catholicism and it’s been a pastoral disaster. And that’s not just my private opinion. You can see that in every survey. When you ask people why they disaffiliated, in the Western world anyway, they’ll often say “I never got my questions answered, religion seemed stupid, it’s out of line with science,” etc., etc. We dumbed down the faith in an attempt to make it relevant and we undermined ourselves. It’s a vibrant, smart, beautiful Catholicism that people find compelling.

Yes, I think we can all agree with that. But before we can reach the adult nones with the good, the beautiful, and the true, we need to shake them out of their willed imbecility. 

As it is, they fear “missing out” if they don’t conform to the world, they fear the eye-rolling scorn of their peers, they fear the wokester’s lash (which is why they so cherish speech restrictions—so they can stay on the right side of the commissars). 

But what they really need to fear is our mockery, our derision of their juvenile prejudices, our contempt for their puerility.  

Until that is achieved, arguments about truth will miss the mark. Christian humility, charity, and generosity will not move them. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Lord; and as we know down in Mississippi, that often begins with fearing what daddy might think if we don’t uphold the family name and walk straight in the ways of God.  

You want to win the nones? Treat ’em rough.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • H. W. Crocker III

    H. W Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His classic history of the Catholic Church Triumph, updated and expanded, has just been reissued in hardcover.

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