In a thought-provoking lecture on the growing segment of young Americans who report no religion, Mary Eberstadt, the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center, suggested a novel approach: instead of wringing hands over the departure of young people from the pews, talk to them.
In “Why God? New Ideas for ‘Nones’ to Consider,” Eberstadt laid out four apologetic approaches for engaging Generation Z, described as the most irreligious of all Americans, if not also the most anxious and lonely. Although the trend toward secularization was well underway long before today’s young adults were born—Time magazine announced God was dead as far back as 1966—it is the nation’s youth that are secularizing the fastest. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Eberstadt recounted the grim events that have stalked their childhoods: 9/11, the global financial crisis, a spate of deadly school shootings, escalating racial and political tensions, and a global pandemic that impaired both their education and social connections at a tender moment in life. Whereas traumatic events may have led to a rise in religious belief in the past, between church scandals and politicization, a growing number of young adults are checking out as they check the “no religion” box.
But the seeds of faith may well emerge in the ashes of suffering, and this is where Eberstadt suggests we engage. Her first appeal is an argument from history. It is no coincidence that the century that gave up on God also happened to be replete with human atrocities. From the Holocaust to Pol Pot to the Soviet Gulag, 20th-century history “implores us to grasp how evil humans can be.” Quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Eberstadt noted that the “common denominator of all these atrocities was atheism.” Whether communist or fascist, the perpetrators simply did not believe that God was watching. “Transgression puts wind in the sails of religious faith.”
A second area to probe is generational hubris and human’s infinite capacity for self-delusion. To those certain that religion is a useless, if not pernicious, historical artifact, Eberstadt would say: “Unless you are certain that you are smarter than everyone who came before, you might pause to wonder about the collective wisdom in religion.” After all, until quite recently, humans through space and time have been inclined toward belief. It takes “a lot of hubris to ignore centuries of religious capital that people before me accumulated at considerable cost.” All the world’s intellectual giants were on their knees.
A third avenue engages the Gen Z None as the “digital native” that she is. As the first generation of the Internet age, Gen Z has a highly trained capability to sniff out truth from digital falsehood. Unlike prior generations, for example, this generation may be the first to wake up from the delusion that unbridled sex brings happiness. From their painful experience with pornography, online abuse, and a rampant hook-up culture, Gen Z may be more open to religious wisdom, Eberstadt suggests: “Organized religion places rules around marriage, love and sex because these things have deep cosmic meanings. Perhaps this insight born of hard experience might nudge some toward religion.”
The final place to engage is human patrimony—the artistic endowments of the church. “Why does everyone believe that gothic cathedrals are the most beautiful structures? Because somehow reaching up to God relates to our own experience.” From gothic cathedrals to “music with God as its object” to Shakespeare, “the western canon is unthinkable without Christianity.” Notwithstanding a Gen Z desire to “burn the canon,” a suppression of truth does not suppress truth. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” says Eberstadt.
Subjective Spirituality Falls Short
To those who insist on pursuing a DIY spirituality apart from religion, Eberstadt countered with an analogy: “When planning a dinner party, we inevitably choose the menu based on what we like. The same is true with DIY religion. We only want rules we are willing to live with. Such subjective spiritualties will not nurture or deepen us. Rather, they simply serve as a de facto justification of our behavior.” Eberstadt cited Melville’s description in Billy Budd of the cruel John Claggart, whose “conscience was but the lawyer to his will.”
In their suffering, Eberstadt concludes, Gen Z “nones” just might find religion to be the counter-cultural movement they’ve been searching for. “People want the same things. The problem with the young today is that they are having a hard time finding the good things.” Eberstadt has left some thoughtful breadcrumbs to draw them home.
Editor’s Note: Watch the recording of Mary Eberstadt’s webinar, hosted by our friends at Praxis Circle, below.