"Why Are More College Students Becoming Atheists?" asks HigherEdMorning.com:
The number of atheist student groups on college campuses has doubled in the past two years. The question is: Why? There are currently more than 250 non-theistic student groups at U.S. colleges and universities, according to AlterNet.org.
Just last year, there were only 159 such organizations, reports DailyOrange.com.
So are a growing number of students turning away from religion and toward atheism – or have they just become more vocal about it?
“There are just genuinely more and more non-religious Americans, and that’s something that’s even stronger among younger generations,” Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), tells the Daily Orange.
The focus of the SSA is to “promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics,” according to its website.
Galef says each college group has about 25 to 30 members, and such groups have formed in all but six states.
He points to the popularity of the New York Times bestseller “The God Delusion” by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins as playing a role in influencing college students.
Or could it be tied to a growing anger at God among young people?
When college students were studied, atheists and agnostics felt angrier at God than students who were believers, says Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University.
Because being angry with a Being you believe doesn't exist is a perfectly rational stance, right? As Chesterton rightly noted, "If there were not God, there would be no atheists." Modern atheists, wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen, are "always angered when he hears anything said about God and religion--he would be incapable of such a resentment if God were only a myth." This isn't (believe it or not!) meant to be dismissive of such anger, but to note that a reasonable person who finds himself angry at God might want to mull the question, "Why am I angry at Someone who doesn't exist?" In doing so, he might well find that his perception of who God is (or isn't) is faulty and skewed.
But there is much more to it, as this recent post on the CNN site demonstrates. Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., in his excellent book, Faith and Certitude, wrote, "Unfounded doubt arises from our woundedness. ... The problem is deeper than intellect. It lies in the affective-volitional level. Crises of faith, for example, are seldom chiefly an intellectual matter. They can be complex and are always implicated to a greater or lesser degree with emotion and will." It's not surprising, then, that many people—especially younger people—flirt with or adamantly express some form of atheism in a culture that is essentially ruled and driven by emotion and will.
The state of this cultural wasteland and its affect upon religious belief is the focus of Daniel Mahoney's WSJ review of French social theorist Olivier Roy's new book, Holy Ignorance. Mahoney writes:
[Roy] begins by noting that religion, though still obviously an important part of modern society, has been relegated to the private sphere, becoming mostly an "interior" search for spiritual well-being. In such a world, "faith communities" of every stripe increasingly withdraw from the broader culture, defending their doctrinal purity against the onslaught of coarse secular trends, what Mr. Roy calls "neo-paganism." This withdrawal, though understandable, is a danger in itself. "Faith without culture," Mr. Roy says, "is an expression of fanaticism."
If by "faith" he means "religion", I would agree, believing that true religion—Catholicism—is the basis for real culture. As Josef Pieper demonstrated well in his classic work, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, culture without faith also results in fanaticism, essentially a culture of boredom, malaise, and death:
Culture depends on its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in turn, is not possible untless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship. ... Separated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of the feast. Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman. (pp. 15, 68)
The materialist/atheist life, in other words, becomes increasingly and incredibly horrible precisely because it is meaningless. And one of the best ways to seek escape from that relentless, oppressive meaninglessness of things is to pursue a life of perpetual distraction, entertainment, pleasure, and technologically-enhanced hedonism. But this simply serves as a sort of cheap bandage for the wounds, which eventually erupt in painful and not-so-rational cries against (pick one) God, society, parents, existence, reality. Tragically, such wounded souls not only often miss the answer—divine worship and love of God—they usually see religion as either (at best) a side attraction or (worse) a cause of their pain, most often because religion represents "repression" and "moralism" and "backward thinking". Mahoney concludes his review by writing:
"Holy Ignorance" ends with a profound set of questions: How can religion be passed along to children when it is no longer a reliable part of the culture they will inherit? What hold can religion have on the souls of human beings when it increasingly becomes a "consumer" choice—or, as Mr. Roy emphasizes, an intensely personal, inward experience—and when people dispose of the faith of their fathers as they might dispose of clothes that are no longer fashionable? The tendency of modern society to trivialize the most important decision a human being can make is arguably a far greater threat to the integrity of faith than secularization ever was.
Which leads me, finally, to one of my favorite passages from the texts of the Second Vatican Council:
In her loyal devotion to God and men, the Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence.
Still, she strives to detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God; conscious of how weighty are the questions which atheism raises, and motivated by love for all men, she believes these questions ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly.
The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man's dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in His happiness. She further teaches that a hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives. By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man's dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair.
Meanwhile every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. For on certain occasions no one can entirely escape the kind of self-questioning mentioned earlier, especially when life's major events take place. To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing.
The remedy which must be applied to atheism, however, is to be sought in a proper presentation of the Church's teaching as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members. For it is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit Who renews and purifies her ceaselessly, to make God the Father and His Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible. This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them. Many martyrs have given luminous witness to this faith and continue to do so. This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer's entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy. What does the most reveal God's presence, however, is the brotherly charity of the faithful who are united in spirit as they work together for the faith of the Gospel and who prove themselves a sign of unity.
While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue. Hence the Church protests against the distinction which some state authorities make between believers and unbelievers, with prejudice to the fundamental rights of the human person. The Church calls for the active liberty of believers to build up in this world God's temple too. She courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind.
Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot. Far from diminishing man, her message brings to his development light, life and freedom. Apart from this message nothing will avail to fill up the heart of man: "Thou hast made us for Thyself," O Lord, "and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown. (Gaudium et spes, 21-22)
Here is a list of books available from Ignatius Press that address skepticism and atheism:
• The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac
• God and the Ways of Knowing by Jean Cardinal Danielou
• Theology and Sanity and A Map of Life by Frank Sheed
• Orthodoxy by G.K Chesterton
• Faith and Certitude by Thomas Dubay, S.M.
• God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins by Thomas Crean, O.P.
• C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith by Richard Purtill
• Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees and Philosophy 101 by Peter Kreeft
• Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, S.J.
• The Belief of Catholics by Monsignor Ronald Knox
• Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism by Thomas Howard
• Divine Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism by Josef Pieper
• Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger
• Truth and Tolerance by Joseph Ratzinger
• A History of Apologetics by Avery Cardinal Dulles