Most Mondays feature letters from students, but this one is from a student’s parents.
Our son, who tests at genius level, has just completed his first year of college. Recently he nervously approached my wife and me to tell us that he no longer thinks Christianity is true. He doesn't believe in God, says that we can know nothing except through science, and claims that each person has to define the meaning and significance of life for himself. Religion, he thinks, is a crutch.
He says he has come to these views on his own, through reading and chat room discussions. Although he tells us he is open to further discussion, his attitude communicates that he isn't really open. He refuses to believe that we could know God exists beyond a reasonable doubt, concluding that we may as well believe there is no God. We have responded by reaffirming our love for him, reviewing the evidence for the truth of the Christian faith and trying to unravel some errors in his logical reasoning. So far, though, it appears that we are making no progress whatsoever. He is well-read in Christian apologetics and tells us that he has "heard it all.”
Please, if there is anything you can do or recommend to help us in this difficult time, we would very deeply appreciate it. We're encouraging him to talk with smart Christians. I've read about you and I know you once traveled a path somewhat similar to my son's.
I was grieved to hear of your son's fall from faith. As you guessed, this is a common story. Yes, I do have a few suggestions.
I've shortened your letter quite a bit for publication. What the long, original version tells me is that during your talks with your son, you are pouring almost all of your energy into discussing his intellectual objections to Christianity. It's important to realize that these intellectual objections are not necessarily the reason why he so abruptly lost his faith. It almost never happens that a bright young person who understands apologetics runs into an argument he can't answer, then -- wham! -- stops believing. What more often happens is that he develops a motive to lose his faith, then starts looking for arguments he can't answer.
The question, then, is what that motive may have been. Often, a young person has more than one such motive. One common motive is personal sin. If you are doing what God calls wrong, it's uncomfortable to believe in God. Another motive is intellectual pride and vanity. Smart people like to be recognized as smart by other smart people, but the intellectual culture of our day holds Christianity in contempt.
I don't suggest that you and your wife should interrogate your son about his motives. There are two good reasons not to. The first is that although young people think they understand their motives well, in fact they usually don't. The second reason is that even if you could prove that your son had a bad motive for losing his faith, that wouldn't prove that his present views are false. So it isn't important to convince him that he must have had some motive for abandoning faith. The important thing is to understand this fact about him yourselves. Intelligent though he may be, his problem is less cognitive (being unable to understand) than volitional (being unwilling to understand).
What else can I suggest? Pull back from lengthy discussions with him about the rational grounds for faith. As you point out, you can't argue a person into belief. Excessive indulgence in such discussions may even do more harm than good, by feeding your son's conviction that his motives are purely intellectual. Of course I don't mean that you shouldn't discuss the intellectual dimension of faith -- you certainly should. But let him bring it up.
You must also distinguish between objections to faith that represent real intellectual problems for him, and objections to faith that he is using merely as smokescreens. When you meet a real intellectual problem, offer a real intellectual solution. A smokescreen, however, requires an entirely different response: What you have to do is blow it away and uncover the real issue hidden behind it. There is an art to this, and you must depend on the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
It won't work to say, "That's just a smokescreen.” What you have to do is talk in such a way that your son recognizes for himself that he's only blowing smoke. Sometimes a simple question is enough -- something like "Suppose I gave you a completely convincing intellectual response to every one of your objections. Would you change your mind?" You'd be surprised how often people say "No."
Yes, it's important for your son to get to know smart Christians, but not for the reason you think. Whether he talks with them about the faith isn't very important. What's important is making it impossible for him to tell himself that smart Christians don't exist. Nonbelievers with a lot of intellectual pride reassure themselves with the idea that faith is a defect of the intellect. They find smart Christians unsettling. As philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”
In the meantime, pray for your son without ceasing. Pray for him whenever you think of him, morning, noon or night. This is the most important thing of all. Never despair. Prayer may feel like not doing anything, but it is doing the greatest thing. Implore God to do what is needed to bring your son to himself, like the prodigal son in the parable. An ancient Christian woman named Monica prayed daily for her pagan son. Our title for the man her son became is St. Augustine.
Trust God. Intellectual pride is like a tower of adamant, with the door locked from the inside. Sometimes the only way available to the Divine Love to bring a soul back to Himself is to bring him low. If He brings your own son low, you must be ready, because your faith may be tested too.