Ready or Not, Here Come the Atheists (and, Worse, the Apathetic)

The headlines say belief in God is dropping in America. That means Christians need to get ready to meet that disbelief with reason and love.

In the 1950s and 1960s, well above 90% of Americans believed in God. But now, according to Gallup, only 81% believe. Not believing in God is different from declaring yourself an atheist. Pew Research suggests that this, too, is on the increase. That means we have to get ready for two kinds of unbelievers.

First, we need to be ready for atheists who want to argue.

It is no coincidence that, simultaneous with the rise in disbelief in God, Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry, Father Michael Schmitz’s Bible in a Year, and a constellation of Catholic formation apostolates are preparing us to prove answers.

God raises up the help we need for the times we are in. When belief in God was high, we got one Fulton Sheen. Now, we seem to have a YouTube Fulton Sheen for every taste: Jennifer Fulwiler or Matt Fradd are funny Fulton Sheens; Father Robert Spitzer or the Thomistic Institute are brainy ones; Scott Hahn and St. Paul’s Center are Bible-centered; Edify! focuses on current issues, and Augustine Institute, Ascension, or Catholic Answers and many more focus on apologetics.

Just in time to meet the world’s demand for answers, God’s providence arranged for answers to be delivered daily to your inbox, suited to your particular taste. Don’t let them go to waste!

Second, get ready for “apatheists” who don’t want to argue.

With one class of non-believer, though, the more we argue the more we might lose them.

Writing in Atlantic years ago, Jonathan Rauch said he invented the term “apatheism” at a party after a couple of glasses of merlot when someone asked his religion. “I was going to say ‘atheist,’ but I stopped myself. ‘I used to call myself an atheist,’ I said, ‘and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m’ — that was when it hit me — ‘an apatheist!’”

Ross Douthat addressed this phenomenon in the New York Times.

“The very act of declaring yourself an ‘atheist,’” he said, “suggests a particularly high level of interest in religious detail and debate — higher than many self-described Methodists or cradle Catholics who have a vague belief in God and show up at church on holidays, and also higher than the many nonbelievers who are merely indifferent to religion.”

If you think you can safely dismiss God from your life, you become very hard to reach. But God knows that no one is completely apathetic. Polling finds that non-believers turn to prayer in crisis.

Our job is to remain in people’s lives so that, when this happens, we can be ready to help them find the way forward.

Third, be ready to be the countersign the world needs.

Some are blaming the rise of unbelief on the angry, name-calling incivility of the Trump presidency. They say Christians started to be known for their opposition to others, not their love for them.

However it happened, it is certain that an overwhelming majority of young people see Christians as judgmental and uncharitable.

That is truly a crisis.

St. John Henry Newman said, “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination …. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

Ultimately, reason is just the necessary intellectual corollary to our real argument, which is the witness of our love.

Fourth, get ready by praying and sacrificing.

“This kind is only cast out by prayer and fasting,” Jesus told his Apostles when he was dealing with an aggressive demon.

If atheism is a blaspheming demon, apathy is the noonday devil who causes listlessness and disinterestedness in spiritual things. If the first kind needs prayer and fasting, the second kind needs even more.

So, let’s pray and fast, confident that Jesus can do anything.

But fifth, by all means get ready.

Jesus Christ ascended into heaven saying both that “all power on heaven and on earth is given to me” and that it is our job “to teach the nations to follow my commandments.”

Those who lose their faith are not our enemies — they are our responsibilities. There is no one else Jesus has chosen to reach them, and, with him on our side, the only way to fail is not to try.

This appeared at Aleteia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.