by Kelly Thomas
“I wasn’t expecting you to be so intelligent because I knew how religious you were.”
The speaker was a teammate on my high school’s debate team. A self-proclaimed atheist who prided himself on his intellectual superiority, he pulled me aside after I won a debate tournament. He phrased it offhandedly as a kind of pleasant surprise: Catholic girl shocks with ability to string two original thoughts together.
The Truth About God & Man at Georgetown
Fast-forward three years, in my Georgetown university apartment, a crackling debate on religion with two agnostic roommates and a fallen-away Catholic guy. I left the room briefly and heard him say quietly that he “respected people of faith” but was “sorry they weren’t confident and satisfied enough with their own merit” to not have to lean on these narratives. My roommates murmured their pitying assent.
In the view of so many ‘accomplished' American students, the two-thousand-year old Catholic Church is little more than a comforting fable perpetuated by such intellectually compromised men as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Cardinal John Henry Newman. (If only someone had told the early martyrs. They might have avoided being shredded by Roman lions by choosing another fairy tale in which to seek solace from worldly woes.)
If these had just been acquaintances, their condescension likely would have infuriated me. But they were my friends; I knew them too well to feel anything besides heartbreak.
One was the same girl who would get blackout drunk every weekend, dissolving into tears as she stumbled back from whatever party I had been summoned to collect her from. And the guy? Shortly after this conversation, he withdrew from school for an eighteen-month leave of absence to treat his ongoing battle with depression.
Divorcing Faith & Reason
Of course, religious communities are not immune from alcoholism or depression, nor is every nonreligious person doomed to a life of self-medication. But these vignettes speak to a haunting development, which has plagued modernity since the Enlightenment. It is what a Georgetown chaplain referred to as the “intellectual over-development and spiritual under-development of the world.”
In the view of the modern world, faith and reason are no longer to be seen as working in tandem. Rather, one is the result of superstitious ignorance; the other, of intellectual rigor. Where once we were the ones to be judged for our failings, now it is God that we have put on trial. Doubting Thomas, once scorned, has become the ideal apostle for the modern world, praised unceasingly for his enlightened refusal to believe that which he could not see.
The result? A thick layer of existential angst slowly settling over the secular West. Self-help books fly off the shelf, written by “experts” who claim to have found “the way” to fulfillment and happiness. For some reason their PhDs are easier to swallow than the searing words of a carpenter from Judea.
Weekly Yoga and a Juice Cleanse
Such ‘progress' has been closely accompanied by record-breaking antidepressant consumption. Men and women jump from fad to fad, giving themselves whiplash and bringing their hapless children along for the unsettling ride.
I went to university with these children, the inheritors of a world which has tried to do away with any notion of Truth. They have been raised to believe that they, on their own, and perhaps with a weekly yoga session and a juice cleanse, can find all the answers and achieve inner peace. So they roll into college, with puffed chests and lost eyes, looking about them and frantically latching onto anything that may give them any sense of solid footing.
Some do “figure it out” or at least enough to attain a surface level of happiness. But far too many, in their desperate attempts to avoid anything reeking of the surrender of religion, look for answers in kegs, or by having sex with strangers, or diving into toxic relationships — anything to feel less alone.
Is it any wonder then that my friends in that apartment living room sank further into a maelstrom of alcohol and depression, even as they congratulated themselves on their intelligence and independence?
They were doing precisely what they’d been told to do, which was to trust their own flawed selves to discover what would make them truly happy. The heart-wrenching results were no better than could be expected.
Millennials and the Nameless Enemy
The fact is, that all the old evils in the world have remained, but we have steadily and systematically been pushing away our knowledge of the Good — because we cannot see it, so therefore we cannot trust it.
As Chesterton phrased it: “[we] fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.”
Today, evil goes un-feared. We can feel its encroaching darkness, but for so many of my peers, there is no knowledge of the light to fend off the nameless enemy.