Apathy a greater threat to religious belief than atheism: J. Warner Wallace

Bixby Creek Bridge, Monterey, United States | Unsplash/Sammie Vasquez

Apathetic views on spirituality are a greater threat to religious belief than atheism, according to notable Christian apologist and author J. Warner Wallace.

“Apathy-ism probably is the biggest challenge to theism, not atheism,” said Wallace, who talked about annually taking students on a trip to University of California, Berkeley.

“What we’re going to encounter most of the time is just apathy. Students on campus, maybe groups on campus are strongly atheistic in some groups. But generally speaking, students were like, ‘Eh, don’t really care.’”

Wallace, along with fellow apologist Sean McDowell of Biola University, were interviewed on an episode of the Dallas Theological Seminary podcast “The Table” posted online last week.

Wallace and McDowell had recently released an apologetics book aimed at reaching out to Generation Z Americans, the generation that is currently entering adolescence and adulthood. Titled So the Next Generation Will Know, the authors hope that adults and parents could use their book to help keep Gen Z from leaving their churches.

According to a survey by the Barna Group released in 2018, Generation Z (normally defined as those born between 1999 and 2015) are the least Christian generation in United States history. 

Barna found that 35% of Generation Z teens considered themselves atheist, compared to 30% of millennials, 30% of Generation X and 26% of Baby Boomers. 

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Homicide detective in Los Angeles County, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, adjunct professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University, and author of Forensic Faith, God's Crime Scene and Cold-Case Christianity.

Wallace explained that making an intellectual case for Christianity is only the first step in reaching out with students, calling the first of two “why” questions.

“Why should I care? I get it. To you 58-year-old nut jobs or interested in theology, it might be interesting to you guys. But I don’t care about that. It has no impact on me,” he said.

“When a 17-year-old calls you to say, what do I do now? You want to be able to show that it turns out that that issue you’re talking about on Instagram is described thousands of years ago in a book that describes you the way you really are and your friends the way they really are, and your interaction the way it really is.”

McDowell noted that another important factor in young people leaving churches was the absence of fathers in the home, citing a 2013 study led by the late social psychologist Vern Bengtson.

“Across faith practices, the number one factor that would shape why a young person stays in the faith and/or leaves on the reverse, is a quote, ‘warm relationship with the father,’” McDowell explained.

“There’s something powerful about relationships in the Body of Christ [and] with a father and teaching kids how to navigate reality. So if one or both of those are missing, the chances sky rocket that a kid is going to walk away from the church and/or their faith.”

Wallace agreed with the familial influence factor, noting that “most people, globally, believe what they believe primarily because their parents believe it.”

“So what happens is, this becomes an exponential problem for us going forward as Christians. The fewer Christians we have in the next generation … the fewer Christian parents [we have] to raise up another generation,” said Wallace.

As a way to help evangelize Gen Z, McDowell explained that forming good relationships is an important part, referencing the work of his father, noted apologist and author Josh McDowell.

“Today, when everybody has a voice, trust is one of the most important commodities that we have,” he noted, “and my dad’s faithfulness in ministry: people hear his name, they see evidence, and to so many people they go, you know what? That’s a voice I can trust.”

“If I build a relationship with these people and they know that I care, they’re going to listen to me. So I work hard to be involved in the conversation with my kids regularly talking about stuff. So when they have a question, they don’t first Google. Hopefully, they’ll come to me.”

In 2011, then president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Research Thom Rainer released a book along with his son titled The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation.

Rainer concluded that the Millennial generation, often defined as those born between 1981-1998, were not overtly hostile to religion, but rather were simply not interested in the matter.

“They are not anti-religious or anti-Christian, but they tend to be totally ambivalent towards anything religious or Christian,” said Rainer to The Christian Post at the time.

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