Eighth Graders are Smarter Than You Think

I had this idea that my book Catholicism Pure and Simple could be used as a text book for eighth grade confirmation class, so I’ve been trying it out on the eighth graders in our parish school and they are loving it. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter on the existence of God. I start with the religious instinct in human beings and build up the argument for God, Jesus and the Catholic faith from there.

Have you ever stopped to consider how strange it is that human beings are religious?

We’re told that humans are the most highly evolved form of animal life. We are rational beings. We can think and speak and write and read and reason and argue. We can do experiments and think logically and work out problems with our vast intellect. It is said that we are the most amazingly intelligent and rational animals the world has ever seen.

But at the same time the vast majority of humans are religious. On the one we are rational and reasonable. On the other hand we believe in a spiritual world inhabited by invisible beings. We say that each human has an invisible dimension called an eternal soul. We read books we believe are inspired by angels or by God. We build temples, mosques and churches, discuss theology, light candles, pray and believe in heaven and hell and miracles. We’re rational, but we have this religious instinct, and it’s curious. It’s strange. We’re not just apes. We’re apes longing to be angels.

I don’t mean that everyone goes to church every Sunday, or that all people everywhere believe in God and practice a religion faithfully. I just mean that no matter where or when they have lived, the vast majority of human beings have acted on a gut-level instinct that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that someone else is “out there.”

Some would argue that this strange religious instinct is a leftover from our more primitive stages of development, and that to be purely rational is to be more highly developed. But what if it were the other way around, and our religious instinct and spiritual capacity is the higher form of development?  Maybe dealing rationally with the physical world is the more primitive part of us, while the capacity to interact abstractly with an unseen realm is the highest point of our human development. After all, who is more highly developed–a person who understands and appreciates something as “irrational” as music or someone who is deaf and dull to the joy of music?

Perhaps the religious instinct unlocks the true mystery and glory of humanity.Maybe the ability to pray and worship is mankind’s highest accomplishment. If so, where did this religious instinct come from? It seems to be a universal human capability. Human beings respond to their world in a religious way instinctively. In times of danger they cry out for protection. It times of need they ask for help, and in times of peace and plenty they pause to give thanks. When faced with the awesome force of nature or the miracle of a new-born child, they instinctively look beyond themselves to a greater power. This shared religious instinct is one of the things that sets humans apart from the animals. A wolf might howl at the moon, but he doesn’t worship the moon goddess. A dog might roll over and play dead, but he does not kneel and pray for the dead. A gorilla may play, but he does not pray.

Human beings, on the other hand, do this religious thing. In every society and culture from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, people have told stories about gods, built temples, established rituals, and honored men and women they thought were above the others because they were heroically holy.

It’s easy to think that religion is the last vestige of a primitive society, but in the modern world religion is as popular as ever.The signs of this religious instinct are everywhere. We may have satellites and cell phones, jets and laptops and amazing engineering and marvelous communications, but still we gather to worship God and turn our hearts toward heaven.

Travel across the world and you find that all the greatest monuments and buildings have religious purpose. Everywhere you come across temples and shrines of every shape and kind, from Stonehenge to St. Peter’s Basilica, from a simple Baptist church to the temples of Angkor Wat, from the ruins of a makeshift shrine in a cell at Auschwitz to the Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, or a Buddhist pagoda. Look further and you will see a range of institutions, charities, hospitals, schools and colleges all started, maintained and funded because of the religious instinct.

Eight graders are smarter than you think, and I’m sad to see that so much catechesis at this level is still done with puppies and kittens and coloring books. Well, not literally, but the faith is dumbed down.

Confirmation candidates are at a turning point in their lives. They will soon be facing all the vital questions about their faith, and they need more than rote learning based on only on the church’s authority. They also need to question their faith in a creative and positive way, and I’m delighted to see that Catholicism Pure and Simple is helping my eighth graders do that.

As a result I’m planning to write a workbook that goes with the text and provide a week by week curriculum with reading and discussion questions.

Now all I need to do is find another ten hours in the day…

  • Isabel Smith

    Dear Fr. Longenecker,
    I just wanted to let you know that I admire you for trying to catechize your grade 8 class. However, I humbly bring some critiques for your consideration.
    After reading this excerpt from your book, I must say that I find some of the things you say puzzling, and your way of getting ideas across somewhat awkward. In the very first sentence, you put a doubt into the reader’s mind, as to the possibility that human beings could be religious by your use of the word ‘strange’. Would it not have been better to replace that word with ‘amazing’. You tell the reader in the very first first paragraph that human beings can reason and have an intellect, all true, and then you begin your second paragraph with a ‘But’, as though reason and faith are somehow disparate, when in actual fact they are one. (as Fides et Ration attests)

    I have no doubt that your intention is to bring souls to Christ, but when one is catechizing, one has to be very clear on what is being said, and to say things such as “Human beings, on the other hand, do this religious thing”, or “We’re apes longing to be angels”, is just not good catechesis. Words create images in people’s minds. There can be no ambiguity, but rather each sentence and word has to be clear in its intent. As a catechist, I would say I would have very many reservations about using your book as a teaching tool.
    Isabel Smith

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thank you for your comment. In addition to teaching Catholic doctrine the book attempts to prompt the reader to look at the whole thing in a fresh and unusual way. That is why I use the language the way I do.

  • Paul Rodden

    Hi Father.
    I know it means extra work, but could you outline the structure of your course, please? E.g., how much do they cover per session? What structure does a session take? Do they take it away and read a chapter then discuss it at the next week’s session, etc.? It’s just that I have used your Christianity Pure and Simple in the past with adults, but as I’m no trained Catechist, I’ve always been unsure of a good way to do it.


    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      That’s what I’m working on…

  • Ed

    I have taught both eighth and ninth graders and from my experience this is what they want. They want to explore why something is to be believed, they want to come to the conclusion but with their own minds working through the mystery step by step. Just telling them is not enough, so ambiguity only makes them more aware of what is being discussed not less.

    The seeds of doubt are already in them, I can see this, but they are also pliable, they really want to believe … just not by force. It definitely takes longer with this approach but the results, I believe, will be long lasting.

    Thanks .. and btw I enjoy your blog.

  • Briana

    THANK YOU. Because my 8th graders ARE smart, but the CCD books are so dumbed down that they could care less about them. It is so frustrating to read the lesson and want to chuck it because half of it is so ridiculous. The Church doesn’t have to adopt the broken system and ways of the public schools, we should be better than that. They want to pick stuff apart and examine it, it’s the logic age, that is what they should be doing, but the books are like feeding them pablum.

    So, I will be buying your book and using it.