"Critical thinking?" the radio host burst out. "Most people on the conservative Christian Right would say that's one of the biggest dangers we have—this 'nonsensical' idea of critical thinking."

I was talking with the arch-liberal Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He had invited me on his radio program "Culture Shocks" to talk about my newly published Saving Leonardo. Yet when I explained that the book dissects secular worldviews to help people develop critical thinking, Lynn seemed incredulous. Conservative Christians discourage any questioning of their faith, he asserted.

He was painting with a broad brush, but admittedly there is some basis for such a negative stereotype. In fact, it has become one of the main reasons young people are leaving the church.

Drew Dyck, in a recent Christianity Today article, "The Leavers," reports that when talking to someone who has left the faith (or is thinking about it), Christians rarely engage the person's reasons for doubt. Typically they "have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions": Some "freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all." Others "go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon."

My students say they encounter both reactions. One teen who is struggling to decide what she believes is discouraged because her parents' primary response is, "Why can't you just have faith, like we do?"

Another teen who is exploring alternative worldviews says his parents' response is to denounce them: "You can't prove that! You have no evidence." As he tells me, "I need my parents to think ideas through with me, not just judge them."

When parents and leaders react to questions by shaming or blaming, they may well drive their teens away. Both of my students have recently announced that they no longer consider themselves Christians.

They have become "leavers."

I became a leaver myself at age 16. I was not rebellious. Nor was I trying to construct a moral smokescreen for bad choices. I was simply asking, How do I know Christianity is true? None of the adults I consulted offered answers.

Eventually I decided that the only intellectually honest course was to reject my religious upbringing and examine it objectively alongside all other religions and philosophies. After all, if I did not have good reasons for my convictions, how could I say with integrity that I affirmed Christianity—or anything else?

Fuller Theological Seminary recently conducted a study on teenagers who become leavers in college. The researchers uncovered the single most significant factor in whether young people stand firm in their Christian convictions or leave them behind. And it's not what most of us might expect.

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Join a campus ministry group? A Bible study? Important though those things are, the most decisive factor is whether students had a safe place to work through their doubts and questions before leaving home.

The researchers concluded, "The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher [their] levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity."

The study indicates that students actually grow more confident in their Christian commitment when the adults in their life—parents, pastors, teachers—guide them in grappling with the challenges posed by prevailing secular worldviews. In short, the only way teens become truly "prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks" (1 Pet. 3:15) is by wrestling honestly and personally with the questions.

As the researchers put it, "Students who had the opportunity to struggle with tough questions and pain during high school seemed to have a healthier transition into college life."

Sadly, most churches and Christian schools do not encourage "tough questions." In Dyck's interviews with leavers, most reported that "they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts." They were ridiculed, scolded, or made to feel there was something immoral about even asking.

Instead of addressing teens' questions, most church youth groups focus on fun and food. The goal seems to be to create emotional attachment using loud music, silly skits, slapstick games, and pizza. But the force of sheer emotional experience will not equip teens to address the ideas they will encounter when they leave home and face the world on their own.

A 2009 study in Britain found that non-religious parents have a near 100 percent chance of passing on their views to their children, whereas religious parents have only about a 50 / 50 chance of passing on their views.

Clearly, teaching young people to engage critically with secular worldviews is no longer an option. It is a necessary survival skill.

Hostile radio hosts may not get it, but Scripture itself encourages humans to use their minds to examine truth claims. As Paul writes, "Test everything, hold on to the good" (1 Thess. 5:21). It turns out that you have to practice the first part of the verse—testing and questioning—in order to build the wisdom to recognize, choose, and hold on to what is good.

To adapt a line from Wordsworth, the questioning child is father to the truly committed man.

Nancy Pearcey is a columnist for Human Events and editor at large of The Pearcey Report. Her earlier books include How Now Shall We Live? (co-authored) and Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. She has just published Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.