Atheism / religion · October 26, 2007

Christians – How to witness to an Atheist

I’ve noticed a behavior that seems to repeat fairly often when Christians and Atheists meet and talk, a behavior that happens both online and in person.

Often a Christian (or believers of other types of religion) will suddenly realize they are speaking to an Atheist and will then immediately start treating the conversation as if it were a battle between Good and Evil. They prepare for confrontation, hastily don their Armor of Righteousness and Sword of Truth, then pull out what would seem like an irrefutable sound-bite-missile and launch it at the Atheist.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus that doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. Wouldn’t you rather be on the safe side?”

And to the believer’s astonished surprise, the Atheist will merely roll his eyes, mumble something about “Pascal’s Wager” and wander away, showing no signs of religious enlightenment.

What went wrong? Did the Atheist merely miss the point? Didn’t he understand?

In any popular comment thread where believers and nonbelievers mingle I often see many of the same tired Christian memes being trotted out against nontheists as if they were new – as if there were no possible way to counter these arguments. And it happens in face to face conversations too – where the Atheist is even less interested in spending the next hour discussing religious versus nonreligious philosophy.

These themes, like the “God shaped hole” or “Knowledge of right and wrong proves God’s existence” or “I used to be an Atheist just like you” and many, many tiresome others are considered by Christians to be “slam dunks” against Atheists. They are too often used instead of actual dialogue – instead of getting to know the nonbeliever as an individual.

There are variations to this. In one variation, the Atheist will happily engage the believer in an ultimately futile attempt to refute, once again, religious arguments that have already been refuted over and over in nonbeliever circles. This leads to a lot of excitement on both sides, but goes nowhere in the long run.

In my opinion, the saddest variation is when the True Believer interprets walking away by the Atheist as a form of “fleeing from the light”. “Hah!” the believer exclaims as he celebrates his victory, “The Atheist couldn’t handle God’s Truth!” Even ministers have been guilty of this behavior, and sometimes turn the encounter into an anecdote with which they can regale their congregation. I’ve seen this happen many times before I deconverted from Christianity.

And I’ll note here that people who are walking away from you are not walking toward your Christ.

What answer can be given to the insightful Christian who is looking for effective methods of witnessing to Atheists?

At the risk of being thrown out of the sooper seckret Atheist Conspiracy, I’m going to give away the secret to witnessing to Atheists.

The secret is – talk WITH them, not AT them!

Have a two-way dialogue, listen to them, and try to understand them. Learn about them, find common ground with them.

Become friends with them.

As John Shore said,

We need to listen to the atheists because … well, because we never do. We try to listen to them, but we fail. And we fail because while we’re listening to them, we’re secretly thinking how they really, really need to become Christian.

I’m not saying this will be easy to handle for many Christians. We Atheists have no need to respect your religion. Real respect is always earned and it is easy to lose. Friendship involves some degree of mutual respect and nonbelievers have no problem giving respect to those people who earn it. But from a rational, Atheist point of view no religion, even Christianity, inherently deserves respect.

I’m sure it is disconcerting for some believers to be treated politely by a friendly Atheist who at the same time pooh-poohs the believer’s religion. If it helps, think of this as the Atheistic equivalent of “Love the sinner but hate the sin”.

As a religious person, you should also realize that you may never be able to witness a nonbeliever into your religion, no matter how hard you try and no matter what religious truths you present. I know that the popular Biblical response is to “shake their dust off of your feet” and witness elsewhere, but I find this sort of response to be irrational because it guarantees that dialogue will cease. And that sort of response is hurtful – I’ve seen it cause friendships to whither, and families to break apart.

I would like the religious people who read this to consider something. What if the nonbeliever you are conversing with never comes to your point of view? What if you spend the rest of your life talking with him, sharing your goals, learning each other’s hopes and dreams, but still the Atheist doesn’t budge from his philosophy?

You might never win the prize of bringing him to your God, but a lifetime of friendship isn’t a bad consolation… is it?

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26 Oct – Updated

Mac, over at Pesky Apostrophe, makes a good point about the Barma study (the study that indicates a decline in Christian reputation among young people). Barma came out with a book, written by David Kinnaman, who is also the President of The Barna Group. The Book’s name is, “UnChristian.” (amazon)

Here’s what Mac says about this book:

[David Kinnaman] excitedly reports that the majority of born again Christians between the ages of 16-29 “intentionally build friendships with other people so they might get a chance to explain their faith in Jesus.” Can you imagine finding out that someone only wanted to be friends with you so they could convert you? How much does that suck?

In my blog entry above, I advocate for Christians to meet nonbelievers and become friends with them.

I’d like to clarify my comments a little on this. I think the difference is that of intent. If the only reason why a Christian is making friends with an Atheist is because he has an ulterior motive that includes disregarding the nonbeliever’s philosophy, then I agree with Mac – this does suck. It’s a bit creepy.

But if a Christian becomes friends with a nonbeliever in order to understand him, to get to know what it is that Atheists hold dear, and to discuss differing viewpoints – well, I think that is pretty honorable.

From what Mac says about this book, Kinnaman seems to be advocating what I would call “Talking AT Atheists.” This is exactly what John Shore is saying, this sort of motive creates an encounter where the Christian doesn’t actually care about what the nonbeliever actually thinks, or who he is. The religious person doesn’t bother listening, because he’s too busy planning on how to bring the nonbeliever to God.

I think that talking WITH the nonbeliever is an important distinction, and developing a real friendship is a fortunate side effect of this process.

According to Mac’s reading of Kinnaman, this is exactly NOT what Kinnaman is advocating. And yes, that does suck.