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How to Talk to an Atheist (or a Christian)

Picture: Ashley Rose

I love it when Christians and atheists come together to talk. Justin Brierley hosts an excellent show called Unbelievable?, on Premier Christian Radio, which aims to facilitate such discussions. Recently I was invited on to the show as a guest, to dialogue with an ex-Christian named Rebekah Bennetch. That episode airs at midday this Saturday. I’ll post the full audio and some reflections on the chat in a second article.

The show was called ‘Losing My Religion: Dialogue with an Ex-Christian’. Rebekah’s story is an interesting one. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, with many members of her family in active missionary work or Christian service today, Rebekah went through two Bible colleges and umpteen churches before announcing herself an ‘apostate’ (her description) after a series of life events. Today she is a something of an evangelist for the atheist cause. She runs atheist small groups for former believers, runs secular holiday camps for kids, writes on atheist/skeptic/freethinking parenting and contributes to atheist blogs.

I’ll leave my reflections on Rebekah’s story and her subsequent beliefs for the following post when you can listen to the discussion in full. One of the purposes of the interview, however, was to talk about how Christians and atheists can dialogue together. Rebekah was particularly keen to explore this in the context of Christian families who have a member that no longer believes. She was keen to challenge some of the assumptions Christians often make about their atheist or ‘apostate’ friends; assumptions like:

  • They weren’t really Christians in the first place
  • They’re not really happy
  • It’s just a phase they’re going through
  • They’ll soon become devil worshippers 🙂

Here are five tips on how a Christian can respectfully talk with an atheist. Actually, these five ideas can equally work for an atheist respectfully talking with a Christian.

1. Wholeheartedly Listen to them

Don’t assume you know why a friend or family member is an atheist. Don’t assume that it’s so they can revel in sin or because they didn’t pray enough. Despite the angry rhetoric of some in the new atheist community, many atheists are open-minded about the existence of God. They just haven’t been satisfied with the ‘proof’ to date.

People believe, and disbelieve, things for all manner of reasons, as John Dickson has pointed out. How will you know your friend’s reasons unless you wholeheartedly listen to them? Listen to their stories of doubt and how they made their decision. Listen to the answers they were given to their questions. Listen to the emotion behind the words – the anger or hurt or confidence or bewilderment or relief. Don’t argue. Don’t get defensive. Don’t denounce their new-found beliefs. Just listen.

One of the oft-repeated pieces of feedback we got about the Open House show was that we provided a space where people could freely discuss issues of faith and doubt. Unbelievable? is respected for the same reason. People need a place to discuss their doubts freely. How are you providing that for your friends and family members? How are churches providing that for its members and their community’s seekers?

You don’t need to have all the answers. It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’ to some of the doubts you’ll hear. Some of the finest moments of spiritual growth for me have happened when I’ve been given new questions to think about and research.

I hope the atheist community will provide the same sort of space to listen to people of faith too. And please listen to the emotion behind our words. For us, to hear that a friend or family member has renounced their faith is like hearing that the ‘perfect couple’ we know and love have gotten divorced. We are shocked and saddened. We may need space to process it all too.

2. Wholeheartedly Apologise where Necessary

Jesus made a bold claim: that in seeing him we had seen God (John 14:9). Jesus went on to say that in seeing Christians the world should see something of him (John 13:34; 15:7-8). I have seen the reality of God shine so brightly through some followers of Jesus that in my most dejected moments I have been awakened to new belief. Sadly, there are plenty of Christians who have not reflected that reality. And there’s no way I could claim to have been a perfect conduit for the love of God either.

Here are some bold questions to ask an atheist: ‘Have I in any way offended you? Have I failed to show you love or patience or kindness?’ No one is perfect, and plenty of people have continued to search for God despite some bad experiences from Christians. But if we have in any way misrepresented the loving God we serve to our unbelieving friends, a wholehearted apology should be offered quickly. Browse through a few atheist forums and it’s clear that many people have been hurt by angry and disrespectful believers.

If us Christians are who we say we are, and pursue the spiritual maturity required of us (Ephesians 4:25-32), we’ll need to apologise irrespective of any reciprocal act from others. If we have in any way confirmed someone’s atheism by our lack of love, pride, selfishness or lack of charity we should fall on our knees in repentance, then ask our friend for forgiveness.

3. Speak with ‘Gentleness and Respect’

Christians will know the words well.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect… (1 Peter 3:15).

Be prepared. Speak with gentleness. Always extend respect.

Anyone who has read The God Delusion, God is Not Great or some of the comment threads on the various ex-Christian or atheist blogs will know that mockery and name-calling can be common features in this highly-charged discussion. I’ve copped some strong language from atheists personally. People of faith are continually called ‘deluded’, ‘ignorant’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘brainwashed’, ‘indoctrinated’, those who believe in ‘myths and fables’ and who have ‘low IQs’. A well-known Christian thinker has been described on one website as the ‘asshole apologist’. And these are the more polite comments.

Some of this sentiment has been challenged within the atheist community itself (like here, for instance). Some atheists have claimed they have a right to be angry. And they may well have. With all the recent talk about atheists being able to be as morally good as anyone else, however, it would be nice if they refrained from ridiculing their opponents. Attack the belief, not the person.

What is more concerning than any of this, however, is that some Christians have followed suit with the ridicule. I’ve just read this paragraph from a blogger commenting on a pastor who no longer believes in Jesus:

And what he still has left of his faith – if we can call it that – is such an anaemic, mushy and watered down bowl of pap that he really has become a joke – a caricature of religious conviction. Any atheist or New Ager could come up with such grotesque nonsense.

There is a place for stating things bluntly. But, although a rather mild example, this is one good reason why I don’t visit this blog anymore (I returned expecting to find something disappointing – I did). Calling someone a ‘joke’ and his beliefs an ‘anaemic bowl of pap’ doesn’t resemble gentleness and respect to my mind. I’m not sure I’d be won back to faith by reading such an assessment of me or my beliefs if I was the one written about. Attack the belief, not the person.

Or should I rather say, engage the belief and don’t attack the person.

Gentleness. One can still be firm but gentle. Give credit where it’s due. Own up to failings. Be gracious. Respect. That means being fair with the other person’s arguments (ie, picking its best aspects, not just its worst), and treating others as fellow creatures made in the image of God. It means treating others as you would like to be treated, as one wise man once put it.

4. Don’t Assume They Can’t do Good

I know some fine-living atheists and agnostics. They love their spouses and children. They help people who need help. They give to charities. They work hard. They just haven’t yet been convinced on the reality of God.

If the doctrine of humanity being ‘made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1:27) means anything, it means that we are a reflection of a good God who loves and acts. This reflection of the creator in us is now marred, sullied and muddied by sin and rebellion (Genesis 3) but its essential structure is still there. I believe this divine-image-bearing is the origin of our relational qualities, our rational abilities, our moral conscience and our ability to love. (More on this here.) Of course, only God is perfectly good. No one measures up to his perfection and purity. But human beings can do good to others, and I beieve the source of this is God.

Many Christians will know of folks who have gone off the rails after abandoning God. Atheists can’t claim that atheism leads to perfect moral action anymore than Christians can claim that Christians don’t sin. We all sin. We all fall short. We all, if we’re honest, can admit that we are selfish and think mostly of ourselves most of the time. But we can still do good, even if we don’t choose it as often as we (or more likely others – they’re the victims of our selfish words or actions) would like.

There is much more to unpack here, especially when it comes to our motivations for doing good. But Christians can’t assume that all atheists lead hedonistic lives. Some do. Some don’t. Like plenty of human beings. Like plenty of Christians.

5. Love Them

I believe the Christian worldview makes sense of life, love, evil, pain, beauty, truth, altruism, the order in the world and the religious longings each of us have (I’ll be exploring much of this in the next book, More Than This). I believe it stacks up intellectually and emotionally. But I’m not sure how many people are won to God by having their philosophical arguments for the non-existence of God proven false.

Please understand me – I believe the heart finds it hard to grasp what the mind rejects as false, so there is ample room for biblical and philosophical apologetics. But beyond arguments won and lost, the New Testament places love as the greatest of virtues. We glorify (‘reveal’) a loving God most by living a life that imitates his love.

Many atheists have been dismissed by fundamentalist churches that wouldn’t tolerate doubt or questions. That’s not the way of Christ.

Many atheists have been turned off God because of the behaviour of his followers.

Love counteracts both.

Love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud… you know the drill (1 Corinthians 13). Love is at times robust and difficult. It requires extra miles and turned cheeks. This is not soft and sappy sentimentalism. But it does change the world and proves one worthy of being listened to.

As so many Christians continue to try the patience of atheists, I can only hope they show us Christians some patience and kindness too.

***

Q: More could be said. What have I missed? How can atheists and Christians best dialogue? 

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  • Brian Westley

    As an atheist, here are a couple of things that stood out to me…

    “What  is more concerning than any of this, however, is that some Christians have followed suit with the ridicule.”

    The above statement, in the context where you first talk about atheists insulting Christians, creates the false impression that atheists are ALWAYS the first ones to insult Christians, and Christians are only being insulting in response.  There are plenty of examples on the web of Christians (and other theists) being insulting to atheists first.  I get the impression you’re trying to paint atheists as the ones who always start with insults.  I certainly don’t accept this as a valid assumption.

    “Many atheists have been turned off God because of the behaviour of his followers.”

    While there may be a few genuine examples, by and large I never see atheists citing this as a reason for their atheism; while you can find a lot of atheists criticizing the behavior of theists, I doubt this has much to do with their atheism, nor would better behavior change very many people’s minds.  I see it more as an emotional reason, which isn’t a very good reason to be an atheist OR a theist.

    Overall it’s pretty good, though.

    • Thanks for the comment Brian.

      I hope you’ll read the first quote in the context of the whole article – that atheists can still be good people etc. No, it’s not always the atheists that throw the first nasty words.

      The second statement comes straight out of my reading various atheist/ex-Christian sites and participant’s complaints. It may not be a good reason, and it certainly isn’t the only reason, but from what I’ve seen it has played a significant part for some in relinquishing faith. The point is for Christians to take responsibility for where they’ve erred.

      Thanks again.

  • Vivienne Voysey

    Very fair Sheridan for both sides of the faith issue. I recommend that everyone both Christians and Atheists read your comments and digest them.

  • Anonymous

    Great article which reminded me of this piece a friend of mine (Solobasssteve) asked  me to write as an athiest attending Greenbelt 09. It was my first visit to Greenbelt. I am about to go for the third time.

    http://www.solobasssteve.com/2009/09/a-weekend-among-friends/

    • Thanks for dropping by, Jack/John.

      I liked your article too. An atheist promoting a Christian conference… I like it. 🙂

  • Hi Sheridan,

    I think the five points/tips you list here are great ones to follow, Christian or atheist alike. I sincerely hope more believers can follow the advice you give, and that conversations between believers/nonbelievers can improve.

    • Ack, I sent off my comment before I was finished!

      A point of clarification — I’m not sure if I would call myself an “evangelist” for the atheist cause.  My involvement in the atheist movement is more motivated out of a desire to focus on other ways I’m defined, and to help build community within the larger movement — so, for example: I’m a mom who’s raising a daughter outside of a religious institution (hence my involvement in a secular parenting group), I’m a former believer who thinks it’s important to have support for other ex-believers (Cafe Apostate), and I’m a secular woman who enjoys having conversations with other women (my involvement with the group Reasonable Women).  I’m not an evangelist in the sense that my motivation is to *convert* others to my “good news.” I got out of the evangelism business when I rejected Christianity.

      The other part of your post I wanted to point out was when you mentioned “It means treating others as you would like to be treated, as one wise man once put it” at the end of your point #3 — I love how you’re citing here that ethic of reciprocity we talked about last week. 🙂  More on that later.

      Looking forward to post #2!  I’ll reflect more on what you said over on my blog. -Rebekah

       

      • Hi Rebekah.

        No problems. The ‘evangelist’ tag was taken from a blog post of yours where you talked about being a ‘bit of an evangelist’ for atheist causes, and the fact that you’re so involved – ie, you’re not ‘luke warm’ about atheism, if you get my drift :).

        Happy to continue the conversation!

        • Ah! Touche! I should be more careful with my words. Anyway, it gave me something to think (and write) about. 🙂

  • Pingback: grrrl meets world » On atheist “evangelism”()

  • Thanks Sheridan for reminding all of us that we really need to review what we reflect as Christians.  I agree with Vivienne Voysey’s comment as well “I recommend that everyone both Christians and Atheists read your comments and digest them.”

  • Anonymous

    Thankyou Sheridan for a much needed blog.  I am a fairly recent atheist (ex-Christian) living in Perth and it is refreshing when I encounter Christians as insightful and mature as you seem to be.  I believe many Christians become defensive and do not listen to atheists because of the following reason:  To listen to an atheistic perspective is to expose oneself to the risk of believing it.  Salvation for a Christian depends (largely) on holding a certain belief.  It is more than just a matter of opinion.  It is life itself (eternal life).  This was certainly my perspective when I was a Christian.

    It is unwise to try to rescue a drowning person if you are likely to become the next victim.  A person who has appropriate equipment and training is the best person to attempt the feat.  Understandably, many Christians do not feel qualified to be able to engage with an atheist.  This is one reason why the ability to think critically is a valuable asset for the church.  I wish there could be teaching in churches about the techniques and numerous benefits of critical thinking.  (Critical thinking is very different from relying on borrowed defenses.)

    As an atheist, I have been avoided deliberately this year by much of my Christian family and church.  To ease the pain of social rejection (and of the implied insult of being regarded as one whose perspectives have little value), I have sometimes been tempted to retreat into arrogance.  (I had thought that even if a church could not provide satisfactory answers for an atheist, at least they could provide love.) 

    But to be fair, it is reasonable for Christians to view an ex-Christian particularly as a threat or a lost cause because the ex-Christian is often aware of arguments for Christianity.  However, a well-examined faith is the best protection against ill-informed atheistic arguments.  Whether it is the best protection against apostasy is open to debate.  What is to be feared most is not what the atheist says, but what one says to oneself.

    So atheism and Christianity do not naturally mix well, but with a little maturity people can get along and help each other grow.  Your advice, when practiced, could very likely help some atheists believe in the Christian message, particularly if they have rejected it for personal or illogical reasons.  Once again, thankyou for your comments.  Ann Blake.
     

    • Thanks for the comment Ann. Oh how I’d like to take you to coffee and hear your story further. Not surprisingly, I’ll be praying that you change your mind :), but thanks for the reasoned input here.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ann- I know what you mean about believers and ex-believers avoiding interaction!

      Wrote a bit about it here:
      http://www.helpshedthefaith.com/hstf25.html

      and here:
      http://www.helpshedthefaith.com/hstf52.html#q3

      “We use our religious affiliations to demonstrate loyalty to friends and family- it’s only natural! Many people are reluctant to leave religion because that means forsaking or hurting loved ones who are still religious.

      People instinctively feel that if they reject or criticize some aspect
      of their religion, they are indirectly snubbing their fellow believers.
      After all, a person’s religious beliefs are part of their personalities,
      so by pointing out differences in beliefs, you’re effectively pointing
      out differences in personality.”

      And it’s very true that we often erect mental boundaries during our
      philosophical explorations, to avoid allowing ourselves to be converted
      to alternative perspectives- much of this is done subconsciously, making
      it all the harder to explore such contentious and life-affecting
      topics!

  • Dan Triplett

    I just listened to the Rebekah and Sheridan conversation via Unbelievable radio program. Thank you both for your polite and gracious conversation. (justin too!). It gave me much to think over.