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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.

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

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