How to talk to atheists about Christianity

So today I presented the thing about how to talk to atheists I mentioned a while back. Here are my notes. You’ll probably recognise them if you’ve been reading for a while. This was a great way to justify all the hours I’ve spent in seemingly fruitless debate in the last 18 months.

Things not to say

  1. Don’t present as an expert on scientific thought – unless you are.
  2. Don’t use words that carry baggage. Good in the Bible is a theological category, not a moral category. Don’t conflate them.
  3. Don’t say atheists are incapable of being good without God, or suggest they’re naturally immoral. Be prepared to ask how they make moral decisions – but don’t assert that they’re unable to – remember common grace.
  4. Don’t go down the “look at all the evil atheists” path unless you want to go down the “explain the Crusades” path.
  5. Don’t say “those people aren’t real Christians” unless you’re familiar with the “no true Scotsman” fallacy and you’re prepared to demonstrate how they are not in fact Christians (and can speak with authority about their state before God).
  6. Don’t suggest that Christian principles should form the backbone of law because the majority of people identify as Christians. Invert this thinking, and put yourself in the minority – we can’t expect everybody to live as though they have the Holy Spirit, nor should we be expecting the state to govern as though we’re a Christian nation.
  7. Don’t quote Bible verses out of context.
  8. Don’t say “there are no atheists in the foxholes”, “atheism is a faith”, or “you only don’t believe to justify your immorality” – these are all clichéd and the atheists think they’ve been “debunked” . Avoid Pascal’s wager too (as valid as it may be).
  9. Try to avoid generalisations – all atheists don’t think the same. There is no atheist “bible” or code they have to sign up to.

Here’s a list of things they say not to say (or do)…

This is not necessarily a list of things not to do, just a list of things atheists have said that they find annoying (from commenters on a site called the Friendly Atheist):

  • Bait-and-switch: Where they become your “friend,” but really, they just want to convert you
  • Not speaking out against other Christians who do really crazy things
  • Assume that everyone who isn’t a Christian is “lost” or needs “saving”
  • Giving credit to god for every good thing that happens, and accepting every bad thing as part of his “plan”.
  • Sneaking their beliefs into supposedly neutral conversations; using neutral platforms to espouse their religion (like facebook, et al.)
  • Automatically “assume” that everyone shares their beliefs
  • “You’re an atheist because you want to do immoral things. You know god exists really.”
  • Assuming that everyone who doesn’t believe is ignorant of the Bible, or of popular interpretations of the Bible.
  • Asserting that Christianity is not a religion because religions aren’t real or using some other silly criteria
  • Cherry picking the bible.
  • Not admitting that their god is immoral.
  • I’m also bugged by the ones who apparently care more about the soul of the person than the person.
  • When they acknowledge that “religion is bad” but then claim that True Christianity is not a “religion” is very annoying as well
  • Attempting to force their views on you, either by preaching or by codifying their belief system into law.
  • Latching on to your problems in order to try to convert you.
  • Affirming that people who didn’t believe in god in life are now in hell, even the relatives or loved ones of the person they’re talking to “My grandmother was an atheist, is she in hell?” “Yes”. This is beyond enraging, and it makes it even worse when the person saying it refuses to acknowledge how callous and cruel their words are, and how there’s nothing “loving” about them.
  • Quoting bible verses at you in lieu of actual debate or discussion, as though you accept their inerrance as much as they do.
  • They fail to see that the separation of church and state protects their freedom to worship as they choose. They naively assume that a mixture of religion and government would be a benign version of their particular sub set of their religion, instead of the insane tyranny in Europe that the founding fathers vividly remembered.

Things to say

  1. Stick with Jesus – most atheists accept that he lived and taught good stuff (some don’t) – keeping the question grounded in the historical reality of the resurrection – or that claim – is much better than talking about whether the resurrection is scientifically plausible. Atheists want physical evidence – Jesus is the point at which physical evidence was historically provided (see his interaction with Thomas in John 20). That’s the nexus of atheistic thought and gospel proclamation.

    When Mark Driscoll, in a column in a Washington Paper, was asked what the best case for Christianity was for skeptics this was his answer:

    Christianity is not first and foremost about a sacred place to pilgrimage to, a philosophical system to ponder, a moral code to live, a religious tradition to honor, or an impersonal god to experience. Rather, Christianity is about a person who claimed to be the only God and said he would prove his unprecedented claim by living without sin, dying for sinners, and conquering death through resurrection.

  2. Acknowledge that in many cases they have many points that some of us sometimes forget – it is likely that you’re a Christian because your parents are – but that says nothing about the truth or otherwise of Christianity. Science is a good way to understand the world around us – in fact it’s a good way to understand how God does things. Christians have done terrible, unloving things to people – including each other – because of their faith…
  3. Acknowledge that many atheists have actually thought through the question of faith, or come from a position of faith, to reach their own conclusion. There is still some social stigma attached to being an atheist, it’s not a position you default into.
  4. Explain your rationale for believing what you believe, positively – atheist propaganda suggests that atheism is the point at which all thinking, questioning people inevitably arrive at. Tell your story, show your workings, acknowledge your doubts.
  5. Acknowledge that there are important areas where atheists and Christians can agree – separation of church and state is big for them, freedom of speech, most religious and spiritual beliefs are silly (we reject all divine claims but one), relativism is dumb – we can’t all be right.

Things to do…

  1. Read the material – be familiar with the arguments Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchens are equipping a generation of atheists with. Read atheist blogs. PZ Myers and the Friendly Atheist are a good sounding board for atheistic thought.
  2. Familiarise yourself with logic and argument – know what a straw man argument is, recognise ad hominem, know what the “no true Scotsman” fallacy is, understand circular reasoning (eg the Bible is true because it says it is true) and why atheists see it as a problem…
  3. Read the Christian responses to these writers. Know the critiques. Especially John Lennox, Alistair McGrath (EDIT: 2015, and most especially David Bentley Hart).
  4. Ask honest questions. They can be honest questions with an agenda – but be convinced that evangelism is God’s work and just try to ask questions about why they think what they think. What are their assumptions about the world?
  5. Treat one another with respect. You don’t fundamentally have to agree with somebody to love them. People are more likely to listen to what you have to say if you don’t resort to name calling.
  6. Realise that at some point you actually have to fundamentally disagree. Sometimes what you say will be offensive to them. The atonement is offensive, God’s judgment is offensive, our claim to be in a relationship with the creator of the universe is offensive. If you want atheists to like what you have to say – and still be atheists – you pretty much have to get rid of the gospel. They love “liberal” Christianity – many like Spong and his ilk, and those who are doing their best to liberate Christianity, particularly from ‘oppressive’ views of sexuality.

11 Comments How to talk to atheists about Christianity

  1. al bain

    I’m really enjoying Atheism Remix by Mohler. It seems like a good appetiser. But I’ll read Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris etc next.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Paul

    Hi Nathan;

    I run an atheist blog (http://itsabiggie.blogspot.com/)and I must say that this is a fantastic post. Engaging in discussion rather than ad hom attacks and “assuming” you know your opponents position is something that happens all too often on both sides of the issue.

    I came here to offer an alternate opinion, but aside from semantics (such as your support for Pascal’s Wager) I can only applaud your considered approach.

    Good wishes to you
    – Paul
    http://itsabiggie.blogspot.com/

    PS – the above blog is pretty irreverent and if you are offended by such, I suggest you refrain from visiting :-)

  3. Pingback: How To Talk To Atheists About Christianity « mgpcpastor’s blog

  4. Mark

    I think that, in order to take a stand against atheists, all Christians should do as you suggest, i.e. become familiar with the materials, read and understand the arguments, and rationally explain Christianity. If Christians the world over would only do this, I’ve no doubt this in itself would convert many Christians to atheism! Is this page supposed to be set up as a trojan horse? Well done Sir!

  5. Pingback: How to talk to atheists about Christianity — cafedave.net

  6. Arthur

    Nathan, here’s one I want to check out: James Sire’s Why Good Arguments Often Fail.

    The contents:

    Part I: Common logical fallacies
    Love is a fallacy, by Max Shulman
    You’re all hypocrites! : unqualified and hasty generalizations
    It’s dangerous to believe you’re right : causes and contradictions
    You have insulted us all : sentiment, false analogy and poisoning the well

    Part II: Good arguments that often fail
    People can’t communicate : what? arrogance, aggression and cleverness
    I don’t get it : misreading the audience
    What a harebrained idea! : worldviews and evolution
    Who am I to judge? : worldviews and relativism
    The heart wants what it wants : moral blindness

    Part III: Good arguments that work
    I see you are very religious : Paul in Athens
    So why should I believe anything? : Christian witness in a postmodern world
    Framing effective arguments : a guide to literature.

  7. AndrewFinden

    Yeah, not a bad book.. perhaps a little surface level, but useful.
    And how did I miss that howler of a comment from Mark? Where to begin.. perhaps best not to!

Comments are closed.