Things not to say to atheists

So, although I’m (possibly temporarily) retired from arguing with atheists, I’ve been nominated to present a little seminar at college on things not to say to atheists.

I reckon I’m pretty good at saying things they don’t like – some right, some wrong…

Here are some things I think you shouldn’t say:

  1. Don’t say anything about how Hitler was both an atheist and evil – as though atheism necessitates evil. I’ve broken Godwin’s law plenty of times – but mainly to suggest that atheists arguing from Christian extremities is about as consistent as Christians arguing using Hitler. This context is often lost. Hitler is like a red rag to a bull in these discussions.
  2. Don’t say anything about how atheists can’t possibly be moral or good as a result of rejecting God. This is silly, it’s not even Biblical. If we’re right and God exists, and he’s the God of the Bible, then atheists are capable of “moral” actions even if they reject him. They don’t put off imago dei just because they don’t believe in the second part of the Latin equation.
  3. Pretty much don’t say anything negative about science. Science is a good thing. Acknowledge that. Move on. Stick to the philosophical and reject “naturalism” that’s much sager ground because there’s no proof that it actually is how things work, just that it’s an observably feasible method of understanding things.
  4. Don’t suggest that atheists should be governed by laws set by Christians just because they’re in the minority. This again is pretty dumb. It’s like we expect people to live like they have the Holy Spirit when they don’t. This is mostly relevant when talking about politics, but also has some bearing on talking about personal choices. It’s fine to say that something is wrong if you’re a Christian, and fine to say that someone is doing the wrong thing according to God, but unless there’s a third party innocent victim to protect (like there is in abortion) I’d be keeping that powder dry.
  5. Don’t quote Psalm 14:1 out of context (“the fool says in their heart there’s no God”) unless you want to be lumped in with every other proof texting Bible bashing redneck who wants to beat up homosexuals while eating lobster. We need to make sure that we use the Bible well. In fact, don’t quote the Bible out of context at all. Ever.

But I’d love to hear from you, dear readers (especially any atheists hanging around) about what us Christians shouldn’t say to atheists (within reason – we’re allowed to say “you’re wrong, and it’s not very nice to call our beliefs a crazy delusion”).

Any pointers from your experience – otherwise I’m just going to be rehashing things from this post and this one (and the comments therein) – and possibly these ones from Pharyngula and the Friendly Atheist.


Gordon Cheng says:

Don’t quote Psalm 14:1 out of context

Really? I'm going to; with Paul on this—a more gloriously out of context prooftext it's hard to come by. ;-)

Nathan Campbell says:

Hopefully I’ve just fixed the link for you Gordo.

I don’t think we’re completely in disagreement on this issue. I think atheism is foolish. I think it’s a foolish belief. To me that Romans passage suggests we’re all fools – and there but for the grace of God go I…

But let me clarify my point. I think atheism is pretty foolish (the same way an atheist thinks my Christianity is pretty foolish)… but do I think that an atheist is a fool because they’re an atheist? Not really.

I don’t think a person is foolish in every area because they’re an atheist. I’ve seen this verse used on atheist forums to dismiss any disagreement on the basis that the Bible says the atheist is a fool. I’m not sure this is a great evangelistic strategy. Nor do I think it’s what the Psalmist or Paul want the take home message to be… Especially Paul, who suggests that the Gospel appears foolish by human standards and vice versa.

I guess my point is we should play the ball not the man – if we’re really interested in answering a fool according to his folly… and speaking the truth with love.

David_W_J says:

For me, and perhaps for most atheists, it's a waste of time to try to convince me that Jesus was the son of God because I don't believe in God. Even if the original manuscripts of the gospels were on display at the Vatican, and scientists agreed they were written within a few years of Jesus' death (or as early as their stories allow), I would not convert to Christianity. (Similarly, if Joseph Smith's golden plates were on display at the Mormon Tabernacle I don't think many Protestants or Catholics would convert to Mormonism.)

Once an atheist can be convinced that it made sense for people living before Jesus to believe in God, then there is a chance he might believe more of what the believers wrote in the first or second century.

Gordon Cheng says:

Hi Nathan, nice link fix thank you!

Actually 'foolish' in the Bible is a moral category, so you're perfectly right to say that the person is not a fool in every area; you could compare it with the verse in Proverbs 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom', where again 'wisdom' and 'folly' are moral categories before they are intellectual category. (Though the first category clearly affects the second, and the Bible doesn't divide people that neatly!)

It is, however, a clearly ad hominem attack that the Psalmist (and Paul) are making. Whether or not that sort of attack is a wise debating strategy, it's not something the Bible seems to hold back from.
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