Once upon a time, not so long ago, atheism was the belief system that dared not speak its name. Even the most ardent skeptic paid lip service to faith, or at least to the blessings that mankind derived from it.
But that’s not the case anymore. Atheism is a strong and growing influence in our culture. You can see it everywhere from the bestseller table at your local bookstore to the Darwin-mutated Jesus fish on the car in traffic in front of you. Atheists are comfortable declaring themselves atheists, comfortable promoting atheism, and comfortable decrying religion, which, according to some of the more prominent atheists, resides on the list of mankind’s blessings somewhere between diphtheria and Nazism.
And now that we’re encountering it more often, Christians sometimes find themselves ill-prepared to deal with this kind of muscular atheism. Especially for lifelong Christians, atheist arguments are so foreign that they don’t know how to respond, and too often lapse into anger (“How dare you?!”) or fear (“What if they’re right?!”), neither of which does anyone any good, harming the Christian’s witness and leaving the atheist firmly entrenched in his atheism.
If we’re going to be encountering more atheists (and we are, whether at work or the laundromat or around our own dinner tables), we should be prepared to explain our beliefs in a way that resonates with people outside the faith. As a starting point, what follows is a list of dos and don’ts to keep in mind when you find yourself discussing religion with an atheist:
1. Don’t be afraid to admit that you have faith. Christians frequently report that they’ve been in situations where the topic of why they believe comes up, and all they can say is that they have faith even though they’ve never done any major investigation. They often seem embarrassed by this defense. If you get caught in a conversation about why you believe and that’s all you’ve got, don’t be afraid to go with that. Articulate it as best you can. For example, you might explain that your faith is not just a story you tell yourself to feel good, or talk about what leads you to believe that you have a real relationship with Something outside of the material world.
2. Don’t assume that your atheist friends are secretly angry at God or feel like something is missing in their lives. Work from the assumption that this person is an atheist because he or she simply has not seen any evidence that God exists.
3. Don’t quote the Bible, but do know the Bible. The Bible is a source of great wisdom, but if you quote it to an atheist as an authority, it will be like your doctor explaining his diagnosis by reading a passage from a Harry Potter book. Don’t just cough up Bible verses and expect that to convince anybody. There are reasons why the Bible says the things it says. Know the reasons behind them and be prepared to explain them.
4. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers right then and there. It is far better to simply say, “Great question! I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d love to research it and get back to you,” than to wade into territory that you’re not familiar with.
5. Explain the big picture. Familiarize yourself with the historical case for Christianity, and offer a high-level explanation of what makes this religion’s claims compelling — that Jesus’ life and death fulfilled ancient scriptures that all historians agree existed before His time; that almost all the apostles were martyred for their faith; that Christianity spread like wildfire despite horrendous persecution. Study the writings of the earliest Christians, who were defending Christianity in a pagan world that was largely hostile to their beliefs (sound familiar?).
6. Be logical. Don’t deny the validity of logical, scientific thought out of hand. It’s true that science doesn’t have all the answers, but it does have some of them, and if you try to deny that, you risk pushing yourself into crackpot territory. As Pope Benedict XVI is always reminding us, the God in whom we believe is a God of reason. There is a long, learned history of rational arguments for Christianity, and if you can use them, you’ll be speaking in terms that your atheist friend can understand. Get to know some of the great Christian philosophers and apologists. If you haven’t read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, what are you waiting for?
7. Realize that your only goal is to plant a seed. In these discussions we can sometimes get so focused on the details that we lose sight of the big picture. It’s extremely unlikely that the person you’re talking to is going to be completely convinced of the truth of Christianity in one conversation. Just defend Christianity the best you can, and remember that conversion is ultimately God’s job, not yours.
8. Put yourself in your atheist friends’ position. What if, for example, Christianity were false and Greek mythology were actually true? What would it take to convince you of that?
9. Don’t use a lot of Christian catchphrases. Christians “give their hearts to Jesus” and “the Holy Spirit indwells us” and we take a “daily walk with Christ” so that we’re “in the world but not of the world.” All these phrases are meaningful and profound and instantly understandable for almost any Christian, but they don’t mean anything to people who are outside the faith. It’s hard to avoid them, because we’re used to using them as shorthand for some very complex concepts. But you should be able to explain those concepts in plain terms anyway.
10. Pray. Don’t make the mistake of relying solely on your own smarts when you have the Holy Spirit at your disposal. Pray for guidance for yourself and for a receptive heart within your atheist friend. You might be surprised at the effectiveness of this technique. It’ll be good for you, too.
We’re not encouraging anyone to go out and pick a fight — no one ever got harangued into the family of God. But with a little mental preparation, when the time comes, you’ll be ready to present the case for faith in terms that are familiar to your non-believing friends and family members.
Jennifer Fulwiler co-authored this piece with Jason Anderson, a web developer from Birmingham, Alabama, who posts thoughts on religion and culture at The Cynical Christian.