It's important that we start with an understanding of the terminology. What exactly does "atheist", "agnostic", and "anti-theist" mean? What makes each unique and where is the overlap?
- Atheist - someone who believes or chooses to believe that there is no God.
- Agnostic - someone who believes we cannot know whether or not there is a God.
- Anti-theist - someone who believes the idea of God is bad or that belief in God is a threat to humanity.
While there are some major differences in these three sets of beliefs, there is often significant overlap of two or more of these ideals. Most atheists I've talked to, for example, will admit that they cannot be 100% sure that God doesn't exist, which makes them somewhat agnostic. They choose to believe there is no God, however, which is what makes them atheists. They may also believe that belief in God is dangerous and detrimental to society. This would classify them as anti-theists, at least to a degree.
In my experience, I would say most people who identify as atheists, agnostics, or anti-theists actually believe in all three ideals to varying degrees.
Give credit where it is due.
Don't be afraid to admit when someone you disagree with is right. It seems that, as Christians, we see atheists as the enemy and we want to win some type of competition against them. There is no competition. There is no winning an argument.
Let me follow that up by saying this: We can't change our message to make them more happy, but we can find a method that is more effective. Let's start with where we agree.
Agreeing with an atheist on one point is not paramount to conceding all other points. Unfortunately, that is how we often approach discussions with certain groups of people. Conservative Christian movements often take this approach with atheists, Muslims, pro-choice advocates, and the LGBT+ community. I would argue that openly admitting agreement with someone of a different religious or political persuasion on one issue will break down walls for more productive discussions on other issues.
Here are some examples of things on which we can agree with atheists, agnostics, and anti-theists.
- We cannot prove (from a scientific perspective) that God exists. (Atheists/Agnostics)
- We have to give the atheists and agnostics this one. It is true that, just as they cannot prove that God does not exist, we cannot prove that God does exist.
- We cannot deny the damage that religion has done in the world. (Anti-theists)
- Fundamentalism in any faith can lead to extremism, which will always end in disaster.
- al-Qaeda and ISIL/ISIS are the obvious examples in the headlines, but there are examples in most other religions. The KKK, the Westboro Baptist Church, the People's Temple, the Moonies, the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the ideology of "Manifest Destiny", and the heretic burnings of the Reformation would be just a few examples in Christianity.
Admitting agreement on issues like these will bring down walls and show others that we are not simply trying to be confrontational or argumentative.
What not to say to an atheist...
Author, blogger, and atheist apologist, Hemant Mehta appeared in a YouTube video entitled "15 things to NEVER say to an atheist" from The Atheist Voice, in which he gives advice to Christians on what not to say to an atheist. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Where do you get your morality?
- Your life must be so empty, since you don't believe in anything.
- Why are you mad at God?
- What if you're wrong?
- You just have to have faith.
As a Christian, you may be saying, "Those all seem like perfectly logical/effective arguments!" The good news is, you are right. The bad news is, you are wrong.
Those are all sound arguments from a Christian perspective, but from the perspective of an atheist, they are completely illogical. Let's take a look at each point and the atheist counterpoints provided by Mr. Mehta (I am paraphrasing, but the point is the same).
Christian: "Where do you get your morality?"
Atheist: "I have values and a conscience. My values aren't based on the Bible, though. I hope the Bible isn't the only reason you're not going around murdering people."
Christian: "Your life must be so empty."
Atheist: "My life is full. I believe in many things, just not God."
Christian: "Why are you mad at God?"
Atheist: "I'm not mad at God. I don't believe in God. I can't be mad at someone/something I don't believe in."
Christian: "What if you're wrong?"
Atheist: "What if I am wrong? If there really is a God, I would hope that he is not a vengeful God who would punish me for not believing in him. If he really existed and demanded that I believe in him, wouldn't he provide some evidence?"
Christian: "You just have to have faith."
Atheist: "Uh... no... I need to have evidence. I don't think you understand how this whole atheist thing works...."
So what can I say?
The previous list of things not to say to an atheist is not a list of hard and fast rules. I included this list to give us a better understanding of the difference in values and logic of the Christian and the atheist. We all need to have the self-awareness to know when to speak and when to shut up, as well as what to say. Talking to a good friend will be a different conversation than talking to a complete stranger.
The key is to not be intentionally offensive or argumentative. Our goal is to love people. Period. Once we get that part down, we can start to think about our secondary goal, which is to share the Gospel with those people. The reason I describe sharing the Gospel as a "secondary" goal (for which I know I will catch some flak) is that we simply cannot do the Great Commission without first fulfilling the Greatest Commandment.
If our intentions are pure, then I believe we will take the time to try to understand the perspective of others. If we truly love other people, we will put effort into empathizing with them. Empathy goes a long way when connecting with anyone who differs in opinion, politically, theologically, or otherwise.
Questions to ask before engaging with an atheist, agnostic, etc.
- What is my motivation?
- Am I looking for understanding and empathy or an argument/fight?
- Do I know what I'm talking about?
- Can I have a logical discussion with this person without getting angry or being a jerk?
Follow the links to catch up on this series:
(Un)Common Ground - Week 1: (Un)Comfortable Christianity
(Un)Common Ground - Week 2: The Wolves and the Sheep
(Un)Common Ground - Week 3: Connecting with the Unchurched and Non-Religious