Monday, February 18, 2019

Anonymous Asks (27)

“How do I talk to an atheist about Jesus?”

A Christian believes a set of intellectual propositions about the nature and origin of the universe. He takes these on faith. An atheist believes a set of intellectual propositions about the nature and origin of the universe that he too takes on faith.

The real difference is in the object of faith. The atheist believes in an abstraction, which he calls science. The Christian believes in a person. Abstractions do not love their devotees back, do not have relationships with them, do not care what they tell their friends, and do not actively equip them to do it more effectively.

The object of Christian faith, on the other hand, is a real, living, all-powerful, relationship-oriented Person who is hugely invested in the outcome of any discussion between believers and unbelievers. Moreover, he is fully able, if we are willing, to equip us to speak effectively on his behalf.

Do you believe that? I do. And that reality should give us tremendous confidence going into any conversation with atheists even if they tower over us in IQ, apparent scientific orthodoxy and the almost unlimited capacity to sneer at our gullibility and lack of sophistication.

Two Types of Atheists

The first step is to identify the sort of atheist you are dealing with. Not all atheists are alike. For a very few sincere individuals, difficulties with the idea of God are primarily a matter of getting their facts straight. They are comparatively honest seekers of truth who simply haven’t gotten there yet. These are default atheists. They believe falsehood because they have yet to encounter truth. However, I suspect these are few and far between.

Someone has pointed out that a great number of the most vocal, hardened atheists have unresolved daddy issues. Well, maybe. It may or may not be dad who was the bad guy, but there is something in that statement worth considering. The vast majority of atheists I encounter are simmering with anger over bad experiences with what they believe were hypocritical Christians, and often these were family members. As a result, they mistrust and actively dislike the idea of the Christian God viscerally, not intellectually at all. These are emotional atheists. And you absolutely cannot approach someone who is striking an intellectual pose to mask an emotional problem in the same way you approach someone who is genuinely seeking truth.

Well, you can, but it may not be particularly effective. You will wander around in circles for a long time wondering why perfectly valid arguments get no traction at all. I know. I’ve done it. It’s because they are not addressing the real issue.

Getting Involved

The second step is to get involved:

Default Atheism: In the case those few atheists out there whose issues with God are truly related to lack of information, a skilled apologist with a keen grasp of the relevant issues is useful but not necessarily required. You may find this kind of hungry intellectual seeker leaves you feeling way out of your depth, or you may have precisely the answers they need. In the former instance, you may be able to point them to others who have addressed the questions they are struggling with. Much more importantly, however, you may be able to show love to them that nobody else has or can.

Sarah Salviander is an astrophysicist whose atheism was primarily a matter of getting her facts about God straight. Until she left home to study, she simply hadn’t encountered or engaged with Christians in great numbers, so she bought into the worldview of her atheistic parents by default. She also bought into their view of Christians the same way: in ignorance and inexperience. You can read her testimony here.

A telling quote about Sarah’s experience at the University of California:
“I joined campus clubs, started to make friends, and, for the first time in my life, I was meeting Christians. They weren’t like Objectivists — they were joyous and content. And, they were smart, too. I was astonished to find that my physics professors, whom I admired, were Christian. Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.”
So, even for default atheists, observing Christians full of love, contentment and character is a powerfully compelling experience. That’s a fact worth knowing.

Emotional Atheism: In the case of the emotional atheist, it is my conviction that the ONLY way you can reach them is through love, genuineness, consistency and especially prayer. Your intellectual arguments either in favor of the Christian faith or against so-called science that is not true science at all will fall on deaf ears.

Some suggested dos and don’ts:
  • DO get them talking, if only to find out who you are dealing with. It is very difficult to really love and consistently pray for someone you know next to nothing about and don’t truly care for.
  • DO look for ways to show love tangibly. If you see a practical need, do what you can to meet it.
  • DO concentrate on presenting Christ as the opportunity arises. Leading your friend to a correct understanding of who Jesus is matters more than fine-tuning his or her views about the origins of the universe.
  • DON’T waste time getting into a lot of arguments about science or the Old Testament unless you are convinced a basic misunderstanding about these is a genuine intellectual barrier to faith.
  • DON’T let your arguments get heated. Avoid “gotcha” tricks, recycled arguments from others that you don’t fully understand yourself, straw-manning or evangelical clich├ęs. It is better to show godly character than to make points while losing your temper, getting called out for using cheap tactics, or giving your friend the impression you are merely phoning it in.
  • DON’T argue about hypotheticals. They are meaningless, frustrating, and always take you off down rabbit trails. Worse, they can give the person with whom you are arguing a sense they have won the argument when they have simply talked high-handed nonsense for an hour.

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