Tips for Christians who want to convert atheists
Before we even get started, I need to ask all atheists to move along, just this once. This post contains secret information that is for the eyes of Christians only. Sorry about that.
Okay, now that we’ve got all the atheists out of the way, I’ve got a few tips for you Christians — particularly those of you who are evangelicals and would like to convince atheists that the Christian way is the right way. You see, there are a few little mistakes that many Christians make when trying to change the minds of atheists like me, and these mistakes — small as they are — can undo a great deal of good, honest work.
So, when you’re in a situation where you’ve got an atheist’s ear and want to spread a bit of the word, keep these tips in mind:
- Remember that atheists generally consider atheism to be a religion only for purposes of legal classification. We think that laws regarding freedom of religion apply to atheism, but reject attempts to place atheism in the “religion” philosophical category. Some religions are worldviews, but not all worldviews are religions. Get used to that.
- Atheists say that atheism isn’t a religion, but rather a lack of religion. You’ll get nowhere with “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” “you believe as many things without proof as I do,” etc.
- While we’re on the subject, don’t insist that atheists believe certain things or discount certain possibilities just because they make the atheist uncomfortable. For example, don’t argue that atheists would embrace creationism if we just got over our bias toward supernatural causes. Atheists generally believe what we do because of evidence, and most of us are more than happy to consider whatever evidence you may have that the supernatural exists. When we show you why your evidence is nonexistent, incorrect, insufficient, or badly interpreted, don’t claim that we’re discounting it for no reason. That just makes you look willfully ignorant.
- Don’t ask how an atheist can prove that God doesn’t exist unless you’re prepared to prove that the Easter Bunny, fairies, and the secret brother you never knew you had don’t exist.
- Don’t try and use the problem of evil argument on atheists. To us, “good” and “evil” are descriptive terms, not things that have some kind of existence of their own. When we say we don’t believe in the supernatural, we mean it.
- Speaking of which, those of us who are strict determinist don’t think that free will being an illusion is a justification for avoiding punishment for bad behavior. We also attempt to fix broken machines, corral mad dogs, and put out fires even though we don’t think they have free will. Don’t even ask us about this while making the assumption that we’ve never considered the question. We have.
- I know you’re used to dealing with deities, prophets, holy men, etc., whose words are as good as law, but atheists aren’t. Atheists don’t consider Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, or anyone else to be infallible, so we really don’t care if you can point out something they were wrong about. The same goes for deathbed confessions — even if you did have proof that a famous atheist became a Christian on his or her death bed, we wouldn’t much care. It proves nothing.
- Quit it with the “there are no atheists in foxholes” thing. Why would you want to argue that even a rational person might agree with your point of view when exhausted and stressed out? You need to argue that a rational person would agree with you even while calm and well rested.
- Don’t misrepresent what atheists believe. We don’t all think that there is no such thing as morality, that might makes right, that pleasure is the only good, etc. We don’t secretly believe in God, and we aren’t mad at God or any other thing that doesn’t exist.
- Evolution isn’t a tenet of atheism, and neither are humanism, liberal politics, communism, or materialism.
- We aren’t all atheists because we’re mad at religion or had a bad religious experience. Asking us what happened to us that made us reject God is just plain insulting to our intelligence.
- We don’t all think that religious people are stupid. If we disagree with you, don’t act like it’s an insult or a personal affront, or that we’re not listening.
- We certainly don’t worship Satan. Don’t even ask us about it. (See the above point about our not believing in things that don’t exist.)
- In a similar light, make sure you have a decent working knowledge of any topic you want to address. Questions like “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” are more statements of massive ignorance than they are difficult questions about science.
- Quit trying to say that Hitler was an atheist. It’s not true and insisting that it is true just annoys us.
- Same deal with arguing that atheism has caused more death than religion. You’re never going to win this one.
- When you’re giving evidence for religion or against atheism, don’t misquote. We pretty much all have access to libraries and the internet, so if you quote Darwin (or whoever) out of context, we’re going to figure it out and conclude that you are either a fool or willfully ignorant. If you’re going to quote from a book, a speech, or whatever, read it — or, at least, read enough of it that you understand the context of what you’re quoting.
- Even more important, don’t misquote the Bible or try to bolster your argument with verses from the Bible that are ambiguous or seem to have a different meaning when isolated from their surrounding text. When you misuse the book that you think is the most important text on the planet, you’re convincing us that you don’t know what you’re talking about and practically begging for ridicule.
- While on the subject of the Bible, remember that atheists don’t consider it an authority on anything but, at most, some aspects of middle-eastern history. Saying that something philosophical or supernatural is true just because it’s in the Bible is a nonstarter for us.
- Don’t insist that atheists would be Christians if we just treated the Bible the same way we treat any other manuscript. The fact is, we do indeed treat the Bible the same way we treat other ancient document — with skepticism. Yes, we do this for non-Biblical texts, too (and so do you — at least those of you who don’t think that some humans are descendents of pagan deities). The Bible isn’t special in this sense.
- It’s okay to suggest that an atheist read the Bible, but it’s not okay to say that an atheist who has read the Bible somehow didn’t read it correctly. Similarly, don’t try to imply that an atheist who doesn’t have an extensive working knowledge of Biblical text is therefore ignorant of the Bible. We have no compelling reason to make an extensive study of the Bible, and I’ll bet you can’t recite chapter and verse of every book you’ve read either.
- The following phrases should be added to your “never use” list: “Just trust in Jesus,” “Try believing,” “Give Jesus a chance,” “Look in your heart.” Atheists don’t turn beliefs on and off like light switches. If you convince us that your point is true, we’ll believe it. But before that, we can’t try believing you’re right, just to see how things go.
- For the reasons given in the previous tip, you never need to haul out Pascal’s wager again. Atheists don’t change our minds because of threats or because there might be some reward for belief. We change our minds when there is compelling evidence we are wrong.
- Quit assuming that atheists are depressed or think that life has no meaning. When you say things like this, it just shows you have very little idea how an atheist thinks about the world.
- Stop saying you’re oppressed by non-Christians. We atheists are more than aware that we don’t have the power to control the country — in the U.S., we have trouble even winning a major election — so when you imply that we’re keeping you down, it makes you look like you have a martyr complex.
- Before you try an argument out on an atheist, do some research. Odds are excellent that atheists have addressed your argument before, and you should be familiar with our responses (and have counter responses ready) before bringing up the subject. If you can’t think of counter responses, consider the possibility that your argument is deeply flawed. And there are few things that bring on an atheist eye roll more than “I’ll bet you’ve never heard this before,” followed by an argument that was familiar to our great grandparents.
- Don’t use arguments you don’t agree with or aren’t prepared to support. For example, if you’re arguing that the laws of thermodynamics somehow preclude atheism, make sure that you agree that the laws of thermodynamics are true — even though they might be used as evidence against your point of view.
- Don’t bother using arguments that you don’t find compelling. If you don’t believe in God because of the cosmological argument, don’t try to use the cosmological argument to convert an atheist. Instead, use the argument that convinced you — it has to be the best argument you have, right?
- If you believe in God simply because you believe in your heart that God exists, go ahead and say so. Don’t misrepresent yourself. But you should be prepared to defend personal feelings as a source of knowledge.
- Similarly, for any pro-God argument you bring up, be prepared to answer this question: “If it can be proven that your argument is false, would you consider changing your mind about whether or not God exists?” If the answer is no, then the argument can’t be that compelling. Don’t use it.
- Use your own arguments, not ones you found online or in a book. If you want to use someone else’s argument, at least study it enough that you can put it in your own words. There are few things more foolish looking than a Christian who has memorized a list of “zingers” that atheists are supposedly unable to respond to trying them out on an atheist who has no trouble responding to all of them.
- If you use an argument and an atheist has a response to it that you can’t counter, stop using the argument.
- If an atheist demonstrates that something you said is wrong, admit it. That will demonstrate your intellectual honesty.
- If you’re e-mailing, texting, or posting online, check your spelling and grammar. Seriously.
- Most importantly, if we tell you that we don’t feel like discussing religion, stop.
That’s about it for now. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be converting atheists to Christianity in no time. Good luck!