The #1 Tip For Atheist/Christian Dialog

[Updated from the archives.]

***

I had a couple of on-line encounters with atheists a while back, one commenting on my blog and the other over at Amy Julia Becker’s place. They had some expectations that I found puzzling.

Amy Julia wrote on how to be respectful in our interactions with those who don’t believe in God, and I commented:

People attribute things to God and then say they could never believe in that version of God. I tend to agree with them; I’d never believe in that version of God either. Believing in the one true God is quite another thing entirely.

One commenter promptly demanded I prove God’s existence. Now come on, who made up the rule that any time a Christian expresses belief in God the Christian is then obligated to prove God’s existence upon demand?*

The encounter at my own blog it was even odder. A commenter demanded proof of God’s existence, and when I chose not to respond he said this proves that Christians cannot back up their beliefs with evidence. I didn’t follow his logic, but apparently it made sense to him.

Now it’s not that I don’t want to discuss God’s existence with people who don’t believe in him.

It’s just that I don’t feel compelled to do so on their terms.

Apologetics Has A Place

The verse most people cite on apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15 –

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Notice what is not in that verse. Nowhere does it say we must come up with philosophically airtight logic, incontrovertible evidence, or anything else to prove the validity of the hope we have. This verse merely says we should not shy away from talking about our faith.

Here are some ways I see it playing out day to day:

  • A cashier gives us too much change, and we hand it back. The cashier asks why we would do that and we say, “I’m sure God does not want me to keep money that doesn’t belong to me.”
  • We park too close to a car and later when pulling out scrape the car’s fender. No one is there to see it, but we leave a note with our name and other information. Someone asks why, and we say, “Well, Jesus did say we should treat others the way we want to be treated.”
  • At work, a colleague asks if we did anything good over the weekend and we say, “There was a guest speaker at church who was pretty good. She’s got a new Bible study guide I might pick up.”

And if someone asks the big question – why we believe in Jesus – I still don’t think we’re obligated to come up with some perfect argument that proves Christianity to be true. I think we are to talk about what Jesus has done in our lives.

We can talk about how Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 1:15.) We can talk about how we no longer have to try to do things to be good enough for God because Jesus has done it all for us. (Galatians 2:19-20.) We can talk about how Jesus now calls us friend. (John 15:15.) We can talk about anything and everything that gives us hope in the one true God.

But we don’t have to prove anything.

That’s up to God.

God’s Proof

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14.)

The atheists with whom I was engaging might see that verse as a cop-out, but it’s not. In fact, it’s no different than what we see in families every day.

My family does things in certain ways. To a casual observer those ways might be beyond understanding no matter how much I try to explain them. Eventually, I’d probably tell the person that the only way to understand is to become a member of my family. No one calls that a cop-out, because the same thing applies to their family dynamics as well. It’s how all families are.

And when you move in with a family, that’s when you learn the family’s ways.

Including the family of God.

***

*I realize that putting the word “atheists” in the title of this post may bring readers who aren’t Christians. This post is not about convincing atheists, of course, whether in the sense of convincing them my beliefs are valid or them convincing me theirs are. This post is about recognizing that not every conversation on belief has to turn into a formal debate.

***

Aimee Byrd’s comment below is too good not to append here in the post itself:

This is a great topic, and it is encouraging to read the comments thread as well. I think that sometimes Christians are so eager that they become more zealous “for the cause” than actually caring about the people. People then become tools. And when atheists are defensive, or demand a full apologetic as soon as we mention our faith, they are also skipping the hard work of getting to know the person. Sure, we have our arguments for our faith, but we want to point others to the Person and work of Christ, not just the evidences.

***

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17 Responses to The #1 Tip For Atheist/Christian Dialog

  1. Excellent post that I am copying and reflecting upon.

  2. Honestly, as an atheist, I largely agree with you. When a person simply says, “I believe in God,” the atheist should, at most, reply, “I do not.” The theist in this situation has not claimed that he can prove God exists, only that he believes God exists, and that he places faith in God. It is therefore a Straw-Man when a vitriolic anti-theist contends, “Prove God exists!” Unfortunately, however, this sort of irrational behavior is not limited to atheists. I’ve experienced and witnessed much the same behavior from Christians and other theists when a person self-identifies as an atheist.

    • Tim says:

      Me too, Boxing Pythagoras. Why a person who believes in God thinks they have the right to demand an atheist prove their beliefs is beyond me. I much prefer it when someone asks me what I believe and what it means for me. Back when I thought there was no God I appreciated the same questions about what I thought and why,

      It’s much better to just chat than demand someone engage in formal debate. I appreciate you coming along and chatting here today.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for re-running this post, Tim. I really like the family analogy.

  4. Very interesting! It’s also unpleasant when the same dynamic happens between two Christians. I’ve experienced this of late, but less of “Prove it!” and more of “That idea is wrong! This is what is right!” I don’t like shut-you-down, speak-to-the-hand methods of “discourse”.

    • Tim says:

      Those statements stifle discussion. It’s an odd tactic for a Christian when God has said “Come now, let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18.)

  5. Laura Droege says:

    A few weeks ago, I visited the blog of an atheist. I’ve “met” him on other sites and he’s always conducted himself courteously (more so than some Christians I know.) It was interesting to read the comments on his post. After some hesitation, I wrote a comment, explaining why one Christian commenter’s view wasn’t necessarily one that I held. (She maintained that certain things were “proof” that the Jesus was God, the Bible was true, etc., but I didn’t find them convincing, even as a fellow believer.)

    The response was overwhelmingly positive. Apparently, most (if not all) of the other commenters appreciated my stance, and that I was willing to ask questions and listen to their responses, rather than immediately beginning a debate. I don’t know many atheists in my Bible Belt city, so it was nice to get to know these folks and hear what they found wrong with Christianity and what had turned them away from it. (Many said they’d identified as Christians at some earlier point in their lives.)

    There are times and places for debate and logical arguments. But it’s not all the time, and not with everyone, and not at every opportunity. Sometimes we just need to shut up and listen. And always, we need to live our faith.

    • Tim says:

      “There are times and places for debate and logical arguments. But it’s not all the time, and not with everyone, and not at every opportunity.”

      And there you have a summary for my entire post, Laura!

  6. P Yew says:

    I had what I call a typical experience just today at lunch. A couple sat diagonally from me across the restaurant and when they finished their meal, walked up to my table and asked if I knew Jesus Christ as my personal savior. They offered to sit and have a bible “study” with me right then and there. I can’t count the number of instances over the years of scenarios like that, with people who felt it was their inescapable duty to bring me to their god [fill in the blank]. Many like today, were what I would classify as obnoxious and/or unpleasant encounters. What they view as “useful information” is a highly unwelcome imposition of religious values I have absolutely no interest in.
    I wonder how many of you can recall having similar experiences with atheists, where they knocked on your door or approached you in public, or came to your church, offering to discuss your conversion to disbelief. I’m guessing it would be rare, if at all. The likelihood of an encounter on social media would be much greater than in real life. This reply is a good example. How did I find this blog? Via a tweet hashtagged to atheism. Would I ordinarily interact here? No. Are there exceptions? I’m sure there are. I’m also quite sure they are not the norm.
    I don’t bring this up as a “gotcha”. I’d rather focus on what is a reality believers don’t seem to get. Beliefs are in the public sphere whether we like it or not. When you [people of whatever faith] approach someone with your message, you are asking them to accept your claims as the truth. In order for me to accept your claims you must demonstrate them to be true. That means the standard used would be mine, not yours. I’m sorry you find my standards more exacting. It is how life is. There are practical examples of this idea in operation everywhere in life. We can’t go to the bank and ask for a loan, and when asked to provide collateral or evidence of income, say “you’ll just have to believe in my ability to repay you”. You get the money after you have satisfied *their* requirements.
    Having said all that, I do agree with you in general principle. You should never have to justify what you believe. Those are your decisions alone. As long as the faithful/unbelievers aren’t a menace to society, I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me in any way. I truly appreciate your desire to be a better person. I would fight to defend your right to do that in a secular pluralistic society. I would ask for the same consideration in return.

    • Tim says:

      You certainly have that same consideration in return from me, PY. As for your lunch encounter, I’d have given the couple the cold shoulder myself.

      But as for your standards being more exacting than mine, I have no way of comparing. Mine are quite exacting and yours might or might not be more so. Either way, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy civil discourse along with one another’s company.

      Cheers,
      Tim

  7. Aimee Byrd says:

    This is a great topic, and it is encouraging to read the comments thread as well. I think that sometimes Christians are so eager that they become more zealous “for the cause” than actually caring about the people. People then become tools. And when atheists are defensive, or demand a full apologetic as soon as we mention our faith, they are also skipping the hard work of getting to know the person. Sure, we have our arguments for our faith, but we want to point others to the Person and work of Christ, not just the evidences.

    • Tim says:

      “People become tools.” Great way to put it, Aimee. And I’d add that sometimes it’s the person (Christian or Atheist) doing the challenging who fails to see that they have turned themselves into mere tools as well, ignoring their own humanity.

  8. Pastor Bob says:

    Two things jump out at me:
    -your words say it well, “Now it’s not that I don’t want to discuss God’s existence with people who don’t believe in him.
    It’s just that I don’t feel compelled to do so on their terms.”

    We should our battles carefully.

    The second seem to develop as I read the responses/discussions, A future series of posting on apologetics and polyemics.

    One non-believing friend proceeded describe the how’s and why’s of atheistic belief structure. My response was not theological – a reference or two to God, but largely philosophical, the concepts and structures were simply flawed based on what he said.
    Anther person complained about the “preaching” – my response was different,
    “Sorry about that, but i was not preaching. This is worse, because it is philosophy.”
    The third person’s response – “Oh God! You’re right!”
    Me: “Funny how we call on God at strange times.”
    My friend made a decision a few weeks later.

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