Last week I lambasted Rabbi Adam Jacobs who wrote an “open letter to the atheist community”. As someone else has astutely observed, the rabbi’s letter was practically a model for how not to address serious atheists. In hopes for better future discussions between believers and non-believers, I decided to give some advice to believers who would like to reach out to us in the future, whether publicly or personally. In some cases I will use examples that assume the reader is a Christian since I live in America and in America seemingly 99.99% of would-be proselytizers are Christians of some sort. But most of the principles will be valuable to Muslims and those rare proselytizing Jews too.
I completely understand if you do not want this advice or refuse to abide by it. I am fine with you not even trying to reach out to me. But if you would really like to try to reach out to atheists for some reason, I think I can speak for a lot of atheists when I offer these tips for how to make us like you and not be as insulted and unimpressed as many of us were by the Rabbi Jacobs’s letter.
1. Do not “share the Gospel” with us.
I know, I know, you’re really worried we’re going to roast in hell and it’s really urgent to make sure we have heard about Jesus before that happens. But here’s what you can do instead: pretend that we actually know all about the Gospel and that we are not just confused about what Christianity teaches. Because, and I know this may come as a shock: Assuming we come from a country where the dominant religion is Christianity, we actually have heard the Gospel. Many, many times. And (sit down for this one) the odds are pretty good that we once believed it too. Some of us even know the Bible better than many of you do.
The odds are that most atheists you encounter were raised as Christians. And even if we were not, you can bet good money that someone somewhere along the way has told us all about how Jesus died for our sins. We get it. We do not need to hear it again from you and you do not have a way of saying it that’s going to bowl us over with its genius. (Yes, that includes Pascal’s Wager, we have heard that one too, thanks!)
2. Do not lie.
I know, this one sounds vaguely familiar but you cannot quite place where you have heard it. Let me put it a way that might ring a clearer bell: THOU SHALT NOT LIE, EVEN TO ATHEISTS.
Try to persuade us, if you like, but do not try to manipulate us in any way whatsoever. Either reason with us like adults and equals or leave us alone. Do not befriend us with ulterior motives of saving us when you do not really like us, do not try to subvert our reason by appealing to our hopes and fears, do not threaten us with damnation, etc. Do not claim that you have no intentions of changing our minds when you do have intentions of changing our minds. Do not claim not to judge us when you in fact do judge us. Do not make arguments that you already know can be reasonably refuted. Do not raise evidence you know is misleading. And do not try to appeal to our emotions where your reasons fail since doing so is underhanded and dishonest.
If you cannot persuade us with reason to believe, then you have no reason to believe and we will have no reason to believe. If you cannot persuade us with the truth, then you do not believe the truth and those who are interested in the truth will not believe you.
3. Do not assume you are either morally better, spiritually more attuned, or happier than we are simply because you belong to your faith.
The trope that without God people are miserable and lost but with God they are happy and live lives of purpose is propaganda. Religious people have highs and lows and so do irreligious people. That’s called normal human psychology. If an atheist has a sour personality, it is quite likely no more or less because of her atheism than a sour religious person’s disposition is Jesus’s fault. People’s personalities are much deeper than their beliefs on the question of divine beings. And atheists’ troubles are not just signs we need Jesus. We will not appreciate it if you trivialize our complicated problems by treating them like they can be magically cured with the panacea of Christ.
Do not assume that the only way to be spiritually serious and feel emotionally secure is to be within the faith. You may not believe that it is possible outside the faith, but many of us are living proof it is. Especially if you thought we were spiritually deep before we left the faith, don’t condescend to us by treating us as though we must have suddenly turned shallow, confused, or anguished the moment we left the fold. We didn’t. Expand your mind to appreciate how people outside the faith can and do find meaning too, even if you think our views are somehow mistaken.
Also, on this score, do not assume that only you have beliefs you care about and that we are empty vessels just waiting for some substance from you. Some Christians think that atheists’ values are somehow transient or secondary to their own such that they can force us to go to church or talk to us like we could put aside our views on religion easily to accommodate them. That’s not always true and it is demeaning to be treated like our values are irrelevant or unserious.
Relatedly, it makes a big difference if you try to understand why atheists are interested in forming a community among ourselves for our own sake, rather than (a) assume that we do this only to attack you, (b) assume that what we are doing is trivial or unnecessary, or (c) try to score some cheap and meaningless rhetorical point by claiming that somehow our organizing proves we are just as guilty of all the well documented vices of institutionalized religion as your own faith is.
4. If you decide to debate us about God and employ a strategy to convince us, stick with the topic you raise and address our counter-arguments without constantly changing the subject.
One of the most frustrating things theists do is avoid addressing our arguments by just offering a new argument on a different tact. If you feel like your argument was refuted then either find another counter-argument on the same point or at least be big enough to admit outright that you lost that point and will abandon using that argument in the future before trying out another one.
In particular, make up your mind whether you believe there is evidence for God and say what you think about that. If you think there is evidence then stand up for the evidence. If you don’t, then don’t use it just to try to persuade us. Nothing is more maddening than when religious people offer reasons for belief as though they really want to consider evidence but then run straight for the cover of faith as soon as their evidence is shown to be shoddy. Make up your mind.
Do you believe only on faith? Then do not give a pretense of offering reasons that even you do not really believe are decisively persuasive. When you offer reasons and then abandon them at the first sign of trouble and claim that faith is the solution, it gives the impression you were insincere in offering all those reasons in the first place. Figure out what you believe by reason and what by faith ahead of time and be consistent. Or, at least, acknowledge if our arguments have forced you to change your mind.
5. Do not try to offer us reasons to change our minds while refusing to open your own mind.
If you are committed on principle to never changing your mind, then do not try to change our minds. It is unfair to be closed minded while demanding others open their minds. If you won’t seriously consider the possibility you are wrong or open yourself to seriously considering the evidence we offer, then be honest about that fact and do not give the false pretense of listening to us. “Let your ‘yea’ be yea and your ‘nay’ be nay.” Either listen to us critically and introspectively or do not listen at all. Do not patronize us.
A religious friend once provoked me repeatedly to justify why I did not believe and to just come back to the faith already. When I finally took the bait and laid out a torrent of reasons for disbelief she pleaded she needed time to think about this. I insisted as she studied she consider atheistic resources and not just Christian ones. She said she would but refused to change her mind. I told her not to bother then making a pretense of studying if she was just going to close her mind. Same advice goes to everyone: an open book is wasted on a closed mind.
6. Do not try to tell us what we really must think about ethics or metaphysics or assume you know what any given atheist thinks about these issues.
Ask atheists how we go about atheistically solving philosophical problems that you think can only be solved theologically before you presume to tell us we cannot even begin to address them. To do otherwise is combative, willful ignorance. There are numerous brilliant insights into ethics, spirituality, metaphysics, etc. which make either no reference at all to a divine lawgiver or which include reference to God in only a non-essential way. If you are genuinely interested in questions of philosophy and are interested in what reason can add to what you know about these matters, then you can have productive discussions with atheists that may even generate agreements on many matters and establish valuable common ground between you and us.
Even about issues far flung from religion, find areas of philosophical commonality and debate topics with us which both you and we find interesting and open for free investigation. I had a philosopher friend who was deeply religious and whose metaphysics was wildly different than my own. We talked for endless hours about numerous philosophical questions without our differences in either religion or metaphysics coming between us in any crucial way. Even where we talked about metaphysical questions on which our pre-existing views had definite bearing, we engaged in such an open minded way that we found many points of agreement and places where we could persuade each other. There is much more to philosophy than God: explore it vigorously and with an open mind and should you ever come back to the topic of God you may find your discussions bear far better fruit.
7. Do not scold us for abandoning the faith.
Those of us who were once your devout religious brethren did not seek to betray you. You may feel betrayed, but it wasn’t personal, so don’t take out your frustration and confusion on us. We are not traitors, we are people who have followed our intellectual consciences and often this has involved great personal cost and involved a long, torturous spiritual and intellectual process. That’s not to say we wish we were back in the fold “if only we could believe”. Some of us feel that way but many of us have moved well beyond that and are comfortable outside the faith.
8. Explicitly embrace political secularism.
Reassure us that you do not want to impose your religion on us using the government but that you honor the freedom of conscience as the precondition of all sincere and healthy belief, including religious belief. Join us in common cause to keep the government from enjoining its citizens to pray, from teaching religious theories in science classrooms instead of science, from dictating people’s private sexual morality, from discriminating against homosexuals in employment, marriage, or any other civil rights, and from subsidizing churches that have ulterior motives of exploiting these government resources to ultimately aid religious proselytization.
If we do not think you are so interested in forcing your beliefs on us that you would use even the law to do so if only you could, then we will be much more receptive to you and trusting of you.
9. Do not change your evidence criteria in self-serving ways.
Religious apologists have a terrible habit of shifting goal posts. They will tell us (quite dubiously) in one breath that some event or phenomenon is “unexplained”, but then in the next breath declare with conviction that this same mystery is “clearly understandable as a miracle” or “clearly evidence of God”. Something’s being simply unexplained (assuming what you claim has no explanation even is unexplained) does not prove that it is also a miracle which you can completely explain! Neither is something’s inexplicability evidently explainable as the work of the very specific God who allegedly did various things recorded in the Old Testament and then incarnated one of His three persons in human form and died as a sacrifice to appease Himself in the form of another of His persons.
Unexplained phenomena are unexplained: they are not opportunities to make stuff up with no standards of proof required. And similarly, do not hold atheists to the standard of “certainty” and insist that we abandon our atheism if we cannot be 100% certain there is no God while you yourself claim that the barest possibility that there might be a God is sufficient basis to rationally believe in God. Or do not tell us that the preponderance of evidence we see against the existence of God is not enough to rationally be an atheist but the deliberate abandonment of evidential reasoning for the sake of faith is good enough justification for you to be a believer. This is transparently, prejudicial, double standard thinking that we will not be persuaded by. It is not a sign that you reason in good faith.
If you require atheists to be certain in order to call ourselves atheists, then require certainty of yourself before calling yourself a theist. If you want us to accept that there are some phenomenon are unexplained by science since there is not a conclusive scientific explanation already at hand, then do not claim that that same phenomenon is explained by the existence of God unless there is a conclusive proof at hand that the phenomenon can only be explained by God. If you choose to believe things without evidence, then do not blame us for believing things for which we have evidence but not certainty.
10. Turn the other cheek by being a good sport about criticism and jokes about your religion (even unfair forms).
Do you know when a Christian instantly loses all credibility? It is when they say something like this, “Our enemies assume that just because we are Christians we are going to turn the other cheek, but at some point we have a right to stand up for our beliefs!” Really, any obnoxious, antagonistic, pugilistic behavior in defense of your supposed Christianity convinces people you have none.
First of all, many atheists do not expect you to actually live up to Jesus’s words on this one since Christians who actually do it are really, really rare, so we are not thinking you have been so longsuffering all along and only now must have been really and rightly offended. Secondly, when you say something like that it translates to us as, “We are only going to be Christians in the ways that are convenient to us and ignore the parts that involve actually leading by an impressively difficult, self-sacrificial, disciplined moral example!” Thirdly, this is often said by petty people who have not even actually been attacked but merely been confronted with the unashamed existence of atheists or liberals and have such a deep persecution complex that they feel outright oppressed. Fourthly, those people, Christian or otherwise, who really do know how to take criticisms and even unfair attacks with neither grievance, false piety, nor retaliation really do win respect.
And for my top ten tips for atheists reaching out to religious believers, read the following posts: