I am writing this post to evangelical Christians who want to spread the Gospel. I want to give you my best advice about how to approach evangelism.
Let me be unequivocally clear at the start: I am an atheist. More than that, I am an anti-Christian atheist. I actively argue against Christianity. I unabashedly admit that I want to convince people to accept atheism as true. I take great joy in people leaving Christianity. It makes me inexpressibly happy when people tell me that I played some role in their having become atheists. The general group of people I feel most connected to are formerly devout religious people who are now atheists. And among them, I feel the closest to the ex-Christians because I myself grew up as a fervent evangelical Christian. (And I have an especially close kinship with those I knew when we were Christians and now we’re atheists together.)
I became an atheist only after my passionate, life-consuming attempts to philosophically defend the Christian faith failed and I became convinced that justifying belief in Christianity was futile and that it was immoral to build one’s life on unjustifiable beliefs. I had gone to college with the goal of becoming a theology professor. I had studied philosophy with the goal of having powerful, comprehensive answers to skeptics’ objections. After much study and anguish, I admitted defeat at the hands of the skeptics and stopped believing in the God that I had loved with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I became an atheist because I felt compelled by my intellectual conscience not to believe in God.
So, why am I, an ex-Christian and anti-Christian, offering you advice on how to evangelize? And why should you even listen to it? The answer to those questions and the tips themselves can be found by using the links in this convenient table of contents for this post:
1. Be Like Jesus: Hang With The Sinners and Judge The Judgers
2. Form Genuine Relationships With People, Don’t Treat Them As Projects.
3. Actions Speak Louder Than Words.
4. When Talking About Religious and Philosophical Matters, Ask More Questions And Do Less Preaching.
5. Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice or Judgments. Support People and Wait For Them To Ask For Your Input If They Want It.
6. Appreciate That Nominal Christians Are Still Christians.
7. Don’t Try To Force Others Into Christian Participation.
8. Understand Atheists and Embrace The Opportunity Confrontational Atheists Afford You.
9. Respect Other Religions Even As You Evangelize Their Members.
10. Love Your Enemies, Not Just Your Tribe.
I’m always very heartened when I see how many Evangelicals identify with me despite our profound differences in beliefs. Recently I have leveled some harsh critiques of Evangelical attitudes towards atheists and approaches to evangelism, as part of my multiple part criticism of the movie God’s Not Dead. And a few months ago I called out Ray Comfort for trying to exploit the mental illnesses of depressed atheists by implying that suicide was a logical conclusion of atheism. More than a few Christians seem to agree with my criticisms and a couple have asked about how to do better. So, I thought I’d be constructive and not just complain but give my thoughts on what kind of evangelism I think would be good.
We are both unfairly disparaged as inherently disrespectful, intolerant, and authoritarian by the same kinds of secular people–whether they are atheists or just non-evangelical religious people. They are the ones who say, “I do not care at all what other people believe so long as those people never try to share their faith with others or try to challenge the faith of others.” They often make it a supreme moral principle that “Thou Shalt Not Try To Change Another Person’s Religious Beliefs”. Both evangelizing Christians, like you, and disputatious atheists, like me, are equally sinners to them. They are proud of their tolerance and inclusiveness and yet their idea of respecting your views and my views is to tell us to keep our beliefs to ourselves at all times and to indiscriminately label us as extremists when we don’t do so. With very little nuance the simple desire to persuade others to change their minds is conflated with a bullying desire to force others to believe as we do. I don’t think that’s fair to us argumentative atheists. I don’t think it’s fair to you evangelical Christians. Granted–I think members of both our groups are terrible about how they handle disagreements over religion. But I want to be constructive about how to do it better rather than give up on discussing such ideas altogether.
I share your passionate conviction that what people believe matters and that their ethics matters. Truth is neither simply relative nor irrelevant. Morality is neither simply relative nor irrelevant. Both people’s philosophies and their faiths inform their thinking on a wide range of the most fundamental questions all humans face, ranging from what is real to how we should live. If you ask me, we need a culture in which the active pursuit of answering such questions well has a central place in our lives. We need a culture which cultivates the art of vigorous, rigorous, honest, civil, empowering, fruitful, interpersonally bonding conversations about these most crucial questions. Such a culture could create people who are intellectually, morally, and spiritually scrupulous and autonomous and charitable to an enormous degree.
So, in the spirit of spiting those who would silence both of us, I’d like to show a little solidarity with you, by discussing the best strategies for both of us to follow and the ethics I think should bind all sides of the arguments we have. I am writing these tips for you specifically as tips for evangelism so that they speak to your particular concerns, interests, goals, and perspectives on the world, but I often give comparable advice to atheists. I am not asking you to be held to standards that are any more intrinsically muzzling than I ask atheists to hold themselves to, even though the differences in our views and goals makes the particular advice that is germane for you (or its optimal framing for you) slightly different.
If you are genuinely interested in impacting non-Christians and nominal Christians, then you should pay close attention to what non-Christians and nominal Christians have to say about you.
In particular, you should listen to those of us who are most informed, most opposed to your faith, and most actively engaged with conscientiously secular people. We can tell you what turns us on to what you are saying and what turns us off. We can tell you what sends people running and screaming away from you and over to us. We can tell you what just tempts us to laugh at you. You may not like our advice, but you ignore it at the cost of increased ineffectiveness in evangelism and increased antipathy from the larger culture. If you only listen to your fellow evangelicals you will be biased by their stubbornness, their wishful thinking, and their passive reliance on Jesus to turn everything your way no matter how thoughtlessly and artlessly you present yourself.
You must think beyond evangelical ways of thinking if you are to reach people who are not Evangelicals. Your fellow Evangelical Christians are not the people you are trying to reach. To understand the people you are trying to reach, you need to understand how we feel, what we think, what we value, and how we respond to you. You also need to be reflective about basic psychology, lest you be unpersuasive, and basic ethics, lest you be harmful or unfair. As someone who has been instrumental in at least a couple conversions to Christianity and deconversions from Christianity, and as someone who has the pulse of secular people much more than the average Christian does, I offer you a perspective you probably get infrequently in church.
So, here is my advice, for what it’s worth.
We all do well when we have two basic kinds of relationships. Those with people who think like us and those who think differently from us.
The value of relationships with those we think similarly to are numerous and obvious: When we are with people who share our values and beliefs and assumptions, we can build on what we share to work out new ideas. We can also figure out how our mostly similar views and our mostly similar values apply to new circumstances and should be affected by them. Talking to people who generally agree with us about difficult problems means we will be more likely to get proposals and insights we find plausible. This avoids the frustration of every conversation being a fight about the most basic of principles such that one never gets much farther than that. Plus it’s great to be in community with people who share our views and values so we can do constructive things together. This lets us live by our views and implement our values in a rich way. This is all great. This is why church and other forms of fellowship with other Christians are a rich part of your life. This is why I love connecting with my fellow Humanists so much and why I’ve made working towards Humanist community a central part of my life.
But if you want to both reach out to non-Christians (or to less involved Christians) and to grow as a person, you need to pursue connections outside of Christian bubbles. You need to invest time and energy in individuals and in general scenes where people hold very different views and live by very different values than your own. Because while it is undeniably good to spend time with likeminded people, it is also undeniably good to be challenged by what other people have to offer and to challenge them with what you have to offer.
The most admirable part of the story of Jesus, even to an atheist like me that thinks that both Christians and non-Christians give Jesus an overblown reputation, is the way that the Gospels portray him as a morally condemnatory preacher who focused his sermons against those who abused their wealth and religious power, rather than against those demonized already by his religion, while he spent his time hanging out with the outcasts loathed by his community. From his use of a hated Samaritan as a role model in his story about what kind of love God most demands of us, to his reputation for hanging out with the hated tax collectors and the prostitutes who were held in so much contempt, to his endless attacks on the rich and on the self-righteous religious leaders, the Jesus of the Gospels is a role model of how to simultaneously have strong opinions about morality without being a judgmental and alienating person.
We do not have stories in which Jesus rails against the tax collectors and prostitutes. We do not have stories of him sitting around with them haranguing them about how they must change their lives. Yes, we have the moment where he tells the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” but the crux of that story is his heroic effort to save her from a bloodthirsty mob of self-righteous people. We live in a society that has more than filled up its quota of Evangelical Christian Pharisees organizing contempt and condemnation for the sinners. We have plenty of highly visible Evangelical Christians invested in saying “sin no more”. They should be vastly outnumbered by Christians who stand up to them and say, “let ye who is without sin, cast the first stone”. We should have many more Christians who leave it to Jesus, presumably the only one with a right to judge on Christian doctrine, to be the one to tell the sinner to “sin no more”. The end of that story was not that those equally guilty of sin as the woman put down their stones and then stood in a circle chastising her and telling her not to sin lest next time she gets stoned for real. The end of that story was that the fellow sinners shut up and meted out no penalties nor condemnations. And Jesus alone dealt with the issue of her sin.
According to your Evangelical Christian beliefs, you are as much a sinner as anyone else. That doesn’t change with your salvation by Jesus. You may believe that thanks to Jesus, you are able to sin less and by his grace do more good works. But neither of these things theologically should trump Jesus’s commands not to judge other people. Because, as the saying goes, “there but for the grace of God, go you”. You are no different or better in yourself. Even after being saved.
Some Evangelical Christians perversely think that because they admit they are sinners too, they can judge other people’s sins–even ones they don’t share themselves. They think that by saying, “well, I’m not saying I’m better than you” that it’s okay to follow through with a judgment. Jesus didn’t say, “He who admits that he has also sinned may cast the first stone.” He said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
You must overcome your temptations to feel superior to your fellow human beings. I don’t think it is exactly right to call us “sinners”, but I think that if that principle helps you keep in mind your fundamental equality with your fellow human beings, even those you see as unsaved, then it is valuable to that extent. I would rather we centered our feelings of equality in a feeling of mutual appreciation and respect for the beauty of human potential, if only we are all empowered. But basing our empathy in our common vulnerability (as compassion does) and fallibility (as the doctrine of original sin does) has some merits too. We can all be weak, we can all be strong, so our focus should be on how we might understand and empower each other above all else.
If you take that attitude when you sit down with (your fellow) sinners, you might just focus more on respecting them, listening to them, learning from them, figuring out how to tangibly love them in the ways they really want, need, and will appreciate. You will be much more likely to find the ways to empower them to be stronger and happier people. If you are that kind of influence in someone’s life, then you have your best odds of earning their trust and respect enough that maybe they will open up to you about spiritual matters, knowing you are a Christian. And maybe they won’t ever. If you are a Christian, you have to put faith in God to save people. It’s not a human job. But starting to put your faith before your friendship will risk alienating your friends. I would even say it should alienate your friends. Not because your faith is wrong. But because it becomes a temptation to push your friends into what they’re not comfortable with yet. And if you cannot love people without an agenda of saving them, then you cannot love them. You do not know what love is. You are a threat to their well-being, because you are willing to put your own perceptions about what other people need above their own freedom to think for themselves.
Am I saying we should not ever make moral judgments? No, read this post and this post for my advice on how to judge ethically, we should be very deliberate and conscientious people who scrupulously investigate how we ourselves can be better people. When dealing with others, our first focus should be on understanding them in their particularity and in their actual needs and conditions of flourishing in their situation. And that means focusing less on figuring out what they’re doing wrong and how they can be as good at being themselves as they can.
Please take to heart how completely unacceptable the kind of love you currently offer to gays is. That’s a huge topic unto itself, so I urge you to read my post How I Wish The Homosexuality Debate Would Go next.
You should connect with people out of a desire to have loving relationships with other people. Evangelism, if it happens at all, must be an outgrowth of that. Loving people should not be seen as a tool for getting access to someone so you can do your work fixing them. Loving people means more than just saving them. If you’re turning another person into a project, stop it. Treat them like your peer and not someone to be manipulated and shaped for their own good against their knowledge.
You don’t know what is best for them. If you believe God is in control, let God figure out what you would best provide some particular person. I know a once anti-theist atheist who spent a year or so just meeting weekly with a Christian pastor just to talk freely, with no motives of converting anyone. The atheist came away still an atheist but was now drastically more sympathetic to Christians and more hostile to anti-theist atheists. He probably would not have shown up to even two meetings had he sensed the pastor had an agenda to make him change his faith and let that permeate their interactions.
You just sow the seeds. Some will fall on rocky ground. Some on the path. Some on fertile ground and grow. Don’t worry about the results. If you believe in Jesus, that’s his job, not yours.
People will figure out whether they like you, want to be close to you, or have anything to learn from you by how you behave, far more than by anything you say. If you are convinced that a life in Christ is transformative and that it makes you salt and light to the world such that they envy you and want to know what you have, then just do it. Just be salt and light. Just live according to the way you think Jesus wants you to live and let people be pulled like magnets. Trust that your love, your peace, your thoughtfulness, your wisdom, your self-discipline, your patience, your graciousness, your compassion, your generosity, your forgiveness, and your overall healthy relationships with others will all speak for themselves. Don’t go up to people and tell people where to get these things, make them unable not to see these things for themselves in what you do, and then they will ask, if they want to learn from you. People are drawn to leaders and the best leaders lead by example.
When conversations about beliefs and values naturally arise, not because you forced the conversation to go there awkwardly but because it was as organic and natural a thing to discuss as any other topic, then you should feel free to talk about your faith and what it means to you. When you talk about it in that context and with the framing that you’re sharing something important about yourself, it’s not intrusive. You’re just saying, “This is what I think and this is how I live.” Your goal should let it come up when they bring it up and especially when they ask you about it. When I’m not online, I let people know I’m an atheist only in the most casual ways, as a polite and simple answer to being asked about my religion or as a brief and partial explanation for something else someone asks about. I don’t launch into speeches about atheism unbidden, or plan conversations around bringing it up, or start conversations with strangers about it. I talk about what interests both of us. I find our unique connection, the place where our unique personalities find an utterly unique and intimate point of contact, one special in some intangible way only to us, as the two individuals we are. This is our point of common enthusiasms, personalities, and needs.
And if somehow philosophy or religion or my atheism in particular comes up, I let the other person’s curiosity guide the discussion. I give them short answers that don’t satisfy them but that whet their appetite instead. If I can tell they are interested in knowing what I think, I make them pry more. If they are not interested in continuing the discussion down that path, I let it go. If they want to take the opening to speak their mind on the subject, I indulge them with interest. I let them say the offensive things that come to their minds that they don’t even realize are offensive. I don’t judge or get angry. I let them express themselves honestly. And in return I patiently and genially give simple and precise answers to their misconceptions. I throw in gently challenging, thought provoking questions. I ask them honest, open ended questions that they could answer in any way whatsoever. And then I listen to their answers. I don’t push them into an answer they don’t believe. I don’t tell them what they really think. I ask them and respond to what they actually say.
And when I am ready to confront them with a strong disagreement, I say, “Well, I see where you are coming from because of x and y, but it’s because of z that I can’t get on board with what you are saying. Do you see what I’m saying? Do you see why z is an issue? What would you say to z?” I also admit when I don’t know things. I present my ideas as my ideas and my arguments, not the final word on the matter. Finally, when people try to dismiss my views that they don’t like, but find compelling, by suddenly talking like relativists who don’t believe there are any truths in the world, then I become much firmer, even argumentative if I’m not careful—”That’s a copout. We must all be open to testing and changing our opinions when necessary. If I am wrong, you have to figure out how and show me how, you cannot just decide to ignore what you don’t want to believe because changing one’s mind is uncomfortable.”
You should do your evangelizing in such a way for several reasons. One, it allows the individual you are talking to do most of the talking and thinking if they want. If it is about their unique mind and heart changing, then it only makes sense to let their unique mind and heart lead the conversation. They subconsciously or consciously know where they want to go. Either explicitly and with self-awareness, or only implicitly and unwittingly self-revealingly, they know where their own heart and mind are at, and they inevitably express it if you get out of the way and let them. They will open up to you the entrance portals to themselves for you if you shut up and let them talk. As a fire marshall, my dad used to interview witnesses and suspects and he told me once that he always would let them talk rather than try to hem them in with his own questions. Why? Because if they thought they were only supposed to answer what he asked, they might leave out key things because he didn’t know to ask. Letting them talk, they can bring up lots of salient things he may not have guessed about. Similarly, when talking about God and Christianity, people do the work of telling you were their concerns lay if you just let them talk.
Also, people just like to be heard and they like people who listen to them. And they will feel more trust in you the more that they open up to you. You have to overcome the temptation to make your attempts to persuade others all about how you feel and what you think. Your focus must be on what the person you’re persuading feels and thinks. And the person you are persuading will feel better about you the more you let them be themselves and express themselves without their feeling judged. One habit to get into is active listening. Reflect back to them what they’re saying. Try to rephrase it, ask if you’re hearing them right and ask for honest clarifications. This helps you actually understand them better, spurs on their further openness, and shows them you care.
The more they talk, the less is on you to have to know what to say. When you ask them open questions it’s up to them to have answers and to realize they don’t when they don’t. That creates more doubt in people’s minds than telling them they’re wrong. Being frustrated trying to answer sincere questions can get them thinking because now they care to have answers. It’s the easiest way to get someone to see the problems with their own positions without having to know all the tough answers yourself. You should be willing to do the answering if they want you to put your cards on the table too.
In that context, they will be receptive to your own input, to your sincere questions, to your suggestions offered in a spirit of camaraderie. And if they ask for your opinions then they won’t feel like you’re pushing something on them when you give them. They are mentally opening themselves to hearing you and can blame themselves if they don’t like what they hear. They asked for it.
This should be a general rule everyone in life knows and obeys 99% of the time: don’t give advice unless it’s necessary as part of your job or unless you are asked.
If people want your opinion, usually they’ll ask for it. If they’re struggling with something you can volunteer to them that you’re there for them no matter what they need. Then they can decide in their own time if you are the person they feel comfortable turning to. And if they do, let them lead the way. Ask them what they need. Let them talk. Listen. If they need you to do tangible errands for them and that’s it, just do those things for them and that’s it. If they want to just express their feelings and think aloud with you as a sounding board, then just let them talk.
Ask if they want your advice before giving it. Sometimes people just want to express themselves. They want to vocalize how they’re hurting and be heard. They don’t want solutions. They don’t want you to make their pain go away. Sometimes the only thing you can do to help them get through their pain is be a loving presence while they vent it out of their system. So be careful. Don’t give your advice if it makes them uncomfortable.
And when your advice is going to draw on your faith, think carefully. You can say, “for me, I found that x, y, or z spiritual thing made a big difference”. Ask them if they are interested in your advice coming from a spiritual perspective before just presuming. There are ways to translate many things into secular or philosophical or psychological terms or into the terms of their own religion, and you can honor them if that makes them more comfortable by talking to them like that. Explicitly mention that you’re aware of any differences in beliefs and values you may be coming from, and affirm them in not sharing your outlook before offering your advice from within your experience and Christian perspective on it.
If your advice is good and if your life is a good reflection on the value of your faith, then leave it to them, in their less vulnerable moments, to reflect on what that means that your faith is part of you and you’re such a great person. Who knows? Maybe if they routinely hear from you a way of looking at the world that makes sense to them, they will eventually want to learn more about how you see the world and ask the kinds of spiritual questions you’re dying to hear from them. But let them figure that out at their own pace. And love them and try to empower them where they are, whether they ever start expressing a desire to know Jesus or not.
From an ethical perspective, I think you have to have trust that a morally perfect God can save people without you acting in exploitative and manipulative ways that try to twist people’s moments of emotional vulnerability to get them to make commitments they’re not emotionally ready for or didn’t think through rationally.
People are extremely complicated. If you are walking through the world categorizing everyone you meet into two categories–True Christians vs. The Unsaved–you are not only being shamefully judgmental, but you are risking alienating yourself from those you want to see saved. If you keep in mind what you share with people you will find much more common ground to win them and you will not underestimate the number of openings you have. If you’re a theist in America, you can take as your starting point that ~80-95% of people already believe in God. Even if you feel like a minority for being an unusually hardcore Christian while the majority seems only like they’re nominal Christians, you have this commonality to work from.
And you shouldn’t underestimate that less involved Christians are often still Christians in some robust sense that makes them under certain circumstances interested in talking about God and matters of faith. All they need to know is that you are an awesome person and serious about your faith, and they will come to you if they feel like they need you. You can wait for them. Rather than exude an air of superiority as though you’re a real Christian and they’re not, just treat them like a fellow Christian, just as much a Christian as you are–but one who doesn’t like to talk about that much.
Take it from an atheist, some people who haven’t been spotted in a church in a decade can become virulently defensive of God or those more devout than they are. It’s shocking to those of us who were raised to associate strength of belief with outward shows of commitment. But different Christians express their faith at different times and in different ways. It is impossible to guess what it does or does not mean to any given Christian. So, again, don’t judge your brother or sister in Christ. You likely know very little about their heart of hearts. Treat them like a fellow Christian who lets them know in subtle ways they’d be interested in, that if they ever want to talk about spiritual matters you’d love that. Many nominal believers, when they are not alienated by your contempt for them or by your inability to leave your faith out of anything, actually admire you and overestimate your holiness, your strength of conviction, etc. Heck, even a lot of secular people admire these character traits in you. Some even wish they could be people of faith. So don’t push them away.
Don’t be the Christian who tries to wrangle anyone into discussions about faith or tries to turn your entire common spaces–your workplace, your living room, your school, your book club, your government, etc.–into specifically Christian contexts. Don’t try to rope everyone into prayers or other acts of worship or acknowledgment of Jesus not everyone may be comfortable with. Respect people’s rights of conscience. Bosses and teachers and legislators who try to force religious participation into their workplaces, classrooms, and public proceedings and laws are bullying authoritarians who don’t respect other people’s spirituality or autonomy. Make it so all participation in Christianity is free and chosen by all the participants. When you try to coerce people into reading Bible verses or being part of group prayers or following specifically Christian laws that don’t have secular justifications, etc., people rightly learn that you don’t respect boundaries and are willing to impose on them rather than love and respect them. They rightly infer you want favored status for your religion and don’t care about their views or values.
I know, and emotionally understand very well, that you want all the world to be infused with Christ. You may want everything to do to reflect him, proclaim him, and be given over to him. But you have to find ways of doing that that honor that for other people a wide range of activities are about something else and not Jesus and they shouldn’t have to feel about it like you do. There are ways to make your work, your education, your participation in sports personally ways of worshipping God without having your co-workers, your classmates, or your teammates have to talk about Jesus or pray when they don’t want that; when they just want to work, learn, or play in their own way, according to their own values.
Take seriously that atheists are atheists and not just nominal believers. When atheists have strong intellectual and, even, emotional aversions to the Christian faith, this is not because we “are mad at God”. It’s because they really really don’t believe in God and Christianity. If we are mad, we are mad at the pernicious influence of both bad Christians and what we think are bad Christian ideas. It does no good to just quote the Bible at us. We are completely impervious to that. Not to be harsh–but it only makes me feel like laughing and pitying you when you quote the bible at me with an air of authority demanding that I quaver before God’s might. Unlike nominal believers, deep down we atheists just don’t find the Bible compelling. We do not believe it is authoritative. A lot of us think it’s wicked. And we already know plenty about the Gospel. If you want to engage us, you have to meet our objections to it. Many of us were formerly as devout as you are. Almost all of us grew up in a culture saturated with Christianity. Atheists score higher on religious literacy tests than Christians do.
So, don’t waste your time talking about what does not interest us. Take the opportunity to talk to us about what does interest us.
Don’t ignore our rational concerns, interests, and preoccupations or you will be wasting your time. Those of us atheists who like to discuss and argue about religion talk explicitly about what sincerely matters to us. It’s where our hearts really are. We don’t talk about evolution and religious abuses and secularism because we’re secretly mad at our dads. We care about precisely the things we talk to you about. You disrespect and insult us when you refuse to talk about what actually interests us about your faith–the questions of its truth and goodness. And you squander your opportunity to get us to engage with you. This is our point of contact with you. You may not like this. You might rather talk to us about your faith in a way that skips all these intellectual matters and attacks our hearts, but these are the things that matter to us. When you find one of us who is rather willing to have an argument with you, be grateful we are interested in talking to you about your faith. Rejoice! So what if you don’t like the reason we want to talk about your faith. You cannot run around desperate to talk to non-Christians and then run and hide just because the ones who most want to talk to you are the ones with strong opinions against you and who want to convince you of things too. You want the conversation with non-Christians. You’ve got it with us. Nobody said it would be the way you want it to be.
You’re just going to alienate that other segment of atheists, the ones who just want to be left alone and who, accordingly, get angry at everyone who tries to debate theism or to change others’ religions, be they theists or atheists. Those of us who want to play? Who invite arguments about theism’s truth and the value of your faith? We are a golden opportunity for you to talk about your beliefs. Because not only will we talk to you, we will often challenge you.
We will do our damnedest to make you think about your Bible from a different perspective and to think through philosophical issues you may have never thought of. But you have to be willing to accept that we are different from you. Our common ground is our willingness to take these issues seriously and have the discussions. Our common ground is points of contact from living in a shared world, having shared access to logic and common sense experience and history books and scientific discoveries, etc. We have in common our rational capacities, our human emotions, and our civilization’s wealth of well-determined knowledge. Most of all, many of us apostates share a deep affinity with you though it may be obscured. One doesn’t unlearn all of one’s spiritual habits and intensities. One does not easily erase one’s deep habituation and past experiences. Make no mistake: much of our passion against the church is the final, atheistic, form that our Christianity took. We are still your brothers and sisters, though estranged and disowning our Father who art in heaven on grounds that he turned out not to be real and would have been a terrible guy were he real. Work with us on our common bases for connecting as people and do so without an air of superiority.
Some of us are very familiar with the Bible and theology, especially those of us who were serious Christians before, and so we may want to have vigorous arguments with you about what the Bible really says and whether Christian theology can even make internally consistent sense (let alone be the best account of reality, compared to others). So, have those discussions about the Bible if that’s what we are interested in.
And when you discuss ideas with us, take an actual interest in the questions for their own sakes. If you want to say the universe needed a creator in order to exist, then go learn about cosmology in its own right, for its own sake. If you want to talk about morality needing the Christian God, study philosophical ethics. If you want to question evolution, first learn all the ins and outs of what the theory entails and why professional biologists unanimously accept it as true. If you want to explain the parts of the Bible that look terrible on the surface, then study them and come up with real accounts of why they’re not what they look like.
What I’m saying is don’t indulge in discussions of truth with an indifference to the truth. Don’t make it clear that all you care is about saying whatever will pacify the atheist and get them to drop their complaints. Metaphysics, physics, ethics, biology, history, biblical studies–these are all areas that require rational rigor to be understood well. They’re not arenas for bullshitting. If you want to make appeals to these areas of inquiry to support or defend your faith then take them seriously in their own right as areas of inquiry and not just as tools for dispelling doubts.
If you take an open minded and sincere approach to learning and care about intellectual issues for their own sakes, then you can be someone with ideas interesting in their own right, as someone who exudes genuine curiosity and is taken as sincere when making arguments, and as someone who can be trusted to admit when they don’t know things. If you take an interest in the areas of inquiry that make some people doubt your faith, you will be more likely to avoid falling into a fearful and defensive posture with respect to your faith. You will become more okay with not knowing things. And you will not come off like an insincere salesperson who will say anything to make a sell and convince no one who knows the slightest bit about what you’re pretending to talk about.
I have had multiple Christians approach me to talk about our differences and then, at the start, inform me that they were never going to change their minds. How can anyone possibly think that such closedmindedness is a virtue? Thank goodness outside of religious contexts, almost no one ever accepts such blatant, confessed, willful refusal to improve one’s opinions as legitimate. We confrontational atheists don’t take it as legitimate when it’s within religion either. You shouldn’t either. If you want to change us, you should be open to being changed too, if that’s what’s best. If you’re afraid of that process, then you think atheists have more power and sway than God does. Which itself bespeaks a lack of sincere belief.
There can be only two results of engaging us like this. One is that you improve your understanding of your faith’s truth by seeing what it must mean in intricate new ways. The other is that you conclude, as I did, that your faith was wrong and you correct your opinions accordingly and improve your life based on a better understanding of the world. In either case, you help atheists grow by giving us your best and most honest shot at showing us wrong, and you may just win some of us over if Jesus really is the Word that explains all reality.
For more advice on how to reach out to atheists, see my popular post Top 10 Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists.
Even if you think that Christianity, as you interpret it, is the only way to Heaven, you need to respect where other religious people are coming from if you’re going to engage them fruitfully and ethically. In particular, you should be well versed in the history of Christian persecution of the Jews. You need to know why Jews are so mistrustful of Christian attempts to convert them. You need to take seriously the ways that Christians created and exploited anti-semitism and all the evils that that led to. You need to take seriously that Jews have their own way of reading the Old Testament. That they will not just accept your paradigm for interpreting it at face value. You need to respect the fact that Judaism didn’t stop after Jesus. Yes, as far as your interpretation of Christianity goes, Christianity is the true fulfillment of the Jewish religion. But that’s not how they look at it. And they have 2,000 more years of tradition that means a lot to them. Remaining ignorant of its contents while trying to appeal to what you take to be the common ground of the Old Testament is going to be a disaster.
And being a Jew is, for many Jews, as much about identity as it is about belief. The prospect of changing one’s identity feels outright invasive to many people. That’s what you’re up against. Just treating Jews like fellow believers in the Old Testament who you want to inform about the Messiah is most likely going to blow up in your face. If your ancestors didn’t go through the Holocaust, it’s profoundly insulting for you to talk to Jews about how you’re just a Jew who believes in Jesus or do any similarly offensive and ignorant things that some Evangelicals do when talking to Jews.
If you want to share your faith with Jewish people, then invite comparative discussions with Jews who take an interest. Take an active interest in learning how they read the Old Testament and in that context you can talk about how you see differences from your Christian reading, in a non-pushy way.
With any other religion, too, these comparative discussions, aimed at understanding are paramount. Many Evangelical Christians get extremely defensive when someone tries to challenge their faith. They get overly protective of their children being exposed in the slightest to ideas that might undermine their beliefs. Well, people of other faiths are the same. And you should respect that and do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Have confidence that if your faith is true and superior that just going comparing faiths in an in-depth way with someone of a different faith will spark this realization, without you having to present yourself as the enlightened one there to save others. And–of course, it should go without saying that you should follow all the earlier principles and not try to push or manipulate people of other faiths into these conversations. Just when they are interested and receptive, this is how you should approach them.
And treating Humanists and other atheists with this same sort of comparative, learning spirit can do a world of good. We want you to understand us. Some of us won’t fight you about religion and will only talk to you if you engage with us in a way that is concerned with mutual learning. And those confrontational ones among us who are willing to get in the dirt and fight over the existence of God and the goodness of Christianity will also appreciate interest you take in understanding us.
The more you listen to those whose minds you want to change, the more you can speak to their real thinking. When you impute to people beliefs and values they don’t hold, they just write you off as ignorant and arrogant. They figure they have nothing to learn from you. It’s hard to learn people’s viewpoints as they actually are. It’s hard to speak to what they really think. It’s hard to refute the best arguments, the ones that convince them. But if you do anything less, you won’t fool them. They will ignore your accusations as bigotry. They will be unfazed when you beat a strawman they didn’t actually believe in.
Your first and most important mission if you want to impact people’s lives for Christ is to become fluent in their actual views and values and speak directly to them, without self-serving evasions that make things easier for you but will mean nothing to them.
Does this one sound like a little too much to ask? Who is this atheist to tell Christians to love their enemies? Is he actually trying to help you evangelize or sabotage all your hope of winning?
If you don’t like the idea, take it up with Jesus.
From an outsider’s (and former insider’s) perspective, nothing is more corrosive right now to the church than your obsession with being acknowledged, with being powerful, and with drawing tribal lines. It is killing your ability to spread the Gospel. Too many in the church are placing whatever creates a hard distinction from “the world” at the center of Christian identity instead of a spirit of love. Hard right wing politics over gays and abortion are now becoming definitive of Christian identity rather than the belief in the Gospel. When I was a believer, I know we weren’t like this. Most of our time was consumed with loving Jesus and each other, not hating anybody–even if what the media paid primary attention to was our political stances. But I hear in the rhetoric of too many Christians a strange attitude that turns opposition to recognizing the validity of gay relationships into the ultimate test of orthodoxy. There is little biblical justification for overblowing the importance of this, especially as you show little desire in forcing remarriages of divorced people (Jesus was actually unequivocally against divorces when there’s been no adultery) or in living by the book of Leviticus in any of a hundred ways. It looks self-serving when the ethical views the church is most insistent upon are those that the older leaders of the church are least affected by. The church is sneering at young people’s sexual experimentation in a way that serves the monogamously married elders, it sneers at gays in a way that does little to challenge the heterosexual majority.
Rather than loving your (perceived) enemies, you are claiming persecution every time you are asked to treat them equally and civilly under the law and in polite society. You are looking for ways to have antagonisms with feminists, with gays, with those who cry out against hundreds of years of systemic racial injustice, with atheists who plead for a secular government that doesn’t favor your religion. Rather than learning to appreciate those who force you to mature in your faith and learning to respect their admirable traits even in the midst of adversity, you’re participating in the politics of resentment and zero sum games.
You are becoming known for your preferences for only people like you, for your unwillingness to so much as accommodate others different from you without crying persecution, and for your petty intolerance of the poor, the weak, the feminine, and all the marginalized in our society.
You publicly identify whole groups of people as your enemies and wage legal and social war against them and their dignity. You leverage your considerable power with closed mindedness against everyone who lives in a way outside traditional boxes. And, all the while, you cry persecution when you’re not able to impose the ethics that only your faith justifies on those who don’t share your faith.
If you want to effectively give the Gospel, you must repent and start loving your enemies as Jesus commanded, before you lose all credibility outside of the tribal boundary markers you are so fiercely asserting and defending.