How Not to Convert an Atheist

In my article “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists“, I outlined a list of things a theist could present that would be likely to convince an atheist of the truth of their particular religion. Since I am an atheist, it is my view that none of these things actually exist, although I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. However, since writing that essay, it occurred to me that what might be more useful is a list of tactics that would not persuade an atheist, or that might make them even less likely to convert. I have listened to the arguments of many proselytizers and have read a fair number of pro-theism apologetics books, and in my experience, many of them make the same mistakes. It is my hope that pointing out to them what they are doing wrong will help reduce the annoyance and frustration experienced by my fellow atheists upon encountering the same fallacious claim for the hundredth time; and certainly, one imagines, theists trying to save our souls would appreciate the feedback, since it will help them learn which of their arguments are ineffective and adjust their tactics accordingly.

  • Don’t tell atheists what they think; let them tell you what they think.
    The single greatest and most common mistake theists make in dialoguing with atheists, in my experience, is to attempt to present the atheist viewpoint themselves and then argue against it. The problem with this is that relatively few theists can accurately depict the atheist viewpoint, and when they try, they often end up presenting nothing but the same old false stereotypes – atheists are nihilists, atheists have no purpose in life, atheists just want to be free of moral restraint, atheists are angry or arrogant, and so on – which are common in apologetic literature, but which do not represent the true beliefs of the vast majority of atheists. The result is that the theist goes to some effort only to set up and then knock down a straw man, while the atheist’s actual position remains untouched. This brings the atheist no closer to converting. If anything, it is far more likely to produce annoyance at the one who would presume to speak for atheists without understanding their views, and make a conversion even less likely.

    To evangelistic theists, my best advice is this: Don’t rely on books written by other theists to tell you what atheists think. Don’t even rely on books written by theists who claim they are ex-atheists. Most such books, based on the ones I have read, cannot be trusted to accurately convey the atheist viewpoint. If you want to learn about a position, there is no substitute for asking people who actually hold that position. If you want to have a productive dialog with an atheist, be sure to assume as little as possible, and whenever it is practical ask them what they think, rather than presuming.

  • Don’t assume that atheists aren’t familiar with the beliefs of your religion.
    Unless you belong to a small sect or an idiosyncratic belief system entirely your own, it is a safe bet that an atheist will have heard of your religion and have at least a fairly good idea of what it teaches. After all, religious messages are ubiquitous in most societies, and many atheists are former believers themselves. Unless asked, don’t bother giving a long sermon explaining the tenets of your belief; most atheists just find such things tedious. Worse yet, do not assume that someone is an atheist only because they have not heard about your religion; this will strike most as condescending and arrogant. (Expecting them to pay for the privilege of learning about your beliefs is right out.) Of course, if an atheist asks what you believe or makes a comment that shows they do not know, feel free to enlighten them.
  • Don’t make assertions you’re not prepared or willing to defend.
    I have encountered theists who seem to sincerely believe that the best way to convert an atheist is to cut and paste a list of arguments from an apologetics website, most of which they do not even understand themselves, or to parrot statements they only vaguely remember having heard and cannot substantiate if asked. Others make sweeping claims and then, when asked to support them with evidence, ignore the request or drop out of the discussion entirely. This is the worst possible way to argue with an atheist. Not only will it not cause them to convert, it is very likely to make them that much more inclined to dismiss similar claims in the future as lacking in substance.

    If you want to convince an atheist that you are knowledgeable and your position is sound, nothing can substitute for an actual debate in which each participant makes points of their own, from their own understanding and in their own words, and responds in detail to their opponent’s claims. If you are asked to provide sources to substantiate one of your points, be ready to do so, and make sure that the sources are reputable. If an atheist provides counterarguments to one of your points, be ready to address them. If you are unprepared or unwilling to do this, then do yourself a favor and do not bother preaching to atheists; it will save both your time and theirs.

  • Don’t ignore sincere questions.
    As in the last point, ignoring or evading honest questions is a very bad idea when dialoguing with an atheist. It will raise in their minds the suspicion not only that you cannot defend your faith (and thus why should they convert at your say-so?), but that the evidence is not there at all. If you feel like you’re being overwhelmed with questions, say so. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. But do not refuse to acknowledge a question, and do not impugn the atheist’s motives for asking it. If a person asks a question, it is probably because they want an answer.
  • Don’t use threats, personal insults, or ad hominem attacks.
    It seems this should go without saying, but unfortunately, I have found that it does need to be said. Using hostile or insulting language, casting aspersions on a person’s sincerity, or implying that they should just believe you because you are far more knowledgeable than them – these are tactics that not only universally fail to sway an opponent, but mark the person attempting them as immature and unworthy of serious consideration. Issuing threats is even worse – and warning a person that they’ll go to Hell if they don’t believe is a threat, even if it isn’t delivered in a threatening tone. As a veteran of many debates, I have observed that threatening or berating a person never causes them to change their mind, but only hardens their position and pushes them further away; and this is a universal human tendency, not just one found among atheists.
  • Don’t try to be an armchair psychologist.
    I find it all too common for proselytizers to attempt to psychoanalyze someone they have just met, or even someone they have never met, confidently speculating on the abusive upbringing, personal tragedy or bad experience with a church that led the person to abandon belief in God and become an atheist out of anger or bitterness. It’s a fool’s errand to try to see into someone else’s mind in this manner; not only that, it will usually be wrong. As already stated, the reasons people become and remain atheists usually have very little relation to the caricatures so common in apologist literature. Not only will this immediately cause an atheist to believe the person doing it has no idea what they’re talking about, it will raise in their mind the suspicion that it is being used as a diversionary tactic to avoid dealing with their actual stated reasons for nonbelief.

    It is as if an atheist accused a theist of believing only because they were brainwashed in childhood, without responding to the arguments the theist actually presented. Would not a theist who was the target of such tactics be justified in believing that their adversary was trying to poison the well of discourse rather than deal with the facts?

  • Don’t ask atheists to do something for you if you’re not prepared to offer the same courtesy in return.
    If you ask an atheist to read a book of your choosing, be willing to read one of their choosing in exchange. If you ask them to go to church with you, be willing to go to a meeting of a local freethought club, church-state separation group, or other event they ask you to attend. Most of all, do not expect them to listen to your arguments and accord them honest consideration if you are not willing to do the same. This should be a matter of common courtesy and basic respect, but there unfortunately are some proselytizers who expect to do all the talking and expect others to do all the listening.

    It should be clear that having others listen to your preaching is not a right, but a privilege – a courtesy which some atheists are willing to grant. When that courtesy goes unreciprocated, we view it as rude and unfair, and a sign that we are being treated as mere targets for conversion rather than human beings with opinions of our own. A debate is a productive give-and-take where each side both presents their own viewpoint and considers the opposing viewpoint in turn, while a sermon is a one-sided presentation in which one person lectures everyone else and expects that their word will go unquestioned. Most atheists, in my experience, will participate in a debate; few will stand still for a sermon.

  • Don’t refuse to acknowledge your mistakes.
    We are all human, and we all make mistakes. This by itself will not necessarily immediately doom any attempt to convert an atheist; what is more important is how you respond when it does happen. In general, atheists value honesty, but look dimly on any attempt by people to appear infallible. Most atheists will be much more impressed if you admit your mistake, accept correction and move on. On the other hand, making a mistake and then doggedly refusing to admit it after being corrected – or worse, repeating the same erroneous claim after its falsity was pointed out – is a surefire way to be ignored. After all, doing this is the sign of a dishonest person, and why should we believe anything a dishonest person says?
  • Don’t assume that any one atheist speaks for all atheists.
    Unlike most varieties of theism, atheism has no sacred text, central authority, or hierarchical organization. Atheism is not a movement organized around a single source, but a diverse group of individuals, most of whom came to that conclusion independently of each other and often for different reasons. Therefore, it should be obvious that atheists may have differing beliefs on a variety of topics, other than the lack of theistic belief which we all have in common by definition.

    No one atheist represents or speaks for all of atheism. Thus, quoting some atheist who holds a controversial opinion, as if that person’s pronouncements were binding on all atheists, is a tactic doomed to failure. Do not, for example, assume that all atheists are supporters of communism (in fact, in my experience, few are); that all atheists are moral relativists (this could not be further from the truth); or that all atheists are pro-choice or politically liberal (many are, but not all).

    This is not to say that reading the writings of other atheists is pointless. On the contrary, it is a very valuable way to begin to gain understanding of this viewpoint, and I highly recommend it to any person seeking to start a dialogue with an atheist. However, there is no guarantee that the opinions expressed by any one atheist will be shared by others. As stated before, you should always allow individual atheists to speak for themselves.

  • Don’t refuse to consider the atheist viewpoint honestly and seriously.
    This may be the most difficult item on this list for many theists, but in many ways, it is the most vital. Many people approach the atheism/theism debate with the attitude that their own viewpoint is the only one worth taking seriously, and that all others are beneath their notice and can be dismissed without further consideration. Whether this belief is explicitly stated or not, it will pervade all the arguments of the person who holds it, and will likely lead to a corresponding reaction in others who can sense that they are being treated with contempt. Simply stated, if you approach an atheist with the attitude that you have nothing to learn from them, you will most definitely not make a convert. Treat their position with respect and give their arguments the honest consideration they deserve, and you will have a right to expect the same in return.

Some readers may feel that the items enumerated on this list are all matters of common courtesy in any dialogue, and not applicable just to atheists. I completely agree with such a sentiment. There is no special way to approach atheists that differs from the way one would ordinarily approach any other person; atheists are human beings just like everyone else, after all. The problem is not that atheists are inherently more difficult to communicate with productively, but that there are many religious organizations that persist in actively spreading misinformation about atheism. These groups are not interested in an open debate or an impartial comparison of the facts; their goal is to retain members by casting the alternatives in a poor light. They have no incentive to give the opposing viewpoint a fair hearing, just as a commercial touting the benefits of a product is not going to objectively list the strengths of its competitors. While these tactics may help keep members in line by convincing them that the alternatives are unpalatable, they often fail utterly when used against real atheists; many believers have found to their surprise and chagrin that we are not the arrogant, amoral misanthropes their preachers have told them we are. Similarly, many assertions that routinely go unquestioned by believers do not hold up against a knowledgeable atheist who asks to see the supporting evidence.

It is my hope that the advice presented in this article will encourage theists to view atheism as a serious, substantive viewpoint whose proponents are worthy of respect, even if they do not agree with it. The unreasoning prejudice that too often arises when people are confronted by viewpoints different from their own – theist against atheist, theist against theist – has been a substantial obstacle to peace and understanding among humanity throughout its history. We must learn to overcome this tendency and instead let reason be our guide. Only when all participants treat each other with the seriousness and respect they deserve can the debate truly begin.

• Back up to The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists