Unchurched: Lee Strobel, the Atheist Whisperer

Unchurched: Lee Strobel, the Atheist Whisperer June 27, 2020

Allo allo! Lately, we’ve been talking about Lee Strobel’s 1993 Christian book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and MaryIn it, he pushes very hard on his pre-conversion life as totally-an-atheist-y’all. However, it didn’t take long for me to notice that his version of atheism doesn’t look anything like actual atheism. That striking incongruence gets really dramatically obvious in Chapter 7, “Spiritual Sticking Points.” Lee Strobel might not have created these tropes all by himself, but he sure helped popularize them in his followers’ minds. Even today, we run across evangelicals who think this way. So today, let’s check out  what atheist whisperer Lee Strobel thinks atheists are like — and what he teaches evangelicals about their worst enemies.

the atheist whisperer of mousie toys
(Kim Davies.)

(Previous Lee Strobel posts: The Semi-SalesLee Strobel’s Best Friends; The Coin He Offers; Lee Strobel’s Friendship EvangelismFriendship EvangelismThis Action Plan Doesn’t WorkTickling Evangelical EarsThis Book’s Revealing EndorsementsThe Many Lies Lee Strobel Tells About Unchurched Harry and MaryA Non-Portrait of the Captain (1-4)Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8)Seeker-Sensitive Churches (9-12)Martyrbation Ahoy (13-15)The Original Listicle. Page numbers come from the 1993 paperback edition of the book.)

The Atheist Whisperer.

To start, let me explain why I mockingly refer to Lee Strobel as an atheist whisperer.

He’s one of those evangelical hucksters who styles himself as an expert in All Things Atheist. His expertise goes far beyond simply claiming that oh-so-trendy ex-atheist background before his miraculous conversion, however. Oh no. He also claims to teach evangelicals how to successfully persuade and recruit atheists. By better understanding atheists and how they think, goes his logic, evangelicals can engage with them far more successfully.

He surely knows that his tribe will never, ever critically examine his testimony’s claims. And what’s bizarre is that he undercuts his own claims in his actual own testimony, so it’s not like they need to go outside of it to discover the stuff he flat-out lies about.

But evangelicals seriously think Lee Strobel has given them the keys to their daddy’s Porsche or something with his work.

“Skepticism Woven Into My DNA.”

Wikipedia describes Lee Strobel as “an atheist” before his conversion. In Unchurched, he repeatedly uses that term to describe himself.

Decision Magazine describes him before conversion as “a committed atheist.” In their 2015 interview, Strobel even tries to make his family background sound atheistic:

I have skepticism woven into my DNA [LOL NO]. My knee-jerk reaction to Christianity was that it was ridiculous and not worth checking out [LOL HARDLY]. The idea was absurd. As I studied more in the area of atheism [LOL HE DID NOT], I became more cemented in that view.

(Also, he repeats in that interview the well-debunked lie that he conducted his “Case for Christ” pseudo-investigation before his own conversion and that this pseudo-investigation is what finally persuaded him of the truth of Christianity.)

At the end of the Decision interview, he refers to himself as an ex-atheist again:

To maintain my atheism, I would have had to swim upstream against that evidence.

Everywhere, always, he sells himself as an ex-atheist who only converted because Christianity contained loads of evidence supporting its salespeople’s claims.

However, Unchurched does not support anything like this self-description.

The Truth About Lee Strobel’s Testimony.

Anybody can read his testimony, or at least an early and obviously curated version of it, in Unchurched.

At no point whatsoever in this book does Lee Strobel describe any kind of atheism in his life. He uses the word “skeptic” for the most part to describe his past self, but there’s not even any sign of skepticism in his testimony. Seriously. He never actually questioned anything about Christianity.

In Unchurched, we learn that Lee Strobel grew up in an extremely fervent, faithful Lutheran home. Church bored him to tears and seemed utterly irrelevant to his life. Consequently, he disengaged in college the moment religion became optional.

He met his now-wife Leslie when they were 14 years old. Her parents were also thoroughly Christian (remember the ickie father-in-law story?). Leslie and her family sporadically attended a Methodist church. According to her husband, Leslie never actually rejected or even questioned Christianity either.

After marrying Leslie and finishing his education in the early/mid 1970s, Lee threw himself into journalism as a career. He makes himself sound like an unbelievable skidmark of a human being — just utterly lacking in empathy and living the whole “Dirty Laundry” dream.


A 1985 lip-dub of “Dirty Laundry” by Global TV in Toronto.

In 1979, someone invited Leslie to visit Willow Creek Community Church. There, she converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. The couple’s marriage deteriorated considerably until Lee converted a while later.

“A Well-Known Atheist.”

In no way whatsoever does Lee Strobel demonstrate that he has ever had the faintest idea what atheism involves, much less that he’s qualified to hawk himself as an atheist whisperer to his tribe. He wasn’t an atheist before his conversion to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, just a lapsed Christian who’d never given much thought to the topic of disbelief. He considered devotions a waste of time and church itself irrelevant.

As Unchurched reveals, he found Willow Creek to be very different place from his childhood memories. The utter gullibility and misplaced trustfulness of evangelicals probably pleased him quite a bit too. At Willow Creek, he finally found the perfect arena for his blend of showmanship and self-promotion: an entire cult built around dramatic “before” stories like the ones he spun about himself.

So in Chapter 7 of Unchurched, when Lee Strobel describes a lunch he had “with a well-known atheist,” he knew his tribe wouldn’t ask who that was. Nor would they ever question the absolutely bizarre behavior of this other person. Of course, Strobel provides no clues at all about who this “well-known atheist” might be. He knew his own tribe wouldn’t follow up on the tale, but a real skeptic absolutely would.

As we go into this story, we need to remember that it’s very unlikely that this lunch went anything like Lee Strobel describes. If apologetics’ main task is hiding contradictory evidence, then evangelists’ main task may well be concealing the true extent of their constant failures from their customers.

“Spiritual Sticking Points.”

Here, I’ll refer to Strobel’s lunch partner as M.A. (for mystery atheist, natch).

Lee Strobel, atheist whisperer, describes his lunch with M.A. to illustrate what he calls “spiritual sticking points.” These are simply hang-ups in people’s psyches that prevent them from accepting what evangelicals mistakenly think is all the PROOF YES PROOF they offer for their claims.

This concept Strobel describes sounds superficially like antiprocess. But in actual antiprocess, someone confronts valid information that’s challenging to their self-image or beliefs, so they deflect it away or negate it in various ways. In this lunch, Strobel presents a number of manipulative arguments used in lieu of evidence, which M.A. obviously rejects — in a downright weird way.

At the end, Strobel concludes that M.A. just doesn’t wanna accept DA TROOF that he’s been shown. In reality, if we’re presented with lackluster or insufficient evidence to support a claim, then obviously we reject the claim. It has nothing to do with hangups and everything to do with having decent critical-thinking skills.

During this supposed lunch, Lee Strobel never provides M.A. with sufficient credible evidence for his claims, so he doesn’t get to declare that someone suffered a “sticking point” in rejecting his sales pitch.

Fisking the Most Hilarious Straw Atheist in the World.

That said, M.A. is seriously the funniest straw atheist I’ve ever heard claimed by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Lee Strobel himself comes off as a smarmy hard-sales used-car salesman stereotype, but our get-a-load-of-THIS-guy cam caught some great moments on both sides.

get-a-load-of-THIS-guy cam
Wayne’s World.

Seriously, get a load of this atheist whisperer (p. 103):

Once I was having lunch with a well-known atheist, and I decided to ask him point-blank: “Why don’t you believe in God?” He replied, “Because I don’t believe in superstition.”

“Hey, that’s great!” I said. “Neither do I. We have something in common!”

oh no lee, what is you doin

This is not starting off well.

I tried to explain to him that the dictionary defines superstition as a belief that’s held in spite of evidence to the contrary. But Christianity isn’t like that. It’s a faith that’s consistent with historical evidence.

I’m trying to remember a single time I’ve ever heard someone say “I tried to explain to him” without coming off like a total prat. However, I’m coming up dry.

Also, if one single thing Strobel claimed here was true, this universe and world would look so, so, so different.

However, M.A. wasn’t buyin’ what Lee Strobel was sellin’:

“Superstition!” he exclaimed with a wave of his hand. “I still say it’s just a silly superstition.”

I’m surprised he didn’t also throw in a HAW HAW for M.A. to guffaw! Or a harrumph!

More importantly, though: if Lee Strobel asked a hundred actual atheists why they rejected his religion, I bet not a single one out of that hundred would answer like that. I bet he could ask thousands, and probably only get a handful of who’d act like M.A. does.

His fans won’t ever question anything about this described encounter.

The Atheist Whisperer Gets Brushed Off, And Rightly So.

However, I could ask so many questions about exactly why he and M.A. were having lunch together at all and exactly how this brush-off occurred.

The occasion really comes off as some kind of large-scale social engagement, perhaps before or after a conference of some sort, not something he and M.A. decided to do as buddies to hang out. The way Strobel tramples M.A.’s obvious boundaries “to ask him point-blank” about his non-belief indicates that this wasn’t acceptable in this venue, and Strobel knew it and didn’t care.

You remember that “I tried to explain to him” thing? That’s Lee Strobel getting shot down in flames before he even gets a chance to launch into his sales pitch. That’s exactly where M.A. re-set his boundaries with an industrial-strength post hole digger. In fact, M.A. made it beyond-clear that he wasn’t interested in hearing anything out of Strobel’s pie-hole.

That whole “I tried to explain” paragraph was Lee Strobel telling his readers what he totally would have said. In Reality-Land, though, it sounds like M.A. completely shut him down.

Moreover, I bet that shutdown happened right after that cringey WELL THE DIKSHUNERRY SEZ… bit left his mouth.

What Evangelicals Would See Here.

As obviously-contrived as this story is, evangelicals would only see the picture their atheist whisperer drew for them. Let me apply the proper fundagelical filters to this scene, then:

One day Lee Strobel ate lunch with a totally famous atheist who totally wouldn’t disavow this entire anecdote if he found out about it (or worse, relate a completely different story about this encounter).

Strobel realized that his companion, M.A., desperately needed to hear a sales pitch. So he barreled ahead with it. Y’all, he was so valiant! Oh yes! He told this atheist everything he needed to know. However, after being confronted with oodles and oodles of Real and True and Honest and Credible TOTALLY FOR REALSIES Real Evidence, M.A. didn’t even want to consider Strobel’s sales pitch even briefly. He waved it all away. SO MEAN!

Gosh, y’all, I guess M.A. is just closed-minded. Some people are just like that, you know, instead of being open-minded — like TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are. Unlike atheists, WE’RE totally willing to go wherever the evidence leads to find DA TROOF. Poor atheists! Thanks be to Jesus that Lee Strobel’s here to be our atheist whisperer, so we can save atheists from getting run over forever by our god’s invisible bus!

It would not ever occur to Lee Strobel’s tribe to get to know any actual atheists. However, it wouldn’t take long for them to notice, while selling to atheists, that Strobel’s strategies never result in sales — or even in the semi-sales he himself experiences only occasionally.

Christian leaders teach their followers to blame all their failures on their marks, or on their own poor execution of strategies. But a few will be jarred by this disconnect.

NO SALE.

Obviously, M.A. drops out of the story after this brief scene. We never see him again that I can tell in this book, nor anywhere else. Lee Strobel uses him to illustrate a concept that was already common in his tribe, hard-heartedness. It’s important that he demonstrate a built-in failure mode to his strategies: if someone flunks a sales pitch with an atheist, it’s likely just cuz that atheist doesn’t wanna convert.

Overall, Strobel’s intellectual dishonesty regarding atheism and atheists really speaks firmly to the validity of his claims. If something requires dishonesty to sell it, then generally it ain’t worth buying. Instead of worrying about atheists, maybe Lee Strobel needs to look to his own serious flaws as a human. Because despite his own testimony’s claims, it’s beyond obvious that Lee Strobel is still a skidmark of a human being.

What better way to gain power in the tribe than by cynically pretending to be an ex-enemy who recognized the inherent superiority of his current tribe?

And then, what’s better than improving on that story by pretending to have conversations with other atheists who aren’t nearly so evolved and discerning as he is? 

NEXT UP: How Lee Strobel teaches his followers to judge and “diagnose” their marks. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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