Approaching Atheists: Getting to Know Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

[“Approaching Atheists” is a series of posts on understanding atheists and atheism, and learning how to talk to atheists in your life. For more on the motivation behind these posts, see my intro here. – j]

Since the Christian kids and the atheist kids don’t often sit together at life’s lunchroom table, there are a lot of misconceptions between the two groups. So for the first part of our “Approaching Atheists” series, I asked Jennifer F.–former atheist and blogger at conversiondiary.com–to answer a few general questions about atheist mindsets and attitudes.

We’re not trying to establish that atheists are a homogeneous group and meeting any one atheist is just like meeting any other. But people who share a belief system are likely to share certain thoughts or characteristics. So, I’d like to take a look at what those characteristics might be, and thereby give Christians some context to help them relate when they run into atheists at PTA meetings or spin class. Now, on to the questions!

If we’re going to talk about “dealing with atheists,” can we make a safe, blanket statement about what kind of person we’ll be dealing with? I know that we’re all unique and special like little snowflakes, but is it possible to create a character sketch of a garden variety atheist? Or are there at least some characteristics that atheists are likely to share?

I don’t think there’s any way to make a general statement about everyone who does not believe in God, but there are some common characteristics I’ve noticed among people who openly label themselves atheists:

One of the things you see a lot in those circles is a heavy emphasis on intelligence. A common albeit usually unspoken belief among atheists is that to be intelligent is the ultimate goal. I’ve often wondered if the reason for that is that, as an atheist, the main way you discern which animals have value (e.g. why a man has more value than, say, a catfish) is the ability to display intelligence. So there develops an unspoken feeling that the more intelligent you are, the closer you are to achieving the very pinnacle of what any lifeform could ever desire.

Another thing I experienced that was shared among quite a few atheists I knew well was a certain type of underlying pain. Though pain exists across the spectrum of human experience, I think there is a particular hidden angst that comes uniquely with the belief that there’s nothing transcendent about human life. In my case anyway, it came from a sense of bitterness that humans would have consciousness when we’re nothing more than chemical reactions. There was a part of me deep down inside that felt like life was, on a fundamental level, a great tragedy; that it was a bitter irony that an object, infinitesimally small and insignificant compared to the rest of the universe, would be aware of its own nothingness. It’s not something I felt every moment of every day, but it was there, and it caused me more than a few sleepless nights.

So, while that certain type of pain and the emphasis on intelligence were two things that I experienced personally and observed widely among people who openly label themselves atheists, I want to emphasize that I don’t mean this to be a definitive statement about all atheists. It’s impossible to know the heart of any one person, of course.

Again, recognizing that it’s hard to make a blanket statement, what is the attitude of our garden variety atheists toward Christians? Do they see them as harmless nuisances or do they hate them like the Hatfields hate the McCoys? Or something in between? And what do you think are the major factors that have gone into forming that attitude?

It depends on the person. Even for the atheists who have a dislike of Christians, it depends on what sort of Christians you’re talking about. I don’t think I’ve ever known an atheist who held contempt for Christians who keep to themselves about their beliefs; but the Christians who are vocal about what they believe, especially those who would like to incorporate Judeo-Christian ethics into government and public life, are widely held in contempt among atheists.

I suspect one of the main causes of that is that a lot of atheists are truly perplexed at how a person could believe in an unseen “God,” to the point that they suspect that few people really do (this was the case with me). So I think a lot of their distaste comes from a sense that religious people only use their beliefs when it’s convenient for them, that they use God as a sort of Trump Card in the Sky to get their way. I think this is one of the reasons why it’s so galling to atheists when it comes out that people who were vocally evangelizing for Christianity actually had very worldy lifestyles – there’s this feeling of “I knew it! I knew these guys didn’t believe this stuff!” When atheists see Christians trying to convert others yet glossing over Jesus’ more difficult teachings in their own lives, it seems like they want to be right (or to gain power, manipulate people, get status, etc.) more than they truly believe that Jesus is their Lord and Savior.

Are atheists evangelistic? I mean, are they looking to create converts? Do they want to engage Christians or just avoid them?

It’s probably safe to say that most people who publicly label themselves atheists are at least somewhat evangelistic. I think it’s a natural human tendency to want to speak out against the ideologies that you believe cause harm to individuals and society, and to try to spread what you think works.

Is atheism something that is foremost in the mind of an atheist? Can we make a parallel between Christianity and atheism in terms of how much they influence the lives of their adherents? A Christian’s faith plays a big role in his daily routine, influencing his decisions and affecting how he interacts with people. Can you say the same thing about an atheist’s atheism? Or, once a person has decided to reject religion, does he just tuck that part of his life away and forget about it?

My guess is that it depends on whether a person was religious growing up: if an atheist used to be religious but came to embrace atheism later in life, I think it’s more likely that he’d think frequently about being an atheist. I think that atheists with nonreligious backgrounds think about it less often. Since I was never religious growing up, I didn’t think about it much unless I was arguing with Christians about something. When faced with ethical dilemmas I wouldn’t think “what should I do according to the atheist rule book?” just “what should I do?” I guess you could say that I went with my gut most of the time. I felt like I had a pretty clear sense of right and wrong, even though it wasn’t written down anywhere.

When a person declares that he is an atheist, is it safe to assume that he knows what he’s talking about? By that I mean, has he probably spent a lot of time in contemplation about it, or is it more likely that he’s a cynic who just hasn’t heard anybody make a good case for the existence of God yet? How often are atheists people who are mad at God, and they’re expressing that anger by refusing to believe in Him?

I can only speak from my experience here, but most of the atheists I’ve known have come to their beliefs after a lot of exploration and contemplation. This is of course a sweeping generalization, but I would say it’s safe to assume that most self-proclaimed atheists have pretty solid, well-thought-out arguments for why they don’t believe in God.

[I think this is an important point for Christians to remember: don’t think that an atheist is an atheist just because he hasn’t thought about religion. It’s safer to assume that they have thought about it quite a lot. Nothing bugs me more than a soccer fan who tells me, “Oh, if you don’t like soccer, that means you just don’t understand it.” No, no… I think I’ve got the gist of it. I just don’t like it. The onus is on you to explain why I should like it. – j]

Sometimes you might encounter an atheist who hasn’t thoroughly examined Christianity or other religions yet looks around at all the suffering and cruelty in the world, sees all the terrible things done in the name of religion throughout history, and feels like he simply does not need any further information: the existence of these things precludes the existence of God. Case closed. These folks are the most likely to become angry at the mere mention of the possibility of God, responding with a feeling of, “Oh yeah, well, your ‘God’ who supposedly loves us allowed [insert most terrible story of cruelty and horror that CNN has covered in past year].” I don’t think they’re secretly angry at God as much as they’re angry that anybody could try to tell them that there’s a loving God with all the bad things you see in the world.

There are also atheists who base their beliefs mostly on bad experiences with religion, so when you ask why they don’t believe in God they refer more to memories of bad behavior by religious people they knew rather than any big theological arguments. Understandably, these people are also sensitive in varying degrees to the topic of God since they’ve been hurt by people who claimed to follow him. I think people with this background are probably some of the most motivated to evangelize for atheism, since they’ve seen first-hand the bad things that can be done in the name of religion.

And then, of course, there are the people who just don’t see any evidence whatsoever for God’s existence, who may or may not fit into any of the above categories. There are plenty of atheists out there to whom believing in God makes as much sense as believing in the Tooth Fairy. They react with bewilderment more than with anger when people try to talk to them about God. When Christians try to evangelize to them it would be like if someone came up to you and said, “Jason, I want to talk to you about the Tooth Fairy and the role she plays in your life. Have you accepted her as the fairy of all your teeth?” I don’t mean to be flippant – that’s really how a lot of people hear it. I fell into this category.

Where do atheists look for guidance on right and wrong? Tradition? Law? Philosophy? Or do they spend much time thinking about it at all? And I mean in both the big picture, moral ethics sense and the small-bore, day-to-day, “how should I respond to someone who pisses me off in traffic” sense.

This is another one that varies drastically by individual. A lot of atheists I know are well-versed in philosophy and could respond with a fascinating discourse in which they clearly articulate the foundation for their moral code. I think a lot of people, however, are content to just try to “be a good person” (broadly defined) and leave it at that. As I said in question #4, I went with my gut on ethical dilemmas large and small and didn’t feel the need to have any written set of rules of right and wrong to refer to.

However, I quickly encountered a sticky gray area that didn’t feel right. For example: when I was in college some professor said that it’s worse to kill a pig than a newborn baby since pigs are smarter and more aware of their surroundings. Not that I had zero hesitation about killing pigs, but it seemed like an absurdity to suggest that that would be worse than killing a newborn child. Yet when I tried to defend my horror from a purely atheistic perspective, something didn’t feel right. Sure, I could make a case that it was wrong: we’re evolved not to kill members of our own species, our DNA leads us to be opposed to the killing of human children because we’re programmed to want to pass our genes on to the next generation, humans as a species are more complex and intelligent than pigs, etc. But I found that all the talk about genes and chemical reactions didn’t fully capture what I felt inside when I thought about the professor’s proposition. I kept wanting to appeal to this strange moral code that was written on my heart. There was this strong sense that the suggestion was wrong objectively; that it was undeniably, irrefutably wrong according to a moral code that transcended this world, that was extant and true regardless of human opinions or social constructs or evolved behaviors.

My personal experience was that when I tried to discern a moral code based on a purely atheistic perspective, borrowing nothing from Judeo-Christian tradition, taking nothing for granted in terms of what is “right” and “wrong,” I became increasingly uncomfortable with where it led.

One final note I’d like to add: I hope that my answers to these questions might help our Christian readers gain an understanding of their atheist friends, family members and neighbors. However, these are just my opinions based on personal experience. I don’t have a Ph.D. in Atheism Studies and can’t speak for all atheists. I hope that my answers to these and future questions will offer some good food for thought and, hopefully, will be only a starting point for discussion among believers and atheists.

Yes indeed. There’s a lot of great insight here, but remember that it is just a starting point, and as Jen stressed several times, generalities are no substitute for learning what’s in the heart of a particular person.

So, I encourage you to use this as a springboard for engaging more fully with the atheists you may know. And speaking of engaging, if anyone has anything to add, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Approaching Atheists: Getting to Know Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

  1. Jason, I’m so glad you and Jen are doing these interviews. As someone who is married to a gentle, moral and caring man who also happens to be an atheist, I think it’s incredibly important for we Christians to acknowledge that those who believe differently are not our enemies — they are individuals and brothers who care deeply about the fate of the human race, just as we do.

    Jen is very right to insist there is no one-size-fits-all description of atheists, and no one perfect method for bringing them to Christ, either. The best way to evangelize is still to live the Gospel message in our own lives, share our beliefs without shame, and pray for Christ to reveal Himself.

    Wonderful post!

  2. Hi, Jason, really I enjoyed reading this interview. It engaged me enough I hope you don’t mind my long comment.

    The first thing that caught my attention was this claim within one of your questions: A Christian’s faith plays a big role in his daily routine…

    I don’t know that that is true of all or even most Christians. I went to Church a majority of Sundays of my childhood and never got that impression from the other churchgoers.

    I found the question about how much contemplation atheists do before assigning that label to themselves insightful. I would agree with Jen that it’s probably a lot. Those who don’t have a firm belief in God, but who have not given it a lot of contemplation, are much more likely to label themselves agnostic, or even as theists (if you’re uncertain of your belief, go with what everyone around you believes, right?), not atheist. (Although of course some agnostics have given it a lot of thought, and decided to stick with agnosticism.)

    Lastly, I believe Jen gave an accurate description of the moral compass of most atheists – but I’d just like to point out that the same things could be said about Christians. To plagiarize what Jen said, a lot of Christians I know are well-versed in philosophy and could respond with a fascinating discourse in which they clearly articulate the foundation for their moral code. I think a lot of religious people, however, are content to just try to “be a good person” (broadly defined) and leave it at that, generally just going with their gut on ethical dilemmas.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  3. I don’t doubt that most ateists have given their position a lot of thought, but I wouldn’t be willing to bet that most atheists understand the faith. I suspect that most Christians don’t really understand the faith intellectually either, though.

    Concider, for example, while there was a time when one couldn’t go grocery shopping without getting dragged into a debate on whether or not the Son is co-eternal with the Father, (brownie points if folks can name the controversy I’m referring to.) how many Christians today could explain why that question might be important, much less explain the answer that was finally arrived at?

    Jon

  4. Excellent post and interview!

    I could echo much of what Jen said, given my background of atheism and conversion to Christianity. A lot of what she outlined summed up where I was with atheism, too.

    I’ll be following your series with interest — thanks.

  5. The professor’s comment that it would be worse to kill a pig than a newborn (human) baby is similar to other comments I have seen elsewhere. Had I been in the class, I would have asked him, “Suppose it is your newborn baby we’re proposing to kill. How does that change the proposition?”

    It’s all very well to talk as the professor did when you have nothing to lose.

  6. I don’t think the Professor’s comment about pigs and newborn babies is being understood correctly. It’s reprehensible to kill a human baby, but a grown pig is more self-aware than a human baby. Is it not then just as reprehensible to kill the pig? It wasn’t about the lack of importance of humans, but more about the lack of importance we usually prescribe to animals.

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