Approaching Atheists: What Can Christians Do?

[“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]

One of the main things I wanted to do with this “Approaching Atheists” tag team event was take the opportunity to ask a former atheist (in this case, Jen of conversiondiary.com) what, if anything, a Christian could have done to encourage her to convert any sooner than she did. Of course, Christians want this for any non-believer, but the question of “How?” is a little more difficult for atheists, who tend to be repelled by the standard Christian witnessing approach. So I asked Jen a couple of questions about what we could’ve done for her and what she would do now that she’s a Christian herself.

When you were an atheist, what could a Christian have said or done to change your mind, or at least get you started down that path, any sooner than you eventually did?

I think those are two ideas worth separating:

Is there anything anyone could have said?
The short answer is no. To believe in God is, ultimately, to believe in Love. You can’t prove to someone else that Love exists — it’s a discovery that requires both the mind and the heart.

Looking back, however, I am surprised at how rarely I heard reason-based cases for God’s existence. Though people are never converted through argument, I think it might have planted some small seed if Christians had focused more on explaining why they believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, what evidence supports the claim that the Resurrection happened, etc. A lot of the arguments I heard were along the lines of “God loves you,” which means nothing to someone who doesn’t believe in God.

Is there anything anyone could have done?
I think there is more hope on this one. When I encountered Christians who were truly Christ-like, it definitely got my attention. In some of the secular circles I hung out in there was a lot of snarkiness, bitterness and deep cynicism. When I would encounter Christians who were calm, peaceful, loving and sincere, it was like a breath of fresh air. You naturally want to find out more about people like that, to know what their secret is. Which brings me to your next question…

As a Christian, having seen both sides, how do you now approach atheists?

One of the most inconvenient realizations in my life as a Christian was when I found out that conversion is God’s work. After my own conversion I was so anxious to share what I’d found with everyone I knew; I had this urge to run out and start telling everyone how wrong they were, to pound my fist on the table and demand that they stop missing out on the peace of Christ. When it was explained to me that *I* could not convert anyone, I realized it was so true; yet it was frustrating and humbling.

When I first thought of what it meant to evangelize, I imagined sitting down with atheist friends and family members and laying out the step-by-step reasons I came to believe that God exists and the Christian claims are true; I pictured it as a fun and challenging intellectual endeavor — which points would I emphasize? What books would I recommend? I couldn’t wait to get started. To hear that the only way I could ever play a role in someone else’s conversion was to die to myself, that my efforts would be far better spent praying and ridding myself of sin and ego than crafting arguments…that didn’t sound so fun anymore. It sounded hard. It sounded like it required a whole lot more from me than just reading and writing and talking. But I see now that, of course, it’s our only option for evangelization.

I once printed out a quote that I keep on my desk that sums up how I try to approach atheists (and, really, everyone):

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

God has done so much in my life, it takes my breath away to even think about it. If I could just share with others even a drop of the peace and joy that he has showered down upon me, I think it would be better than 1,000 good arguments.

This is not to say, however, that there’s no place for pointing out the logical reasons to believe the Christian claims are true — as an atheist, I couldn’t have even considered exploring this religion until I understood that I did not need to set aside science and reason in order to believe its claims. It’s just that that is only the first, very small step, and it doesn’t matter nearly as much as simply showing Christ to others through our actions and words.

I share that struggle with Jen: when I see something that’s not right, it’s hard to resist that urge to leap into the fray rather than just hold my fire and let God do His work. But that level of faith, and reliance on Him instead of ourselves, is what God demands to do pretty much anything worth doing. Clearly, there’s a lot more to reaching our atheist friends than knowing all the clever arguments.

But I’m not giving up on arguing yet! (Sorry, still struggling.) Coming in future installments, we’ll look at do’s and don’ts of engaging atheists when you’re called to do so. And as always, we’d love to hear everybody’s comments.

6 thoughts on “Approaching Atheists: What Can Christians Do?

  1. I don’t think that “arguments”, no matter how carefully crafted, work as a means of faith conversion. After six years, the thing that most “woke” up my sister to my newly found Catholic faith didn’t come from a discussion but from my radically changed behavior. When my sister found out that I was regularly attending 6:30 AM Mass, she was shocked. She knows from living with me that I’m so NOT a morning person.

    To convert non-Christians lets use the heavenly tools of prayer, penance and fasting far more that the worldy tools of argument and metaphysical discussion.

  2. Amen, even double AMEN to Abigail’s comment.

    This is actually viewed rightly on two levels; the level of reason and the level of faith. We are so apt to think of an event, encounter, or argument that swayed us from one position to another. To some extent it’s true: but it has its limits. We might ask, why doesn’t the same event, encounter or argument move others similarly? Jen has spoken of her former way of thinking, in which we see reality as ‘chemicals aligned in the brain correctly’ (my vague paraphrase to be sure). But in a sense this is what we are trying to recreate when we speak of approaching Atheists with the goal of converting them.

    I once heard a remark like this: ‘Faith is not a wall to be climbed or busted through, rather it’s a mystery that is to be plunged into.’ A remark like that of course, goes no where with the atheist: but it has meaning to us. Thus if we see this action as primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, then we will simply be sensitive and aware to any ‘emptiness or holes’ that the atheist is experiencing and be willing to fill them with Christ’s love and awareness.

    I guess I’m saying the intellectual ‘backing and filling’ always follow the underlying mysterious conversion that is quietly taking place unseen. Even to the convert, the ‘experience of conversion’ has its own mixed and sometimes false associations (I read this or heard that and it finally changed me). If fact, the Holy Spirit is doing the real work, pouring out grace and stretching the mind, to accept as Truths what was always evident, but never acknowledged.

    Remember that ‘knowledge and understanding’ are GIFTS of the Holy Spirit and not wrestled out of his hands. Does that sound provocative or make God seem stingy? Does it make ‘reason’ sound unimportant? Does it push us backwards to a ‘fundamentalists’ point of view? No not at all. Careful attention to Scripture; to classical spiritual writers, the lives of the saints, and the teaching of the Church all point to the primacy of God’s action in the attainment of faith. And dare I suggest that after reading this comment certain scripture verses might leap out and confirm my position.

  3. (Sorry about the deletion! I wanted to add something, and just redid the comment rather than adding another one!)

    Jen, you say it so beautifully here:

    If I could just share with others even a drop of the peace and joy that he has showered down upon me, I think it would be better than 1,000 good arguments.

    This is not to say, however, that there’s no place for pointing out the logical reasons to believe the Christian claims are true — as an atheist, I couldn’t have even considered exploring this religion until I understood that I did not need to set aside science and reason in order to believe its claims.

    Yes, yes, and yes. There are reasonable and logical explanations for everything, but the explanations aren’t everything. 🙂

    After a certain point of reasoning through all the “sides” and “arguments”, there really isn’t a logical explanation for the peace a Christian finds. But when it arrives, you exhale and think, “Oh … so that’s what this has been all about.”

  4. As a former Atheist now Catholic I completely agree with Jen. I remember Campus Crusade for Christ telling me God loved me and thinking “huh?” I wasn’t even really an Atheist at the time, just Agnostic and I couldn’t even figure out what that meant. It wasn’t until some of my logical objections to Christianity had been overcome that I was even able to turn and start looking.

    I also had the experience of meeting thoughtful Christians and Catholics and being so impressed by their patience and quiet humor and willingness to argue gently with me — I realize now I said and acted in some really insulting ways to friends of mine, but they were never rude to me or judgmental, they just laughed at my jokes and then told me their own point of view. Not trying to convert me, just explaining themselves — sharing their own faith because they were friends and friends share about themselves. Thanks for this series, and Jen for linking to it. — MagdaJ

  5. This is a risky thing to say, but I’d like to add that people can be Christian and love God and not actually be, strictly speaking, Catholic or Protestant or Muslim etc. For me, it has been helpful to show people that one can have a deep relationship with God and with Christ without having to follow the Bible or the tenets of any particular Church.

    I suspect a reason many people don’t have a relationship with God is because the Church doesn’t provide the sort of culture they can relate to. Especially in this modern day and age where so many people say the church is “irelevant” to them. Showing people that its possible to have faith without churching, to even be very deeply religious without churching, has been quite a revelation for some.

    I’m not personally saying anything against the Church here. I myself am Anglican. Just that I think it can be important to make a distinction between converting people to a particular faith system and converting them to the experience of God. For me, coming out of atheism through paganism, I would never have found God through the Anglican Church – I found the church through God.

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