Approaching Atheists: Top 9 Don’ts for Talking with Atheists

[“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. You can find all the posts by clicking the “Approaching Atheists” tag.- j]

Through the first two installments of the “Approaching Atheists” series, we’re seeing a pattern emerge: atheists are regular people, not unassailable fortresses of logic, but at the same time our own words are no substitute for a heart that actively demonstrates the love of God.

However, it doesn’t hurt to have some general guidelines for interactions with our atheist brothers and sisters. So Jennifer F., of ConversionDiary.com, and I, of this blog right here, have put together a list of do’s and and a list of don’ts–things to keep in mind when you’re talking to atheists. Even if you don’t frequently encounter atheist viewpoints, it doesn’t hurt to think about how you’ll respond if you ever do.

This week we’ll start with the don’ts, because you don’t want to blow it before you even get started.

When talking to atheists, don’t…

— Go looking for trouble. Nobody ever got harangued into the kingdom of God, so don’t go around trying to pick fights with non-believers. If you want the opportunity to engage in a dialog with an atheist you know, here’s an idea: make friends first. Pray for an opportunity to talk about belief, and soon enough an opportunity will present itself.

— Be afraid to admit that you have faith. I frequently hear Christians say that they’ve been in situations where the topic of why they’re Christians comes up and all they can say is that they believe, that they’ve never done any major investigation. They often seem embarrassed by that defense. If you get caught in a conversation about why you believe and that’s all you’ve got, don’t be afraid to go with that. Articulate it as best you can: for example, you might explain that your faith is not just a story you tell yourself to feel good, or talk about what leads you to believe that you have a real relationship with Something outside of the material world, etc.

— Feel like you have to have all the answers right then and there. It is far better to just say, “Great question! I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d love to research it and get back to you,” than to wade into territory that you’re not familiar with.

— Quote the Bible. Wait, before you freak out, I’m not saying you should hide the Bible or pretend it doesn’t exist. But if you quote it to an atheist as an authority, it will be like your doctor telling you to change your diet and explaining himself by reading a passage from a Harry Potter book.

— Say, “I feel sorry for you.” – This is something that people say when they are losing an argument and want to feel better about themselves. Be mindful of your reasons for engaging with the atheist in the first place: are you trying to genuinely make a connection with a lost person, or are you trying to pad your sense of superiority?

— Use a lot of Christian catchphrases. Christians “give their hearts to Jesus” and “the Holy Spirit indwells us” and we take a “daily walk with Christ” so that we’re “in the world but not of the world” … all these phrases are very meaningful and profound and instantly understandable for almost any Christian, but they don’t mean anything to people who are outside the faith. It’s hard to avoid them, because we’re used to using them as shorthand for some very complex concepts. But you should be able to explain those concepts in plain terms anyway.

— Assume that your atheists friends are secretly angry at God or feel like something is missing in their lives. Work from the assumption that this person is an atheist because he or she simply has not seen any evidence that God exists.

— Try to devalue the importance of science and logic. I hate to break it to all the Christian Scientists out there, but doctors and scientists have made a lot of really cool discoveries that have really made life better. It’s true that science doesn’t have all the answers, but it does have some of them, and if you try to deny that, you risk pushing yourself into crackpot territory. It’s difficult to minister to somebody who thinks you’re nuts.

— Get offended. Even if you think the atheist is trying to get your goat, it’s up to you not to let your goat be gotten. Got it?

Alright, we don’t want to be too much of a downer with all the “don’ts,” so hang with us and next week we’ll be back with some very positive “do’s.” If you’ve got anything you’d like to add, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

13 thoughts on “Approaching Atheists: Top 9 Don’ts for Talking with Atheists

  1. “I frequently hear Christians say that they’ve been in situations where the topic of why they’re Christians comes up and all they can say is that they believe, that they’ve never done any major investigation.”
    I am one of them! Being a college student, some of my friends are atheists, and there are times when one particular friend of mine would corner me with questions that totally discredit my Christian belief. Thank you for the don’ts that you posted here… looking forward to the do’s next week!

  2. I glad I found this site. My 19 year old daughter has decided to pursue atheism – not necessarily an unusual step for a seeking college student. But I’m challenged to know how to keep our conversations open and loving…and meaningful.

  3. In approaching someone who has a belief system totally opposite of mine, it’s very difficult to see what biases or blind spots I might have. Thanks for sharing these insights!

  4. How do you deal with an atheist who is openly hostile to Christianity? And who may be hostile to you just because he or she knows you are a Christian?

    How do you deal with an atheist who is hypersensitive to perceived hypocrisy? I knew an atheist once who was offended that I avoided soda because it’s unhealthy but then ate some french fries. How can you even break down barriers like that to form a friendship?

  5. I was an atheist for a time and the angry confrontational kind unfortunately. To answer rcb’s question, you need to be as loving as you possibly can be and do not take offense! One of the only Christians I knew at the time patiently endured a lot of flak from me. He perfectly embodied the “turn the other cheek” philosophy while quietly explaining his beliefs. I can’t even remember what we talked about now (well, he talked, I railed) but when I found Jesus for myself and decided to follow Him, this friend was one of the first people I wanted to tell. He was understandably very happy for me and uses our story often with the younger people he disciples; he is a youth pastor now. It would have been so easy for him to act in a way that would have validated my feelings about Christians, but he didn’t.

  6. This goes hand in hand with number 7.

    Don’t try to convince people that they are sinful and should feel bad about their life in an attempt to make them see that they need redemption.

    Sin and judgment based evangelism rarely works on the post modern mind in my experience. It’s a negative gospel and kind of misses the point.

    If the gospel ONLY has power when one is convinced of their own depravity, it’s not much of a gospel.

    This of course is my big problem with the bulk of the evangelism models used in the past few decades that I’ve encountered. Forgive the rant.

  7. Arkanabar, speaking as an atheist, it could work, and it wouldn’t give offense, I don’t think. But I’ve tried it. Quite honestly, I have – I tried going to a church for a time, because as the approaching athests series suggests what really attracted me was the type of people I was meeting – very focused on being unselfish and doing good things in the world. I really liked the people I was meeting, and the purpose that they had. I wanted to be a part of that, but I couldn’t see any evidence of God’s existence, and couldn’t just “have faith” without some evidence. Well, actually, I could have done, but that would have felt like willingly brainwashing myself into believing something that would provide me a place in a community and some ready answers to big questions, instead of taking the harder path and figuring things out for myself. Anyway, your approach was suggested to me by someone of faith in the church I went to, and it made sense, and I honestly tried it, but it didn’t work, or at least not to the advantage of people of faith. I went into the church for about a month after first praying for some internally-acceptable proof of the existence of god, and the feeling of wrongness just got even stronger than it had been before. And that was the end of the church for me. But for some people. it might work, who knows? I would certainly encourage people to try it and see, there’s no harm in that.

  8. As an atheist, I have been fascinated by Christian sites set up with the atheist in mind. This is the second one I have come across. The first encouraged Christians to be familiar with logic and this one encourages friendliness and example. Both insist that one understands were the atheist is coming from. I applaud both sites – such emphasis makes discussion easier and more pleasant. However, I would give a word of warning. It is not enough to get an atheist to believe in a creator god. Very few atheists are concerned with the god of deism who does not interfere with his creation. Belief or disbelief in the Loch Ness monster has very little impact on our lives. Likewise a non interfering god. The Christian God amongst other Gods, so its followers tell me, declares an interest in us. The latter indicates a change in one´s life. Once you have proved the god exists then it becomes necessary to show why it should be obeyed. Some atheists are very familiar with the Bible and the perceived immoralities of its God – so you will need to get your apologists hat on!

Leave a Reply