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 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.