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, 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.