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Nov 27 2013

“How To Share The Gospel With An Atheist”

When you’re talking to an atheist
The sort that’s kinda nice,
And you don’t know how to handle it,
Here—follow my advice:

Remember, as you’re listening:
He’s lying through his teeth—
You’ll have to translate carefully
The message underneath

He’ll often try to shock you
With the claim “there is no god”
Just assume that’s insecurity,
A flimsy, false façade.

They really want the gospel
And they really want God’s love
And they really want a heaven
And a message from above

They hate their godless lifestyles
And their shallowness and sin
When they argue with believers
They don’t really want to win

If you simply share the gospel
(Which they likely haven’t heard)
As the story of God’s love for us
They’ll show, they crave God’s Word

In short, deny their thinking,
And dismiss their shallow views…
And I hope these simple pointers
Have been something you can use.

In an annoying and condescending example of precisely how not to talk to an atheist, preacher Greg Stier shares a story:

Last week I sat next to James on a flight from St. Louis to Denver. As we talked the subject turned to spirituality and religion. I confessed that I was a preacher and he confessed he was an atheist. What unfolded on the rest of the flight was a deep, thought-provocative, laughter-laced gospel conversation.

Really, I’d love to read James’s version of this. I’ve had a few airline conversations about religion, and frankly it’s a bit of a chore (though with the right person, it can be fun). Far more interesting have been conversations that were sparked by someone’s choice of reading material, whether it was “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” or “How to Teach Physics to your Dog”. Just because atheists are willing to talk about religion, this should not be interpreted as an eagerness.

Stier has five helpful tips for sharing the gospel with atheists:

1. Don’t be shocked and do ask tons of questions.

Some atheists like to shock Christians with the fact that they don’t believe in God. This brand of atheist pulls the pin on the “there is no God” grenade and drops it in the middle of the conversation, expecting Christians to run for cover.

Don’t be phased (sic). As a matter of fact start asking questions about their atheism. Find out what they mean by atheism (some are agnostics but call themselves atheists.) Ask questions about their background. Were they raised in church? Do they have any Christian friends? Where were they educated about atheism?

I don’t expect Christians to run from cover. If I say “there is no god” (typically, I will just say “I’m an atheist”), it’s as a response to the assertion that the other person made–and if I am being that blunt, it’s because they said something deserving of bluntness.

2. Listen deeply for the real “why.”

Often atheists have a reason (other than “reason“) for becoming atheists. Listen for it. Sometimes it’s anger over losing a loved one. Other times it’s that they were hurt by the church in some way. But often there’s a “why” behind the lie they are embracing.

As opposed to the lie you are selling. Again, in my case, the “why” is the replacement of a whole lot of ignorance with a whole lot of learning. Yes, I was once a born-again Christian, and that doesn’t leave easily. Science classes (biology and psychology in particular), comparative religion classes, and the like, poked holes in the simplistic religious answers and replaced them with answers I did not have to have faith to understand.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of evidence of (some) people embracing religion because of fear, because of threat, because of loss. But I guess it doesn’t count when it goes that way.

3. Connect relationally.

Atheists are real people with real feelings. They laugh, cry, talk and connect like anyone else. I think that too many times Christians treat atheists as objects and not people.

That’s right–atheists are real people. You would never want to stereotype them or deny their very real feelings. Speaking of which…

4. Assume that, down deep inside, they do believe in God.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who genuinely rejects the existence of God. Sure, I’ve met many who have claimed God’s existence to be a lie but I’m convinced that, down deep inside, they really do believe there’s a God.

Why do I believe that? Because Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists,

So, connect relationally, but always remember that the image they are showing you is false.

5. Frame the gospel as a love story (that just happens to be true.)

When I shared the gospel with James I wasn’t trying to prove God’s existence I was simply sharing the story of God’s love. I said something like, “James, at the core of Christianity is a love story. Jesus put it this way, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but has everlasting life.’”

I could tell that James was intrigued by this view. He listened respectfully and asked thoughtful questions.

Because, I’m sure, James had never heard this message before, living as he does in a culture where only a handful of Christians exist, and they tend to keep to themselves, quietly.

My suspicion is that James was, at this point, was just a bit gobsmacked that Stier was treating him so condescendingly, and was gritting his teeth, smiling and nodding, counting the minutes until the flight ended.

Note also that James is described as respectful and polite… despite the stereotype of the grenade-dropping atheist. I can only hope that anyone reading his advice will see it for the steaming pile it is. Sadly, he’s preaching to the choir, and the only comment “love[s] the tips”.

I don’t.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    cgm3

    Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists.

    I wonder if there’s a passage in the Koran that makes it clear there are no real infidels…

  2. 2
    busterggi

    Believers, if you want to share the gospels with atheists just rip the pages out of your bibles, tear them in half and give us the tops.

  3. 3
    Chris Hall

    Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists.

    So, when someone says something like this, I just have to go to the source and see what the hell they’re talking about. In this case, I headed to Bible Gateway, which is a great reference for atheists who want to see what the theists are saying:

    New International Version

    18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    King James Version:

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

    19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

    20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

    21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

    I’m seeing word salad and a bunch of assertions, and none of them even remotely add up to a good solid claim that “there are no real atheists.” I think the claim that “There are no atheists in foxholes” sounds more credible.

  4. 4
    grumpyoldfart

    In point #4 Greg Stier says:
    Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists

    I think I know why the cunning little believer stopped quoting at verse 21 … because verse 22 goes on to say:
    Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. (Romans 1:22)

    And that’s a big No-No because the Lord Jesus Christ says:
    Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22)

  5. 5
    left0ver1under

    “You know the three subjects you should never discuss with him: religion, politics or anything else.”

    - Gloria, talking to her husband Michael about Archie, from “All In The Family”

    When it comes to bringing up the subject of religion and no religion in conversation, I (try to) stick to two rules:

    (1) If someone tells the other person his view, then the listener gets to criticize it.

    Those who proselytize where it wasn’t invited should expect disagreement. If they don’t want holes poked in their beliefs, then don’t talk about it.

    (2) If someone asks the other person his view, then the asker does not get to criticize it.

    A person who asks initiated the discussion, so they give up the right to criticize. They can ask questions and find facts, but not deride or try to refute it.

  6. 6
    kagekiri

    Real tips:

    1. Don’t assume they’re just faking their atheism, or that their stated deeply held beliefs about justice or good and evil aren’t the real reason for their deconversion. It’s a good way to make them hate your condescending guts.

    2. Don’t end a terrible, awkward, and forced conversion conversation with “I’ll pray for you”, especially with a tone of condescension and pity. Again, it makes them hate you and your stupid religion all the more.

    3. If you have to be reminded that atheists are people and that people actually can have different beliefs than you, or otherwise obviously lack basic human empathy and the ability to understand others’ actual perspectives (“why don’t you believe my unevidenced claims about miracles I’ve heard about in the third person???”), don’t try converting people. You’ll be doing your religion a favor.

  7. 7
    Randomfactor

    1. Be prepared to accept “no thanks, I’m an atheist” as an answer.
    2. Did you READ and UNDERSTAND #1?
    3. Have a pencil and paper handy. They’re going to teach you some things about your own beliefs.

  8. 8
    machintelligence

    2. Don’t end a terrible, awkward, and forced conversion conversation with “I’ll pray for you”,

    If you want a slightly snarky reply to this, ask them if they would also sacrifice a goat, since this apparently makes prayers more effective.

  9. 9
    Stephanie N.

    An anecdote from an airplane trip people might like.

    (Person notes my Tiptree shirt): ”What’s that shirt about?”
    {insert Tiptree spiel here }
    ”Oh, is speculative fiction like Dungeons and Dragons?”
    {begin to worry } ”Well, some D &D players read speculative fiction, and some speculative fiction readers play D &D, but they’re not the same…”
    ”Because you know Dungeons and Dragons is satanic, don’t you?”
    {deep sigh } ”Look; let’s make this simple. I suspect you’re going to start proselytizing to me.” {widening eyes of other person suggest I got it right. } ”Now, I might well be able to quote the Bible as well as you can, and I’m sure I know enough theology, from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Zwingli to Melanchthon to talk circles around you. If you leave me alone, we’ll be fine, but if you try and preach to me I shall feel it necessary to take apart your belief structure, piece by piece, until there’s nothing left; and have no doubt, I can do it. Now, are we going to need to have that discussion?”
    ”No…” And silence for the rest of the trip, enabling me to finish China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun and get some much-needed sleep.

  10. 10
    Cuttlefish

    I have had similar conversations, Stephanie, just not on an airplane. Some ultimate frisbee teammates were eager to invite everyone to bible study. I declined politely the first week they asked, and the next week they were a bit more emphatic. I told them I was a former born-again and current atheist, that I could easily guarantee that I’d bring them to my side before they’d bring me back to theirs, and if that’s what they really wanted I’d be happy to go to bible studies with them.

    They didn’t ask (any of us) again.

  11. 11
    Azuma Hazuki

    Love story? LOVE STORY?! How dare they? “Obey and worship me no matter how contradictory these claims are and no matter how repugnant anything I did seems t you or I’ll torture you forever!” is not love. It is pathological narcissism.

    If that’s “love” then keep it to your fucking self. I would have a very hard time not showing this arrogant, evil-minded, amoral son of a bitch some “love” myself in that position.

  12. 12
    hexidecima

    “Listen deeply for the real “why.”

    aka ignore what the atheist says and make believe that you know what they “really” think more than they do.

  13. 13
    outeast

    I dare say there won’t be any real Christians here reading this spiteful and misleading rant, but just in case there are… When sharing the Word with an ‘atheist’, it’s often (almost always, in fact) useful to remember that an ‘Atheist’ is just someone who has not yet heard the Message. Share! Tell them about the Bible! Tell them how the lord died for them! In these days, especially in Godless America, it is overwhelmingly likely that this will truly be the first time they’ve heard this Message. So tell them!
    In my experience, an ‘Atheist’ may seem closed, even hostile, at first – but you must not be afraid to tell them again and again, if need be..Of course you should listen to what they have to say, but do not try to engage on an intellectual level; keep an ear open for the first chance to steer the conversation straight back to the Message.If they bring up suffering, for example, steer the conversation straight to Christ! Don’t take these talking-points too seriously. Would rational arguments sway you from your faith? Of course not! This is about faith. Show the ‘atheist’ that belief, that faith, is about sharing God’s love, not about cold reason.

  14. 14
    carlie

    These are the times I wish so hard that I could go back and retroactively apologize to everyone I proselytized to, ever.

    I did (years later) apologize to the person i was closest to, whom I thought it had probably hurt the most (and was the one I felt the worst about). I was, thankfully, not the type to accost strangers (I had enough decency to realize that was somehow not quite right), but I wore the dumbass Christian-parody-of-pop-culture shirts, thereby annoying everyone I came into contact with, and I went out on weekend visitation to people who had quit coming to our church and just wanted to be left alone, dammit.

    The funny thing is that most of the people I went to high school with, the “cool kids” who made fun of me for going to church so much, are now into it themselves and I have to just shake my head at their posts about potulck revival dinner this and first communion that.

  15. 15
    sinned34

    Carlie @ 14:

    I totally concur. The last time I spoke with my closest friend I have left from high school, I apologized for being a religious wacko and thanked him for putting up with my shit. Especially when I essentially dumped my few friends for the kids in my youth group, only to slowly come crawling back after spending five years rediscovering that church life really wasn’t for me.

    I have never spoken with any of the “cool kids” from school that made fun of me (which was most of them, because I was both religious and a huge nerd, a tragic combination), but in the last 20 years I have connected with a few of the people I knew from youth group. Let’s just say that they are an almost perfect representation of that Pew Forum study that showed evangelical Christianity has less than a 30% rate of retention.

  16. 16
    John Morales

    outeast @13: I can not help opining that you are satirising what you call “real Christians”.

    (Are you?)

  17. 17
    N. Nescio

    What’s truly disappointing is nearly every responding comment on that blog is highly critical of the article, there’s some good-faith discussion going on between the editor of the website and those commentators, and the author of the article finally responded after several days of silence – with a re-iteration of the things everybody ripped him apart on, a whole bunch of Bible quotes, and by shutting down comments on the article. At least I’m assuming the author is responsible for stopping the discussion given the apparent good faith on the part of the mod who was originally responding on behalf of the author and making no attempt to delete critical replies.

    Disappointing, but not surprising. Why is it that people who claim to possess Truth are unable to deal with it being criticized or questioned? That’s not how people who have knowledge of things that are true behave.

  18. 18
    Cuttlefish

    Wow, thanks for that update, N. ! I had not seen that. Sad, really.

  19. 19
    N. Nescio

    It’s a running theme I seem to see in many such articles, on numerous Christian blogs. Comments are either disabled altogether or heavily moderated, and I was genuinely impressed that pastors.com was permitting open discussion about the article given that the overwhelming majority of commentators were ripping the article and the author apart. I think highly of the site’s editor/mod Brandon A. Cox engaging us in civil discussion – while I don’t agree with his theology, he at least behaved like somebody who actually believed it was true and was unafraid to let it be questioned or criticized. This stands in stark contrast to the Greg Stier’s enforced last word, which made very specific mention of his expectation of a Christian echo chamber and disappointment that so many people came out to tell him he was full of it.

    I was really looking forward to another Christian-ran space where atheists were welcome to civilly disagree and engage in intelligent discussion with believers arguing in good faith. Oh well.

  20. 20
    Cuttlefish

    So, yeah… he had evidence before him that the bible passage saying there is no such thing as atheists was false, and he doubled down. The bible is inerrant, so reality had to be wrong.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/12/30/biblical-inerrancy/

  21. 21
    N. Nescio

    That poem gave me a chuckle the first time I read it years back, and hits the nail on the head yet again. I want to correct myself in earlier comments, because the editor of pastors.com actually responded to my filling out the ‘contact us’ and it turns out Mr. Stier isn’t at all responsible for shutting down comments.

    My email to pastors.com (which I wrote after writing a response to a thread only to find out discussion had been halted, but before seeing Greg Stier’s comment):

    It is incredibly disappointing that the comments for “How to Share The Gospel With an Atheist” were closed down in the midst of multiple threads of civil good-faith discussion. I was genuinely impressed that the website moderators did not attempt to micro-manage comments or delete critical posts and let discussion proceed as it did. I realize that nearly all of the comments were highly critical of the article and the author’s behavior, but that’s not the fault of anybody making the reasonable criticisms. While it’s certainly the prerogative of the editor of this website (who was participating in the comments and defending the article, unlike the author who could not or would not defend his own words) to take the last word for themselves, it is dishonest to halt discussion barring disruption or derailment. I am disappointed that people who claim to possess truth are unwilling or unable to discuss it with people who think they’re wrong.

    That’s not how people who possess actual truth behave.

    Brandon A. Cox replies:

    I appreciate your concerns. I made the decision to end comments because of my feeling that the discussion concerning the content of Greg’s article had been exhausted fairly well. The comments had really begun to stray away from its theme into other issues. Furthermore, I had to delete quite a few rather uncivil comments in which commenters took quite an insulting tone toward other commenters. I recognize it’s a controversial decision to end the discussion and I own the responsibility for it.

    Greg wrote the piece and allowed us to publish it. It was a stretch to expect him to show up in the comments. He is not a staff writer for us and does not work under us. He offered permission to publish his piece as a guest. Upon my request, he was willing to add a final clarification.

    So we’re perfectly willing to dialog about truth, but there is a limit to how far that dialog should run into other subjects on a post with such a narrow focus.

    I don’t expect many to agree with me on that, but that’s okay. I appreciate you letting me know how you feel.

    Thanks.

    Brandon

    Apparently “it was a stretch” to expect an author of a blog article to actually defend what they wrote when it’s criticized, and he did us all a favor by being given an enforced last word that didn’t actually respond to the criticism. Seems Mr. Cox wasn’t showing as much good faith as I thought he was.

  22. 22
    Joe Bigliogo

    Since you let the bible do your thinking for you I could see why you don’t believe me when I tell you I’m an atheist. Even though I insist you are wrong I must tell you it wouldn’t matter anyway. Hypothetically were I to believe I would still be destined to hell from your vantage point. It’s because I don’t like the god character depicted in the bible. I loath him in fact. I’m glad the bible is bullshit but in the event it were true I still couldn’t worship the monomaniacal, genocidal, torturing psychopath Yahweh that you think is perfect. So from your perspective, I’m damed anyway. But I must tell you there is a conundrum you and your co-believers will have to face. As long as you are aware that your atheist friends and loved ones are being unmercifully tortured in unbearable non-stop agony for ever and ever and ever… how can you be at peace in heaven with this knowledge? Can you really worship and grovel to the entity that prescribes eternal torture as fitting justice for the bulk of humanity? Maybe as a test of your faith you will be asked to assist in the torture? Could you do it? Would you if God asked?
    As long as hell exits there can be no heaven for anyone with an ounce of empathy.

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