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”.