How do we talk about faith with Atheists?
I don’t claim to have the final word on the topic, but it’s about time for an initial word! For several hundred years, Christianity has too often approached the Atheist with pointed finger, and accusations and threats. All in “love”, of course! Because we don’t want the poor sod to burn in hell, do we?
Unfortunately, in the last two generations, this approach has meant
that the church is responsible for producing
Atheists at a rate exceeding the rate at
which it produces disciples.
At what point do we reassess our approach…?
At the outset, I have to say that if the “approach” is designed to convince the Atheist to become a Christian then frankly, don’t bother. They don’t care that you want them to become a Christian, and they’ve already heard all the tricks you have up your sleeve. But people have questions. If you listen, and treat them with respect, who knows, perhaps they’ll ask!
STOP PRESS: I have now posted a second, much longer example of a similar conversation. You can find it here.
I very recently had a(nother) very pleasant exchange of ideas with an Atheist, who asked very reasonable questions. As is often the case, this person has a history within the faith, but has become convinced that Christianity simply isn’t true. I have these conversations quite frequently, and it occurs to me that publishing one would be fruitful. This is, after all, what “the mission field” looks like in the modern Western world.
My experience is that, when people gain an inkling that I am willing respectfully to exchange ideas, they begin by challenging some traditional stronghold of the faith, press some common “hot-spot” triggers for argument, and then, having discovered that I am able and willing to converse through each of those matters, start to ask their actual questions about the faith.
Most of my conversations, although they would be very helpful to blog and commentate like this, are not available because they are personal, private conversations. I have such conversations with a Muslim Imam (sat next to him on a plane), a young Muslim man (met him at a shopping centre), a very well educated Jewess (close family of a personal friend), a wonderful pious Sikh (met through work), as well as many intelligent, intellectual, well informed ex-churchgoing Atheists. I’m very grateful that the person whom I quote below (who’s identity is not relevant) has cheerfully given permission for me to reproduce the conversation in this manner. This allows me to post “a conversation with an Atheist”.
The text on the left is my part of the conversation, and the “quoted text” is that of my friend. I have changed his name to “Darren”, because it isn’t important who the person is. It isn’t a secret, but this conversation is so similar to many others that I have had, that it can stand as an archetype. For that reason I want to take the focus off Darren as “that particular guy”. Let’s just see him as the “every man” of Atheism.
What if a modern miracle seemed to refute Christian claims?
To respond to the original question [which concerned miracles, and religious claims based on them. It explored what might happen if the entire Atheist Convention of 4000 participants suddenly became convinced Mormons, and asked whether that would have the effect of confirming Mormonism as “true”], my experience is that proclaiming the worldview that Jesus claimed (and which the apostles taught), among earnest seekers of spiritual truth, creates the effect that the Bible describes. Namely: The person has an experience (sometimes suddenly, more often gradually) of entering into a remarkable new state of being, characterised by joy, peace, and a subjectively self-evident relationship with God.
There may be all kinds of naturalistic descriptions of this process, but having been on it myself, I dismiss them. This is a miracle. It is the one to which all the others pointed.
I don’t agree that “signs and wonders” necessarily must be seen for people to become Christians. What they require is an introduction to the kingdom of God. For some, that’s a healing. For others, it’s a ‘piece-of-the-puzzle’ about God’s nature. For others again, it’s an answered prayer.
The common denominator is that the person perceives, and enters into the Christian worldview (John 1:12). From that new perspective on life, the universe and everything, “miracles” of all kinds are not at all remarkable, but are anticipated uncritically.
4000 converts from Atheism to Mormonism would have no effect on me at all, nor on those whom I have taught. Romans 8:15.
What about Mormon or Muslim claims of similar experience?
thanks for posting kevin. [snipped] – i haven’t seen him in ages….
i wonder what you would make of the profoundly joyful and peaceful experiences of atheists like me who have realised that christianity (while sometimes coming with its joy, peace, and perceived relationship with the creator of the universe) simply isn’t true.
and i wonder what you would make of the “subjectively self-evident relationship” that a mormon or muslim might speak of with respect to a being that you simply don’t believe exists.
Christian conversion is based on subjective experiences
but you do raise an interesting and important point. most christians (and i am speaking anecdotally here) don’t become christians because of evidence for its truth. rather, it is based more on subjective experiences. almost all of us feel regret for not living up to the standards we have for ourselves, and the christian message speaks powerfully to those who want a new start. and it certainly produces good fruit in some of its adherents. but, as i alluded to above, so do plenty of other religions.
A religion doesn’t have to be true to produce fruit in adherents
this doesn’t mean that christianity is false a priori, but it certainly does prove that a religion doesn’t have to be true for its followers to be profoundly changed people, or even to have convincing experiences of the being they come to believe is the creator and judge of the universe.
finally, i’m interested as to what you might specifically mean by “earnest seekers of spiritual truth”. what would you make of the countless former christians whose earnest seeking after spiritual truth caused them to come to the realisation that the beliefs they had always had were simply not true?
Hi Darren. Thanks for asking.
Atheists who have joy
Q1: Joyful experiences by atheists
A1: I have no problem with that. I experienced that myself when I was an atheist.
Muslims and Mormons
Q2: Mormon or Muslim experience of subjective relationship
A2: Mormons and Muslims would both insist that the “being” is precisely the same one, but that they have the more accurate definition of the being. This is the case for all Abrahamic religions.
Value in other religions
Q3: “plenty of other religions”
A3: I see tremendous value in many of the other religions (some I have more trouble with – like those which ritually seek and celebrate pain, torture, death, etc). I agree that none of the sometimes remarkable effects in personal transformation achieved by their adherents proves the veracity of any of their supernatural claims.
Q4: “earnest seekers of spiritual truth” definition
A4: I deliberately employed a term with maximum inclusiveness. I agree that the category you describe falls inside the definition. In fact, when I have spent time with precisely such people in the manner I describe, many of them are deeply blessed by the experience. In some cases they even find that their atheism is a little more nominal than they had supposed, because they have found a safe place to discuss their doubts about it. The same goes for Christians who harbour doubts but find few safe places to discuss them.
Where atheists come from
Many professed atheists are just intellectual people who couldn’t find anyone to answer their questions about the faith with intellectual integrity. Because they are offered only dogma in response to genuine enquiry, they are forced to conclude that there *is* no intellectually satisfactory answer, and that faith is counter-reason. The logic doesn’t quite hold, but its compelling when you’re the one going through it.
Jesus didn’t condemn other faiths
Jesus didn’t condemn other (dis)belief systems. Those who professed to know the Father (the Jews), he admonished to do so (as did Peter at Pentecost). All others who sought the Father, he was happy to teach and guide (like the Samaritan woman at the well). Paul sought out those who wanted religious instruction, by going to the synagogues and the aereopagus, and gave freely to them.
Nor did Paul
Confrontations with other groups, like the followers of Diana, were not instigated by him. It was they who confronted Paul, because their sales were down. It was Christians whom Paul instructed, admonished, and exhorted.
The Great Commission
IMHO, the “Great Commission” was not “make everyone a Christian”, but “in all places make Christians”. Big difference…
This shapes my own engagement with other people on matters of faith. Frankly, I am found by so many people who want to know more about their God, or people who are genuinely curious about the faith and have intelligent questions (like yours), that I scarcely have time to think about chasing after those who don’t show any interest. I think that was Jesus’ experience, and Paul’s also.
Joy as a proof
thanks for your answers kevin. i enjoy listening to anyone who is willing to take the time to articulate their beliefs.
in the spirit of not “starting arguments”, i’ll keep my response more in the spirit of seeking clarification on some points you’ve raised.
i’d be particularly interested if you’d be willing to elaborate further on your past atheism? were you religious before that? most (but not all) of the atheists i find are worth listening to are ex-christians – people who have first hand experience believing the claims of christianity, and who believed they experienced the creator of the universe, but who eventually began to assess the evidence for these claims as they would assess the evidence for other claims, and found there to be no reason to accept them any longer. (btw, it was also these kinds of atheists i was referring to in Q1 – the joy of realising that one had been “set free” from a delusional belief system – just as i don’t take this kind of joy to be proof that christianity is false, i neither would take the joy described by converts to christianity to be an indication of christianity’s truth, as you possibly seemed to imply in your original response. i’d contend that this kind of joy, etc, would likely accompany any groundbreaking change in a person’s life – finding love, buying their first house, but especially thinking [rightly or wrongly] that they had met the creator of the universe.)
How can non Christians be acceptable to God?
regarding Q2, i did not intentionally refer to two religions that (profess to) share the same deity. i guess you could substitute another religion here, one that has a deity whose attributes proclude it from being the same as yahweh.
i’m also interested in your views on non-christians, and how these people might be acceptable to god. i might be reading into your response something that is not there. but how do you think god (yahweh) would judge someone who had accepted their own tribal religions, perhaps a religion that involved practices that would be abhorent to yahweh? or even someone, like me, who disbelieves christianity even after hearing it clearly preached – who has in fact read the works of the christian scholars and apologists and, precisely because of reading such works and finding them lacking, came to reject christianity? i ask because i’m now more than ever interested in what different christians see as the truths about christianity (some of which i would have considered heretical when i was a more or less standard “sydney anglican”).
Tooth Fairy vs God
My past atheism began in adolescence, when God, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy all suffered an ignominious demise in my worldview, so I don’t think I was ever in the category you describe. I was happily satisfied with atheism until suddenly, God spoke to me. I apologise that this sounds jargonistic and dogmatic, but I simply have no other way of describing it. To say that this “messed with me” is an understatement. The Tooth Fairy might as well have leapt onto my computer keyboard singing, “Jingle Bells”, because I certainly didn’t invite it.
On Q2, I think I covered it in my A3. I don’t consider my subjective experience to be proof for anyone else’s purposes, nor is their experience going to prove anything to me.
God’s view of non-Christians
On God’s view of non-Christians, I think it is important to note that when Jesus pointed out God’s providence and salvific care for non-Jews (Luke 4:25-27), the people rose up instantly and tried to kill him (vv28-30). It suffices for me that God will judge everyone “according to what they had done” (Rev 20:13), and it’s not up to me to question that.
The damage done by Evangelicals
Evangelicals (admittedly with support from reasonably long-standing theological contemplation) have done much damage by uncritically taking hyperbole as measurements, resulting in dogma that is not reflected in the Bible (such as, effectively, “anyone who doesn’t utter this prayer will spend eternity in Hell…”).
But God is good, and made a good creation. When he made humanity he was very pleased with the result. God spoke to Cain, saying, “if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:7).
The basis of God’s pleasure in humanity is not so simple
Jesus made it brutally clear that in the final assessment, many who assumed they were “in” will be out, and many will be “in”, but a little surprised about that (Matt 25:31-46). This judgement was specifically said not to rest on professions of faith, but on acts of justice, and charity *instead*.
Two faces of Christianity
Thanks for the clarifications Kevin. I’ve greatly enjoyed this little discussion. I definitely agree that there are two faces to Christianity as presented in the Bible. The kind of Christianity I was most familiar with was the one in which salvation came only through an actual specific knowledge of Jesus and the acceptance of various “facts” as incorporated into various creeds, and I guess this is mainly taken from the teachings of Paul. But it really does ignore things like the Sheep and the Goats passage, where Jesus himself (surely more of an authority on Christianity than Paul – although I have a friend who prefers the term Paulianity) explicitly says that it is the works that count. I think a sufficient way to make sure you live a good life would be to live as if it might be possible that you would one day be judged “according to what [you] had done”.
God’s criterion of success in Jesus’ mission
In all frankness, if everybody lived “as if it might be possible that you would one day be judged ‘according to what [you] had done’, I am quite certain that God would deem this a successful outcome from Jesus’ mission.
Apparent differences between Jesus and Paul
On the apparent differences between Paul and Jesus, I would suggest the following:
Works vs Faith false dichotomy
1. Particularly the “works” vs “faith” question is a dilemma arising from the Reformation. It is an anachronistic misunderstanding of Paul. I recommend Tom Wright for clarification on that one.
Other apparent differences – Anachronism
2. Where other apparent differences might be seen, they arise from either a) Jesus had an itinerant ministry, whereas Paul was pastoring faith communities, or b) various anachronistic misreadings of Paul and/or Jesus (again, ref Tom Wright).
Paul and Jesus agree
With the appropriate interpretive key, there is absolutely no daylight between what Paul taught and what Jesus taught. Interestingly, with that very interpretive key, there are telling gaps between what Jesus and Paul taught, and what modern Christian churches teach.
The “two faces” of Christianity
I’m not convinced that the two faces are actually “presented in the Bible”. I think we look at the one face in the Bible and see only what we are taught to see.
What do I see Jesus’ mission to be?
would you be willing to expand on your first paragraph, kevin? what do you see jesus’ mission as being?
What did Jesus see as his mission?
1. That the same messiah would be the military leader, king, vicarious propitiatory death, the child born of the virgin, mighty God, counsellor, etc.
2. That “The Last Days” would be a period between the 1st and second appearance of this figure
3. That this figure was rescuing the nation from its sin, first and foremost, and that any political emancipation was secondary, or subjective.
4. That “the kingdom of God” was not defined in geo-political terms, but in spiritual terms.
5. That this figure was a man, (“son of man”, ref: Daniel) and simultaneously “of God”.
… and other things, I suppose.
Jesus was redeeming Israel
So he saw his mission as rescuing Israel from her sinful rebellion against God (=unbelief, injustice, immorality), dying for their sin in the role of “faithful servant” (sinlessly, sacrificially giving himself, etc), and rising from the dead as the spiritual progenitor of a redeemed Israel. The Jews would then be able to enjoy the benefits of the eschatological prophecies in Isaiah (and other prophets), as they were welcomed into this new, fresh “Israel”. Part of that eschatological picture is that the Gentiles are invited to the kingdom of God as well, to enjoy the benefits of God’s providence and wisdom.
The people of God
What this mission does is to redeem a people for God (firstly from among the Jews, but then also the Gentiles – Rom 1:16), who’s role it is in the world to exemplify and manifest God’s characteristics “as a city on a hill”. Evangelicals would have us believe that the purpose is to have everybody “in” that city, but I’m not convinced. The purpose of the people of God is to teach God’s wisdom, proclaim God’s benevolence, and “become the righteousness of God” (2 cor 5:21), which means to enact God’s blessings of justice, peace, love, etc. on his behalf.
Is/was Jesus God?
hmmm…. interesting. i’m guessing you would not consider yourself an “evangelical”? do you think jesus was/is god (and not just “of god”)?
and about the last paragraph, what would you say it means to be “in that city”? and how about to not be in it?
The nature of the Resurrection?
do you think there is a “life after death”? if so, will it be a spiritual existence? or an earthly resurrection of the physical body?
(sorry for so many questions. like i said, i’m really intrigued by the diversity of beliefs among christians – something i didn’t appreciate when i was a christian, and would think of many people with “interesting” beliefs as not really christians!)
What is “an Evangelical?”
There are many points at which someone who relished the term “Evangelical” would disagree with me. That’s the only measure of who is, and who isn’t “Evangelical”.
The ultimate man, the prefect image of God
The Biblical picture of whom Jesus is, as the “faithful” one, is kind of like taking the human Jesus and holding him up in front of God. Whereas with other people the outlines don’t really match in a lot of places, Jesus’ outline is indistinguishable from God’s. By this description, it sounds like I’m saying “no, Jesus is not God”, but it raises the question: what kind of man has the same outline as God? Surely only one who is truly God…? In fact, the dichotomy is a little misleading anyway. Mankind was created in God’s image, so the ultimate man should be precisely as God is. Jesus is presented as the ultimate man, who can only really therefore be the son of God, and divine, and therefore also God, and so it goes in the circle.
The human/divine miracle
The point of the Jesus thing is that in him, mankind and the divine meet. This is the hope/celebration: that the transcendent God has made it possible for us to become a part of him, and him a part of us.
Life after Death: I think there is a life eternal. I’m living it. I will die, yet live. In my subjective experience I don’t anticipate any sense of time passing between my death and the subsequent experience. Resurrection is a key idea, fundamentally rooted in the Hebrew understanding of life. A purely “spiritual existence” does not conform to the understanding of “soul”, which is a body, quickened by spirit. This is “a living soul”.
Although I have a ready anticipation of physical, emotional and spiritual ongoing life beyond death, I don’t conceive of what it will precisely be like. It really doesn’t concern me though, because I know that it’s good. I do find extraordinary comfort in the Revelation picture of heaven, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev 21:3).
The relative unimportance of the after-life as a moitivator
I might add that it was about 6 months after being somewhat dramatically converted to faith, during which I was having a bi-directional prayer life, reading a Bible for the first time, and generally getting recreated from the inside-out, before it dawned on me that this revelation had consequences for life-after-death. Even then, I was satisfied that this God, with whom I now commune and in whom my life consists, will look after the details, so I have nothing to worry about.
I have subsequently blogged more on this topic: “The fear of death: A Reason for Faith?“
Diversity of belief, or diversity of expression?
There certainly is a diversity of beliefs, and it’s not clear to what extent that diversity reflects the way people process, store and communicate ideas which may otherwise be identical. The fact that Jesus communicated in parables is relevant to this. You can express much richer and more nuanced ideas in the form of a story than you ever can in systematic theology! The church is paradox in many ways. That is just one of them.
On the nature of the human soul
I recently wrote this as an encouragement to a Jewish friend:
On the subject of soul/spirit, the terms have received many loaded meanings in many cultures and thought systems, but the patriarchs knew it thus:
When Hashem formed a man from the dust as “flesh”, he breathed into it ruach (“spirit”). As a result, he “became a living soul” (Gen 2:7).
In this sense our body is like a circuit-board, and spirit like electricity – the combination is a mobile phone, but without both dimensions (physical and electrical) the mobile phone is not viable, and in a sense, not really a mobile phone at all. So we are also – flesh brought alive by spirit, the combination being called our “soul”, or “existence/
very interesting – it was a lot of fun reading your thoughts – thanks 🙂
My prayer for the ongoing conversation
I trust that this very brief conversation has provided food-for-thought in Christian circles. It is my sincere hope, and indeed my frequent prayer, that we Christians will begin to better serve those whom we have effectively ejected, because we have been unwilling or unable to have open, frank, intellectually robust conversations about the faith.
The corollary, of course, is that there are intelligent, thinking people in the pews today, getting frustrated with empty dogma, but feeling the cultural pressure against being seen to “doubt”. People have questions. Please, God, let them find faithful answerers.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.