How Should Christians Respond to Atheists?

From 2009 to 2011, I traveled the country as a pro-life missionary, engaging students at public universities in dialogue about abortion. I remember one student I met, named Violet, who said that she resented pro-lifers’ “pushing their religion” on her. I said that my case against abortion didn’t rely on religion, but that even if it did, why should that matter? Violet retorted, “Because I’m an atheist! I bet you can’t even give me one good reason to believe that God exists.”

I responded, “I can give you more reasons than that,” and we talked for several minutes. Violet was amazed that I was willing to listen to her, that I didn’t think her questions were stupid, and that I could give her interesting answers to think about. From one objection to the next, whether it was evolution, faith versus science, or the obnoxiousness of her Christian friends, I helped her see that she didn’t have any compelling reason to think there was no God. As our conversation ended, Violet became sad, and said to me,“If only I had met someone like you when I had so many questions, maybe I wouldn’t be an atheist today.”

Since that encounter, I’ve met many “Violets,” or people who struggle to have faith in God because they have so many unanswered questions. You’ve probably met people like this and wished you had good answers for their thoughtful questions. Or you might be like Violet and have questions no one is willing to answer. I can’t promise I have all the answers you’re looking for, but I have done my best to present good reasons to think God exists. With the task of equipping believers and engaging skeptics in mind, I have set out two goals in my critique of atheism.

In recent years, the notoriety of pro-atheism books like The God Delusion,God Is Not Great, and The End of Faith has led Christian authors to write popular pro-theist apologies in response. Unfortunately, some of these books not only argued against atheism, but mocked it as “delusional,” “incomprehensible,” and “childish.” Others went so far as to attack the character of atheists and accuse them of promoting anti-social behavior, or even genocide! Needless to say, showing them to my atheist friends was not an option, at least if I wanted to still be friends with them.

So how should Christians respond to atheists?

First, we must recognize that there are powerful arguments that can be raised in defense of atheism, and those arguments need to be confronted. Secondly, even if the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens have been less than respectful when writing about religion, that doesn’t give Christians a license to be just as disrespectful when writing about atheism. The book of Proverbs puts it well, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

We should also keep in mind that many people who are non-religious don’t even call themselves “atheists”—they just don’t think about God much. The term apatheist has been used to describe people who don’t believe in God because they are just too apathetic to think about if he exists or not. These atheists are content to let religious people live their lives without criticism as long as they are granted the same courtesy. Of course, some non-religious people, whether they consider themselves atheists or not, enjoy debating Christians. So whether the person we encounter is a curious questioner or an apostle for atheism, as Christians we should, in the words of St. Peter, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Make the Truth Accessible Both to Scholars and Laymen

Several years ago when I hosted an “answering atheism” seminar, I found that I could not recommend to the participants any one book defending the existence of God. Like Goldilocks, who found her porridge either too hot or too cold, I struggled between recommending books that were either too simple or too complex. The benefit of giving someone a simple apologetics book is that he is more likely to read it. The downside is that a shallow book may under-prepare him for the questions that skeptics will inevitably ask. Conversely, a long book by a professional philosopher will be great at preparing people for the tough questions. The downside is that readers who do not have adequate preparation in science or philosophy can become frustrated as they read such dense material. Rather than read such a book, it may just stay in a bookshelf gathering dust.

My approach is a compromise between these two positions. I have provided a large number of arguments so that the reader is prepared for a wide variety of conversations, but I’ve also explained those arguments with simple illustrations so that the reader is not overwhelmed by them.

If you want to find out how to talk to atheists, order your copy of Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity today.

Sep 11th 2023 Trent Horn

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