I admit it: I love terrible Christian advice. It’s just so plentiful, and just so bad. It’s like the dead opposite of what someone should actually do in any given situation. Of late, I’ve been checking out evangelism advice, and it’s just as cringey as you’d imagine. Then, I thought to zero in on one type of evangelism: how to evangelize atheists. We’ll be checking out some of that bad advice today, but not just to laugh at it. No, we’ll be looking at it with an eye toward seeing what it actually does to deepen the rifts between Christians and their current culture-war enemies.

Welcome back, everyone! It’s Tuesday, March 15, 2022, and this is Captain Cassidy with Roll to Disbelieve. I hope you enjoy today’s post. Before we get started, I’d like to thank my patrons and supporters! Without your help, I couldn’t do what I do. Thank you. If you’d like to support my work yourself, at the end of today’s writeup I’ll give you a bunch of links for ways to do that. Thanks for whatever you decide to do!

Oh, a quick note as we start: when I talk about evangelists’ product, that product is active membership in their own group. That’s it. They just push hard on their specific religious claims because it’s very rare for a non-believer to buy their actual product.

And now, let’s see how evangelists teach their flocks how to talk to atheists.

Atheists: the fields are white unto harvest

As most of us know by now, the number of atheists is only growing larger by the year. A 2019 Pew Research study revealed that the number of atheists has grown steadily over the past ten years. As of then, about 4% of American adults said they were atheists. In Europe, the percentages climb even higher: almost 20% of Belgians, about a quarter of people in the Czech Republic, 15% of folks in France, and 8% of people in the UK.

Of course, Pew Research used the actual definition of atheism, which is non-belief in any gods. The Christians we’ll be checking out today operate with a very different definition. Often, we’ll see Christians conflate the religiously-unaffiliated into professed atheists’ numbers. To them, atheists are just people who aren’t Christian and don’t practice any religions.

So to them, they’re absolutely surrounded by atheists.

As the Christianese goes, those evangelism fields are white unto harvest! And they’ve been saying this at least since the late 1800s, when William L. Walkinson (b. 1838 – d. 1925) was active. One of his sermons, “White Already,” consisted of brief bits of advice about converting various types of prospects–including the atheist.

Time to get those scythes out, y’all!

How to convert atheists, totally

In “White Already,” we see this advice for aspiring atheist-converters:

What do they want? Argumentation, say many. No; men cannot get rid of their religion so easily as some think. The atheist has eyes to see this wondrous universe, spiritual longings, thoughts, arguments within himself not to [be] suppressed, and is compelled to doubt his doubts. Go to him, and speak not so much to the sceptic as to the man.

In essence, Walkinson advises his followers to use emotional manipulation instead of apologetics and arguments. Not much has changed since then. As we’ll see, most of the modern advice is geared toward exactly the same kind of manipulation.

But as we’ll also see, the self-interest of Christian hucksters comes into play here. Someone who sells apologetics material for a living will always say that apologetics is super-important in converting atheists. And we’ll see an awful lot of so-called ex-atheists here, too, who are all selling their own testimonies as magic bullet solutions.

We talked about this a long time ago. Claiming a past in trendy atheism is a great way to get attention and money from desperate Christians. With atheism being Christians’ big culture-war enemy, anyone who can shoehorn atheism into their conversion testimony can expect big returns.

First advice: Use lifestyle evangelism on atheists!

Our first piece of advice comes from Bebe Nicholson, writing for Medium. Her 2020 post is simply titled “How To Talk To An Atheist About God.” Its subtitle is a dig at all those naughty bad Christians she thinks are driving people away from her product. Get a load of it:

Too many people have been hurt by organized religion and by those who claim to be Christians.

The post runs about how you expect. She confesses to having a boring testimony, and she’s clearly unwilling to do what really sales-minded Christians do in these situations: doctor it up to sound spectacular. Then, she tells us that the so-called miracles she has totally and for realsies experienced would just be considered coincidences by most non-Christians. (And she’s right, because that’s what they almost certainly are.) So, those wouldn’t be persuasive reasons to convert either.

Then, she says that her husband, who was “agnostic” before their marriage, converted afterward because he saw how much “joy and purpose” she seemed to have in her life through belief.

That was her lightbulb moment, it seems, because now she’s pushing what Christians call “lifestyle evangelism” as a means of converting atheists.

Lifestyle evangelism simply means living out Christian ideals in one’s life. The idea is that this will give the Christian evangelist a sort of Jesus aura that will inevitably attract non-believers. They’ll want some of that for themselves. (“They’re just so, I dunno, DIFFERENT I guess!”)

The problem with lifestyle evangelism

It’s worth noting, however, that Bebe Nicholson doesn’t mention this approach working on anyone but her husband. And one wonders if her husband would have converted at all if they hadn’t been married. One also wonders if she’d have married someone who professed actual atheism at all, and if her Jesus aura would have worked on someone like that. Clearly, it doesn’t work–or she’d never shut up about all the people she’s converted.

And it is indeed a popular approach, though it doesn’t work. We all know enough hypocritical, nasty Christians that we simply can’t believe that one particular Christian is good because of Christianity itself. If Christianity made believers better people than non-Christians could ever be, we’d see next to no hypocrites.

The writer herself sees Jesus’ success in evangelism as being about him building real live relationships with his marks, so she thinks Christians need to do that too: build relationships, which will then lead people to buy her product. Too bad she can’t marry everybody!

Interestingly, she ends with a declaration of how evangelism actually helps her, not her marks:

Maybe my problem with an elevator speech is that we don’t form relationships in elevators. And we need relationships before we can show what it means to be a Christ-follower. [. . .]

Maybe God doesn’t give me an elevator speech because he is more concerned that I lend a hand rather than win a convert. Maybe he knows my own spiritual growth occurs, not through a verbal proclamation that Jesus is Lord, but through living out that truth daily.

We’ll return to this idea later. For now, I just wanted to point it out. Hold onto this thread. We’ll weave it back into the tapestry in a bit!

A smorgasbord of options from the ‘Strange Notions’ dude

In 2013, Brandon Vogt, who writes the uber-Catholic blog Strange Notions, offered us a review of a whole set of CDs called “How To Talk to Atheists.” This collection features three different evangelistic hucksters all shilling their own solutions to this thorny problem. Strange Notions, itself, claims to be a place of “dialogue between Catholics and atheists.” Take that as you will; I’ve never been impressed with it or its writer.

Interestingly, the 2013 edition of his “About” page tells us that he only converted to Catholicism in 2008. Catholic converts can be some really, really weird ducks–often they go whole hog on the religion in a way that lifelong Catholics find extremely off-putting and weird. They also tend to be way more focused on evangelism than any lifelong Catholic ever would be. Vogt himself is no exception to these rules. Though he was super-new to the religion still in 2013, he still felt fully qualified to write about theology and spirituality–and to try to convert his tribe’s culture-war enemies. That’s some nerve!

In his review, Vogt claims that he gets “inundated” with requests to help his readers evangelize their atheist friends and loved ones. So this review is about how to do that.

And we get a little dose of pretty much all the techniques evangelists offer.

Evangelical apologist huckster William Lane Craig offers up his own pet arguments: the Kalam cosmological argument and “the moral argument.”

Another similar huckster, the Catholic Robert Spitzer, offers apologetics based on his favorite topic, quantum physics.

The last voice on the CD, Catholic Jennifer Fulwiler, claims to have been an ex-atheist. It sounds more like she was simply raised religiously-unaffiliated. She goes for lifestyle evangelism and emotional manipulation.

The problem with using apologetics and manipulation on atheists

It’s worth noting that the commenters on the original blog post weren’t having it. One, Michelle, wrote:

I’d be very surprised if any atheist read this and said “yes, that’s how to talk to us.”

And I’d agree. What this CD offers is a sort of sampler of products from three different hucksters. Each huckster has their own little product, and it’s the product they claim best works to convert atheists.

Naturally, apologists will offer apologetics as the key to converting atheists. It is, after all, the product they create and sell. Naturally, a largely-theologically-illiterate Christian blogger will offer lifestyle evangelism and manipulation.

If someone’s not expecting the mind-games that evangelists play, this kind of manipulation can certainly catch them off-guard and hit hard. Indeed, Brandon Vogt himself seems to put an awful lot of stock in apologetics hand-waving, as a later post of his demonstrates. (It’s hilariously intellectually dishonest and bald-facedly manipulative, and I definitely encourage you to check it out if you like awful apologetics attempts as much as I do.)

But more and more often, people are ready for this manipulation. Gen Z people in particular seem a lot better at spotting evangelists’ mind-games–and then rejecting them out of hand.

It does seem like evangelists need their marks to be immersed in the concepts involved from birth or earliest childhood in order to have a chance of landing an apologetics or manipulation-based evangelism attempt. Without that long-term immersion, they get laughed offstage–as they deserve to be.

The Creationists have entered the chat

Next up, we get a bit of a treat. Answers in Genesis, an evangelical Creationist group, offers up a 2015 post called “How Should We Talk to Atheists?” This post doesn’t offer any specific talking points, but rather focuses on the behavior of evangelists toward their marks. Their writer tells Christians:

Paul instructed Timothy not to be quarrelsome but to be patient, gentle, and humble (2 Timothy 2:23–26). Nonetheless, he also told him to “rebuke” when necessary “with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–5). So, even when we have to boldly point out a scoffer’s repeated refusal to hear God’s Word, we should do this with humble, patient teaching, not caustic personal attacks. [. . .]

May God help us be humble, loving, bold, winsome, and confident defenders of the Christian faith as we seek to lead atheists (or anyone else) to the Savior.

They also advise that when speaking about atheists, Christians should be kind and gracious at all times.

These Christians ought to take their own advice. The banner image above this post is of a man with a blindfold over his eyes, and the post constantly describes atheists as mean-spirited, nasty, profanity-loaded assholes to poor widdle sweet evangelists who are JUS’ BEIN’ KRISCHIN. None of that sounds kind or gracious to me. No atheist reading that post and seeing that stuff would come away thinking that Christians were kind, gracious people.

In gaming, we’d call this an example of ludonarrative dissonance, by the way, where the game’s narrative message is contradicted by its actual gameplay.

The problem with fake graciousness

As I just demonstrated, evangelists’ prospects can easily tell when a huckster is loading on the sweetsy-syrupy nicey-nice act just to score a sale.

Even when this Answers in Genesis guy is preaching to his flocks about only acting nice and kind and never returning blows from his enemies, he’s talking about those same prospects in the worst imaginable terms. It’s beyond clear that he doesn’t think highly of atheists as a group. And it’s beyond clear why the atheists he engages with might get a little testy with him.

In a similar vein, I’ve heard countless Christians complain about consistently poor service they receive in restaurants. These same Christians then talk about how they never tip waitstaff and mistreat them. I’ve almost never had poor service in any restaurant, meanwhile, but then again, I tip well. If Christians mistreat tons of people, then yes, some of those people are going to react to that. But then the Christian gets to complain about being totally persecuted FER JUS’ BEIN’ KRISCHIN! Win-win!

I mean, it’s not bad advice to be gracious toward one’s sales prospects. Maybe this Answers in Genesis guy should try it himself.

A whole lotta nothin’ for evangelizing atheists

Next up, a deeper dive into the mind of Jennifer Fulwiler. In a post from Catholic News Agency, her bio blurb claims that she was “a lifelong atheist,” which contradicts the 2013 bio she offers as having been raised unaffiliated. We learn that she, too, is a Catholic convert from about 2007, which makes her inclusion in that 2013 collection all the funnier.

At any rate, she and her co-writer Jason Anderson offer a 10-point listicle about how to talk to atheists.

It’s not a terrible listicle overall. For example, it asks her readers not to make big assumptions about why atheists don’t believe Christian blahblah. It also asks quite an interesting question, though she doesn’t do anything with it:

8) Put yourself in your atheist friends’ position. What if, for example, Christianity was false and Greek mythology was actually true? What would it take to convince you of that?

But she and her co-writer make some very big mistakes in it. This post is probably from around 2021, and in it Fulwiler wades into apologetics, especially shit-tier apologetics from the likes of C.S. Lewis. The post she participated in writing doesn’t even mention lifestyle evangelism. That’s an understandable shift, since by now Christians are more aware that it just doesn’t work to score sales.

She’s also moving success goalposts. That also doesn’t surprise me given how long Christianity’s decline has lasted. Instead of conversion, now her stated goal is “to plant a seed.” Just that. She thinks her imaginary friend will do the rest if he pleases.

Other than that, this post doesn’t really offer any concrete suggestions about talking to atheists. It’s more a list of mistakes to try to avoid–while encouraging other mistakes.

The real way for Christians to evangelize atheists

What’s strange is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen any real advice about evangelizing atheists that might actually work to create a sales engagement.

No Christian advisers ever instruct their flocks to ask for informed consent before launching into a sales pitch. Similarly, their invitations to talk about Jesus rarely reveal that their true intention is to sell their product. And they tend to approach prospects as if it’s their right to intrude on them, tell them they’re dead wrong about everything, and demand they change their whole lives around right then and there. There’s a distinct power dynamic at play here, one that puts evangelists well above their marks in authority, and it’s one evangelists clearly like.

Worse, these advice posts tend to reinforce a stereotype of atheism that I suspect most atheists would never recognize. A 2009 post from Dare 2 Share describes “Andy the Atheist.” The photo in the post depicts a slump-shouldered, slack-jawed, bleary-eyed guy wearing an “ATHEIST” T-shirt. Greg Stier, Dare 2 Share’s owner, revamped the post by 2021, but it retains his stereotyped ideas–including the notion that atheists don’t recognize the concept of morality. In a lot of ways, then, evangelists Other their targets–often even dehumanizing them or rendering them incapable of human needs, drives, feelings, and desires.

Interestingly, Stier runs afoul of the advice we find on many other such advice posts (like John Rothra’s), which is not to strawman atheists or make assumptions about them.

The real advice, Don’t sell atheists your product unless they ask you for information, wouldn’t fly at all with Christians. That puts evangelists on the same power level as their targets, and it puts their beliefs on the same shelf as anything else a huckster might sell.

Here’s why evangelists can’t offer that real advice

Remember a hot minute ago when I mentioned how Bebe Nicholson, in that Medium post, talked about her real motivation for doing lifestyle evangelism? Let’s look at the money quote again:

Maybe God doesn’t give me an elevator speech because he is more concerned that I lend a hand rather than win a convert. Maybe he knows my own spiritual growth occurs, not through a verbal proclamation that Jesus is Lord, but through living out that truth daily.

What happened to talking unbelievers into following Jesus, and I quote from her post, “that they may have life, and have it to the full” like she claims to have? Why is her own spiritual growth even mentioned in a post about selling product to atheists?

I think she’s let something slip here, and it’s something important.

To all these Christians selling evangelism tactics to the flocks, something else is, indeed, way more important than scoring sales.

Evangelism isn’t about atheists, or anybody really, except for the evangelists themselves

Let’s look at what happens when someone goes out and buys some huckster’s evangelism product? They spend money on it. That money goes right into the huckster’s pocket. And it goes there regardless of whether or not the product works to convert anyone, much less atheists. Once the transaction is finished, the huckster has their money already. It’s gone and spoken for.

But this is the safest grift of all. No Christian is going to come asking for a refund because an atheist laughed at their sad little manipulation attempt. Instead, the flocks have been taught since birth that if they buy self-help materials from a huckster and the product doesn’t fulfill its promises, that they did it all wrong. Or Jesus didn’t want it to work, so whaddya gonna do?

They’re not going to realize that the product itself is flawed and can’t possibly work.

What these materials actually do is keep more butts warming pews for way longer than without it. They give Christians the notion that even if those products don’t work for them, they must work for someone. Here’s the huckster talking about how effective it is! Lookit their testimonials! All these Christians would never lie, right? Right?

So these products must work! They must prove that Christianity is not only a reasonable belief to hold, but the only reasonable one possible!

There’s a reason why these materials proliferate during Christianity’s decline

And if these would-be evangelists actually do ever score a sale, well, the tribe will gladly take it. Even if none of the flocks ever score a sale, though, evangelism products still fulfill a vital purpose in these days of Christianity’s ongoing and inexorable decline in members, credibility, and cultural power.

There’s a reason why apologetics products and strategy guides are exploding in popularity, and that’s definitely part of it.

The other part is that Christians still can’t come to grips with their religion being more and more optional by the day. As more and more people leave it and express criticism of it and its practitioners, salesmanship is becoming way more important.

I don’t think Christians are coping well with that new normal. But evangelists flat-out refuse to accept it. Evangelism product sellers still operate as if Christianity were the only product on the marketplace–and moreover, as if it were still one that consumers are compelled to buy, lest they face serious retaliation from the ambassadors of the Lord of Love and Prince of Peace.

In short, evangelism materials help Christians feel like they’re still the superiors of those they evangelize (when they’re not), and that their religious claims really and truly do have solid support in the real world (when they don’t).

In their dreams, they are free indeed.

And this has been Captain Cassidy for Roll to Disbelieve! Thank you for listening, and please check out the end of the writeup for ways you can support my work. Have a wonderful night! See you Thursday!

How you can support Roll to Disbelieve

And now, here are some ways you can support my work:

  • Patreon, of course, for as little as a dollar a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of regular readers.
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Thank you so much for listening, reading, and being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!

Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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