Evangelicals have zero clue how to approach atheists. That’s just the facts, ma’am.
Last time we met up, we talked about evangelicals’ weird redefinitions of atheism. With those redefinitions, they create a strawman caricature of atheists, which they have a much easier time dismantling and defeating. Today, I want to show you how they think their flocks should recruit atheists. If anything, their suggestions only highlight just how little they understand themselves, not just the unwashed heathens who stand well outside their tribalistic bubble.
(Some sources in today’s post come from hardline Catholics. Since they’re almost identical to evangelicals, I’ll allow it.)
(This post first went live on Patreon on 9/7/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too!)
Losing with atheists right out the gate: “Be respectful”
A Christian writing for Desiring God advises evangelicals to “Treat [atheists] with dignity and listen carefully.” He also demands that evangelicals actively listen to their evangelism targets. Hardline Catholic Brandon Vogt, writing for Get Principles.com, has similar advice: “Respect Their Intelligence.” Even the Creationist grifting site Answers in Genesis advises “respectful” and “gentle” treatment.
Unfortunately, evangelicals long ago lost any semblance of respect or dignity when it comes to their worst tribalistic enemies. In a very literal sense, they can’t show respect or treat atheists with dignity, much less ever really listen to them.
And how could they, with idiotic trash like this littering the Christ-o-sphere?
- This weirdo with Apologetics Central, whose entire writing output is little more than sneering, preening, self-congratulatory insults to atheists’ intelligence and reasoning abilities. His subsequent attempt to shut down those atheistic critics backfires even worse on himself. (BTW: I had to go to the Wayback Machine to find it. That website seems to have deep-sixed it for some completely baffling reason that is probably utterly unrelated to the writer looking like an absolute tool and hypocrite.)
- Apparently, Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic who claims that oh-so-trendy backstory of ex-atheism, advises a joking-but-not-really cringey negging attempt: “Oh, come on, you’re too smart to be an atheist!”
- A pastor who likes to slam atheists for being “presumptuous,” then informs readers that atheists don’t even really exist anyway because they all totally really do believe in Yahweh/Jesus, but they’re just denying it.
- Almost every single source I will be citing today contains thinly-veiled complaints about how ickie and mean atheists are to them. This is always paired with advice to be nice to them anyway, no matter how awful and mean and insulting those ickie mean atheists are to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who just wanna save them from Hell and all. That’ll sure get those martyrbation points racking up!
In the evangelical Christ-o-sphere in particular, Christians seem (to me at least) to be a little scared of atheists. I can’t blame them. I know how their leaders talk about atheists. That’s why Christians who can claim a past in atheism tend to get the most attention right now. Thirty years ago, trendy testimonies described a past in Wicca and/or Satanism.
Out of every group that knows evangelicals hate them, atheists know it the most. They’re well aware that evangelicals despise them and would enslave them if they could—indeed, as one prominent pastor wished for in his out-loud voice in 2013.
So what do evangelicals’ strawman atheists look like?
When we consider how evangelicals describe atheists, a strawman comes into focus.
That strawman looks like a liar, first and foremost. If atheists really did totally secretly believe deep down in Yahweh/Jesus, then they would be lying liars who lie about their lack of faith.
Our strawman also looks embarrassingly but willfully ignorant. Gosh, if only atheists understood that all science relies completely on scientists having Christian faith! That would have shocked all the pre-Christian folks making big new discoveries, but who’s keeping track? So atheists want to do science without faith in Yahweh/Jesus. That makes them total stupidheads!
Strawman atheists are also super-duper angry at Christians for no reason. Oh, worse perhaps: Fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin! See, they totally do believe deep down. Remember? So they hate seeing TRUE CHRISTIANS™ Jesusing in public. If a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ dares to talk to atheists, then, they must be prepared for abuse. It’s not because atheists detest being evangelized by rude, thoughtless, presumptuous Christians. No no! It’s because they hate Jesus so much.
These strawmen have obviously also never really been evangelized by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Or else they have, but that previous Christian only “planted a seed,” to use the Christianese, which some future TRUE CHRISTIAN™ will reap. Either way, only a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ can tame such a wicked beast.
And in Strawman Country, it’s not evangelicals harassing, persecuting, and spreading hatred of atheists. No no! It’s totally the other way around! Always!
How to handle complete dealbreakers from atheists
I loved the Desiring God column about how to talk to atheists. After telling evangelicals to really truly for-realsies listen to atheistic evangelism targets, writer David Robinson then offers the following advice about what he calls “defeater beliefs.” These are statements that destroy Christian claims in the supernatural. In a very real sense, they “defeat” erstwhile evangelists. Here are the ones he offers, along with how he mangles them to defang them a bit:
We have no beliefs. We are just people who don’t believe in a God — but if you provided enough evidence, we would.
You Christians are unbelievers in Thor, Zeus, and all gods except one. We just go one God further.
We have science; you have faith — and faith, by definition, is blind.
People can be moral without God. Therefore, people have no need of God.
Robinson tells evangelicals to “be willing to address” these “defeater beliefs.” But then he never offers any way to address them. In fact, he seems to be implying that evangelicals should completely ignore them.
Instead, he tells evangelicals to be super-nice to atheistic evangelism targets—and that only Yahweh/Jesus can make anyone believe anyway, so they don’t need to worry about arguing any of these points.
By the way, here’s the un-mangled third and fourth assertion:
- No Christians have ever demonstrated that their claims are true. Not one, not ever. Meanwhile, the scientific method consistently produces results. If a Christian wishes to have faith in a god anyway, that’s on them, but it’s faith for no good reason at all. Whenever Christians try to say they have a credible, objectively-true reason to believe, they turn out to be mistaken or lying.
- People can be (and are) moral without God. They can also be (and are) disgustingly immoral with God. Therefore, no gods are making their followers behave better than non-believers.
It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a few reasons to explain why Robinson shied so far away from dealing with these so-called “defeater beliefs.” Nor does it take much imagination to guess why he had to mangle the third and fourth assertions like he did.
How to handle disbelief from atheists
Almost every source cited today insists that atheists do too believe—usually in Yahweh/Jesus, but also in their certainty that no gods exist.
As Robinson tells us in Desiring God:
An atheist is someone who believes there is no God. Furthermore, they believe they have the ability to absolutely determine whether or not evidence is objective. In other words, many of them don’t recognize that they too have faith — they have faith that they don’t have faith! They have faith in the reliability of their rational powers and in the belief that they should only believe things they can prove.Atheism is based upon a series of beliefs, most of which are unverifiable. For example, every atheist I’ve ever met believes in naturalism. It’s not that they have verifiable evidence that everything is material; they believe that everything is material.
See what I mean? By mangling the definition of atheism, evangelicals try to make atheists sound absurd and dumb. It’s just a dog-and-pony show for the rubes, who might get tricked into trying these apologetics tricks out on unwitting targets.
More and more atheists seem to be getting wise to these sleigh-of-hand maneuvers. It’s easy to set a Christian straight on this score by explaining the null hypothesis, which is what atheism is. It makes no claims and offers no belief statements. Instead, it demands anyone claiming that gods exist to demonstrate that point in a credible, objective way.
Robinson can’t do that. If he could, he already would have. So instead, he backs away like a coward from his burden of proof—and hopes nobody catches him out on it. He ends that little section, by the way, like this:
They also believe there is no (and can be no) evidence for God’s existence. A simple way to respond to this is asking what evidence they would actually accept.
Atheists do not believe that at all, of course. They just know that no god-believer has ever found any evidence to support their claims. But I definitely hope more evangelicals start asking atheists “what evidence they would actually accept.” Dude’s blown it already with his column, which is an excellent overall example of the opposite of providing evidence for his claims. And he knows he has, because his column’s ending advises evangelicals again to be super-nice to their atheistic evangelism targets.
Christians: But now let’s talk about you; what do you think of Yahweh/Jesus?
There’s a hilarious line in Rock & Rule, a 1983 animated movie (that is one of my favorites in the whole world). In one scene, the antagonist, Mok, flirts with the heroine, Angel:
Mok: Enough about them. Let’s talk about you. What did you think of my last album?
When evangelical leaders teach their flocks to evangelize atheists, they almost always stress the importance of listening to their targets and having a two-way conversation. Unfortunately, evangelism itself stymies both of those ideals. By its nature, it cannot allow any real input from targets. An evangelist’s pitch combusts upon impact with any real input from others. It’s far too easy to go off-pitch and into the weeds that way.
Armed with the false knowledge about atheists really having tons of unprovable beliefs (and believing in Yahweh/Jesus in particular deep down), Brandon Vogt pulls exactly this tactic on his Catholic blog:
Instead of trying to present your views aggressively to your atheist friend, first ask them what they believe. This tact will accomplish two results simultaneously. First, you will understand where they are coming from, so you are not responding to a straw man version of their beliefs; second, you will force them to clarify exactly what they believe, which can lead them to detect holes in their view that will cause them to question their atheist beliefs.Along these lines, there are two questions I love to raise with an atheist. First, I like to ask, “Which argument for God do you find strongest, and why does it fail?” Or to ask it another way, “What’s the best reason to believe in God, and why does it not convince you?” This angle puts them on the spot—not in a bad way but in a way that causes them to reflect on whether they have actually considered the God question fairly and thoroughly.
Again, here we’re seeing a Christian backing away from his own burden of proof. He can’t meet it and he knows he can’t, so he tries to push it off on his target instead. A hard-sales commission-paid salesperson might do the same thing in asking a would-be buyer what price they’re willing to offer for a given product.
Vogt redeems himself somewhat later by advising erstwhile evangelists to ask their targets what it’d take for them to
drive this lil number off the lot TODAY BABY believe in Jesus. But he’s already blown the sale, just as that other guy Robinson already blew it. Of course, then he tries to mangle the definition of evidence, which also means that he knows very well that he lacks any. When a crooked salesperson starts attacking the very definitions of reality to make their product sound somewhat less defective and overpriced, it’s time for the buyer to write them off and leave.
When is advice not really advice at all?
My Evil Ex aimed his soulwinning attempts specifically at atheists in college, and he did not bagsie even one. Nothing’s really changed since in terms of evangelizing atheists since the 1990s, either. All that’s really happened is that evangelicals got way more obnoxious and tribalistic, while atheists got better at countering their attempted zingers and gotchas.
As you might already suspect, then, this advice isn’t really well-meaning advice at all. It’s highly unlikely that any Christian using any of it will actually manage to convert any atheists. Atheists are damned near immune to the come-ons of Christianity.
When we encounter bad advice like this, we need to perceive it in terms of its effect on its intended audience. In this case, that means hardline evangelicals (and Catholics). When we put on our Free Guy sunglasses, we can see the hardening of hearts and minds in that audience. We can hear what their Dear Leaders are telling them between the lines of their bad advice:
- Our enemies are idiots who are easy to defeat
- They hate us for no good reason
- We have tons of great reasons for believing in Yahweh/Jesus
- Pity our enemies, who wish to remain willfully ignorant of all those reasons
- LOOKIT! WE FOUND A REAL LIVE ROOTIN’ TOOTIN’ EX-ATHEIST TO TELL IT LIKE IT IS!
- If you lose faith, we’ll be treating you like this too.
The advice-givers demanding their audiences be nice to atheists is really the cherry on the shitpile sundae. They’re tacitly admitting that emotional manipulation is the only thing that works, insofar as anything they advise works, to convert atheists.
(Another source admitted as much when advising evangelists to pray with their targets before getting into the sales pitch portion of the festivities.)
Just as apologetics isn’t really aimed at non-believers, evangelism advice isn’t really given for the purpose of scoring Jesus sales. This stuff is completely aimed at the flocks themselves. We heathens aren’t paying these Dear Leaders’ bills or warming their church pews with our bottoms.
Finally, someone asking the right people
Overall, Christians wishing to evangelize atheists are best served by ignoring these guys. Instead, they should check out this Quora thread, which contains input from the people they actually wish to reach. The question was simple: “How do I talk to an atheist about God?”
And the top reply really says it all:
Please don’t. Just leave us alone. We are exhausted from hearing the same arguments and Bible verses over and over and over. We’re exhausted from logically refuting your arguments while you persist in telling us about your God.
This lady wasn’t the only one saying that, either. It goes on for pages, with atheists expressing only a wish for would-be evangelists to stop perceiving their own sense of urgency as a veto overriding atheists’ desire to be left alone.
I really do wish more Christians would do exactly what this Quora questioner has done: ask actual atheists that question. They won’t get accurate answers or strategies from inside their bubbles. Their ranks are too full of supposed ex-atheists who can’t even accurately define atheism (but whose atheism always looks exactly like the strawman atheist that their leaders have constructed). They’re also too full of Dear Leaders whose only real goal is thickening the walls of their tribalistic bubbles.
But how would Christians even think to ask actual atheists anything? Remember, their leaders specifically teach that atheists are stone-cold liars and meaniepies, as well as stupidheads who can’t think straight. It’s a wonder Christians even think atheists are human at all, and not some weird, subhuman Morlock race. And I strongly suspect that a lot of Christians actually do think that.
All that Christian love implodes on impact with tribalism
What’s so funny here—to me at least—is that the product all of these salespeople are peddling isn’t actually belief in Jesus, nor even belief in any particular flavor of Christianity. These salespeople actually sell active membership in their own groups, whatever those groups might be. It’s just that almost nobody ever joins their groups unless they first buy into whatever flavor of Christianity the salesperson’s group likes.
As it happens, though, getting people to join a group is a lot easier than persuading them to adopt a belief system that runs completely counter to reality.
- Offer potential recruits a functional group of people who are doing things that look enjoyable and/or meaningful.
- Ensure that the recruit feels welcomed and relevant.
- Make the cost of joining reasonable, and keep ongoing costs reasonable. Don’t ask more than people are willing to pay.
This is how I ended up joining a Master Gardener group in Georgia. At the time, I lived in a tiny little North Georgia foothills village that had not yet gotten swallowed up by Atlanta’s ever-expanding size. As the group’s youngest member, I ended up planting a “butterfly garden” and attending classes and everything. My shriveled brown thumb became green!
Now, I’m sure almost all of the little old ladies in that group were strong, fervent Christians. It was that kind of village. But they all had clearly made a tacit agreement not to talk about controversial stuff in the club, so it was nothing but fun and learning for very little money spent. Plus, goddamn, I got SO. MANY. BUTTERFLIES in my garden. (I once counted 7 or 8 different species enjoying a huge Butterfly Bush in my garden.)
I think our advice-givers today know these truths as well as I do, because almost all of them come down on the side of being super-nice to their evangelism targets in the end. Indeed, when I hear about someone who is actually atheistic who converts to Christianity, it usually happens because their new churchmates were really kind to them. The ideology involved is almost incidental.
That said, oh my goodness, I would love to one day witness some hapless evangelist asking an atheist what it’d take to convert them. The very idea is making me laugh. What a sad concession of failure that would be! But it’s not like victory is anywhere within their grasp, so why not?
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