What can Christians do for atheists, and themselves?

Question from Lane:
Reading these essays here on ATA has both strengthened my faith in God and given me a better respect for atheists, by giving me a more comprehensive understanding. The color blue does not look the same to everyone (being subjective, “blue” is a label), but everyone should be encouraged to express what and how they believe.

That said, I have two questions:

1. What things can us Christians do that benefit atheists?
2. What are the disruptive or distracting things that Christians should avoid?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written before that examining one’s own beliefs can lead to either strengthening or abandoning them. I came to this site as a reader (among other sites, religious and otherwise) to see if there was anything in the challenges submitted by Christians that might restore my faith in God, and nothing did. If you’re secure in your faith then good for you.

The number one thing Christians can do for atheists is something a lot of Christians already do, which is to support secularism in government and society. This does not mean the absence of religion but merely the separation of church and state or other authorities, so that no one religion gains power over others or over the irreligious. As an atheist in Australia I’ve got it pretty good (I’m a bit worried about how the school chaplaincy program will eventually intersect with my son’s education), but here as elsewhere the problems atheists have are mostly caused by specific religions exerting their political and/or social power to affect non-adherents in all kinds of ways. A minor example is the endlessly repeated fight over monuments to the Ten Commandments in US courthouses. An extreme one is the unchecked victimisation of atheist and secularist writers in Bangladesh.

Other than supporting secularism, Christians can help atheists and other non-Christians just by learning more about other belief systems, which will prevent a lot of assumptions around the idea that everyone will think or behave like a Christian in certain situations. I’ll come back to this point.

Apart from literally attacking non-believers, which doesn’t happen much in most countries, the most disruptive and distracting thing Christians do is proselytise. I don’t actually hold this against them, because after all many of them believe they are commanded to do so, and even if not then they still think accepting Jesus is the single best thing people can do for themselves. Put more simply, if you think people are wrong about something important then you see changing their minds as helping them out, and that’s fine. But there are absolutely wrong ways to go about it.

One very common approach is to not only utilise but monopolise public speaking platforms and other one-way communication. The market street in my old hometown had a speakers’ stone, where you could talk about anything for 30 minutes. An organised squad of evangelists tag-teamed the stone for hours, every high-traffic day for months. (I hope they eventually changed the rules but it’s more likely that they just removed the stone.) A large percentage of public/community access television airtime is pre-booked by the devout. This approach can bleed into private conversation too, when any opportunity to steer the topic to what God would think is seized upon.

I think it stems from the idea that the Word of the Lord is literally magical, that it has the power to claim souls not merely through persuasion but by serving as a conduit for divine influence. Therefore there’s a lot of effort to spread the Word with speeches, tracts and railroaded small talk, but not much effort to make it stick. They think the Word will do the work for them, and good luck to them.

What I would suggest instead, if your fellow Christians want to engage others on the topic, is to truly engage with people. The spray-and-pray approach of declaiming the spiritual facts as you see them, or handing them out on an A4 sheet folded into a pamphlet, does not give any opportunity for reply and does not therefore put your own ideas up for discussion or challenge. People are far more likely to listen to you if they think you are willing to listen to them too, and that means exposing yourself to ideas that might challenge your faith. It’s a risk that I seriously hope Christians are willing to take, because it’s win-win; if their faith turns out to be unsupportable they can rid themselves of it and look at the world anew (perhaps re-finding faith later), or like you they can become more confident for the experience and also better able to co-exist with non-Christians.

The short and flattering version of all this, Lane, is that many Christians could afford to be more like you. We get a lot of questions from Christians, but most are really flat-out challenges that they think will stump us cold. I much prefer when they genuinely expect and want to read an answer. That’s what engaging means.

“Come back here and think, dammit!”

Question from Devilush:
Why is i when I try to discuss Atheism with a theist,they always seem to run away in one way or another?Whenever their faith is challenged with science and logic they run from the conversation…do they know they are full of **** and can’t handle it so they would rather not even hear it,do they really have no will of their own and have to cling to the idea that they are watched over by a invisible incompetent father figure who does not give a ****?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s because you’re not talking to the right theists.

Sure, there are those who want to stay clear of anything which might make them question their faith, possibly because their faith demonises doubt itself, because they have a rule about arguing over religion and politics, because they don’t want to argue with you in general or simply because they don’t like having to defend their deepest convictions at short notice. That’s their choice.

Take it from me, though, there are plenty of believers out there who will happily engage you. Many of these amateur apologists write to Ask the Atheist treating it as a game of Stump the Atheist. (That’s fine by us, it makes for some of the most interesting exchanges.)

If you want to meet these people outside of the internet, they’re not too hard to find because they’re supposed to make it their business to reach out to non-believers. They’re at markets and festivals handing out pamphlets with meeting times and places. Your local Alpha course is run by one, and will probably have several more along for support. (Check out the journal of an atheist who stuck out the whole eleven weeks.)

Generally, though, keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk about this stuff at any given time. If someone proselytises around you and then won’t listen to your response, you’re justified in calling them out for being unwilling to take what they dish out. Just as non-believers are entitled to deny preachers their attention, some people just won’t want to hear about religion from you either. Don’t take it personally, and don’t judge them too quickly.