When I first entered the world of blogging I catered to a largely atheistic readership. Most of what I wrote would be considered Christian apologetics. I engaged in long discussions in the comments on my blog with many atheists. In fact, I often had to block Christians because they were being hostile to my atheist friends. I wrote with a mission to influence the worldviews of others, and found my own worldview transforming. I don’t know if I made a difference in the lives of my on-line atheists friends, but they made a difference in mine.
I told them I hoped to help dispel some of the myths Christians believe about them. Below are some of the lessons I learned in the several years of dialog with my atheists friends.
Not all atheists are the same.
Just like each Christian is a unique person with his or her own way of thinking about the world in the larger context of Christianity, atheists have their own beautiful diversity. It would be a mistake to read a book on atheism and think you have the goods on what makes an atheist.
Apologetics are for the already convinced.
I balked at this. I loved apologetics. I read every book I could get my hands on. I’ve read all the prominent apologetic authors. I’ve listened to their messages, watched their DVD’s, and attended their lectures and debates. Their information is exciting, it amazes me how much evidence there is supporting biblical Christianity. But I didn’t find Jesus through it; I only enjoyed learning the evidence of what I already believed.
Now many people have found Jesus through the ministries of apologists. I still enjoy many of their ministries immensely. But the apologists I like best are the ones that have a deep relationship with Jesus. These are the ones who are not serving up facts, but truth. There is a difference. People are not machines looking for the right combination of facts to input into their processor to compute God’s existence. If you have the goods, they want you to show them God. What good is information about God if it does not help someone connect to God?
Yes there are real questions that need honest intellectual answers, and apologists do well to provide theology that satisfies the mind as well as the heart. But people need to connect with Jesus, not His biography.
Atheists are smart people with good questions
A lot of Christians have the misconception that atheists are “fools” hence the overused and distasteful April Fool’s Day jokes plastered across Facebook. We get this idea from the 14th Psalm that a fool says in his heart that there is no God. This verse has a context of a Hebrew audience where the miracles of God were a part of their heritage. This is not ammunition to discredit atheists. The only people Jesus called names were the religious leaders of his day or his own disciples. Let’s apply the term “fools” to ourselves as we are legitimately fools for Christ and not use it to demean other people who have not yet connected with God in a tangible way.
Most American Atheists are ex-Christians
Again not all atheists are the same, but I found that the American atheists I have encountered have a long church history. They know the Scriptures, they know church culture, and they even know all the popular apologetic writers. In so doing, they are weary of hearing Christians tell them to read the Bible, go to church, or read this or that book. American atheists are generally not ignorant of these things, they have tried them and not found life in them.
Christians try to argue that the atheists didn’t read the right Scriptures, or the right translation, or go to the right church. Or they didn’t try church long enough. Or they didn’t try to connect with Jesus the right way. All this heaps condemnation on the atheist. They hear “you did it wrong” which quickly translates to “you are wrong.” They hear “God did not reveal himself to you because you were at the wrong kind of church.” Or “your attempts to know Jesus as a child were not adequate.”
Christians mean well. But we are too often so focused on getting a person saved that we miss the person in the process. Jesus is not dismayed with the atheist. He’s not looking at him or her as an abnormality that just didn’t stay the course long enough to win the race. Jesus does not want us to go around trying to get something from people, but He does want us to be something to people. He wants us to be Him to people, not a walking encyclopedia with all the answers about Him.
Atheists are not trying to persecute Christians
Many atheists just want to live their lives under the radar. They want to read good books, enjoy good movies, and raise their kids to be responsible adults. Just like secular journalists find the few unorthodox Christians to represent the whole, the Christian news sources find the atheists who are suing to remove crosses and Ten Commandments as representations of the whole. Our own subculture media does the same thing as mainstream media. We sensationalize the news and offer the extreme stories as a normal characterization of what we do not know.
Instead of believing rumors, befriend someone who does not think like you and get to know the person. Do not try to lead them to Jesus; just be a person who cares about his neighbor. It is a lot easier to love your neighbor over a warm meal than while listening to a journalist who never met him tell you what he is like.
I’ve learned a great deal more from atheists than these fourteen hundred words can communicate. But the best thing I can tell you is to not even take my words as your new characterization, but rather start getting to know real people. Don’t focus on saving their soul, but on the whole person sitting in front of you. You are not there to get something from them, just be a friend to them. And, no I’m not talking about “friendship evangelism.” Friendship is not a method, its real life. If it becomes a method, it is not love. Go, meet someone new today and serve them without expecting anything in return.