July 21, 2018


I received two letters this week from friends/readers asking for input and advice on relating to atheists in their workplace/families. It brought to mind a number of things I’ve been wanting to say about evangelicals and their take on atheism.

When I was growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, the face of atheism was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I knew three things about O’Hair: she had taken prayer and the Bible out of our public schools, she was trying to get religious programs off of television and she was a weirdo.

For years, O’Hair provided the face of atheism to America: an angry, ranting, God-hating, bitter old woman who wanted to force her bitterness on the rest of the country. The way to defeat O’Hair was simple: Christians needed to sign a lot of petitions and vote the right way when elections came around.

It was safe to say that few people wanted to be like Mrs. O’Hair, no matter what their case against God and religion happened to be.

In my collection of videos I have another face of atheism. It’s a “debate” between Frank Zinnser, an atheist and geologist from Chicago, and Dr. William Lane Craig and his three Ph.ds. It takes place at Willow Creek Community Church in front of a massive crowd of Christians. Zinnser is awkward and amateurish, raising freshman level objections to the Bible that have nothing to do with the case for atheism. Craig, polished, erudite, prepared and pracitced, mops the floor with Zinnser’s bad toupee and worse presentation. It’s a demolition job that’s hard to watch.

At one point Zinnser notes that there’s a bigger crowd for this debate than the usual attendance at the atheist luncheon. I’m sure.

The message for evangelicals: atheists are clowns. We can defeat them in any arena. We need not fear them because our team can eat their lunch.

I have a shelf of books responding to atheism. Ravi Zacharias. William Lane Craig. Tim Keller. No one can accuse evangelicals of ignoring the subject. Many of these books are written in response to the publishing onslaught of the new atheists: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and many others.

One way the game has changed is that when you proclaim yourself an atheist today, you aren’t signing up with O’Hair and Zinnser and the atheist luncheon in the Chihuahua Room at the Peoria Super 8. Now you are identifying with respected scientists and journalists. Whether you agree with the new atheists rantings about the threat of religion to the world or not, it’s a lot easier to be an atheist. When John Lennox debated Richard Dawkins in the Birmingham Civic Center, Dawkins was cheered like a rock star by a very young crowd.

But I’m convinced the game is not primarily about arguments any more. As grateful as I am for Tim Keller’s great book The Reason For God and his two hour presentations on You Tube, and as happy as I am that David Bentley Hart and others have convincingly demonstrated the fallacies of the new atheist arguments, the truth is that the contemporary atheist doesn’t plan to play a game of 21 with our NBA All Stars. No, he/she is going to sound more like Ricky Gravais in the video above.

Atheism is just….easier. Occam’s Razor. Theism is too much trouble. It starts to sound like someone is trying to sell you something sight unseen. Isn’t your best move just to hang up the phone and ignore the call?

Douglas Wilson may be witty and William Lane Craig may be brilliant. John Lennox may teach at Oxford and Ravi Zacharias may be able to quote a dozen philosophers, but most atheist young people today are like Brad Pitt. Pitt was a kid walking the aisles in Baptist revivals, trying to find God in that mess when he met a Methodist preacher’s daughter who told him it was OK to just say no to it all. He didn’t have to live like that. He could call the torture sessions off and just be himself.

That’s what’s going on, my friends. I’m not zeroing out the big gunners, but I think it’s time to stop running from your kid’s professor and start thinking more about his friend who recently left his youth group and stop believing anything except the joys of rock climbing.

One of my letters this week stated that a 17 year old raised in an evangelical family was now an avid atheist, with many of the hijinks of evangelicalism as evidence of manipulation and control. He couldn’t mean take off your shoes and spin your socks over your head while singing “Jesus mess me up?” Why would that bother anyone?

Write this down: When the coming evangelical collapse happens, and especially when thousands of our young people bolt for non-believer status, a lot of it will be COMPLETELY DESERVED.

We addressed atheism with the wrong arguments. We didn’t ask ourselves how it looks to a young atheist. We never stopped to notice that if you are a 17 year old with serious questions about evil, miracles, prayer and the Bible you’ve got small chances of getting any help from most of evangelicalism. We’re having too much fun squalling at the President and feeling good about ourselves . By the time you find that book, talk, ministry, etc. that might help, you’re already beginning to suspect that this is the emergency room where doubters are taken for emergency injections of how powerful anti-atheism drugs and then sent back to the “Bless Us Real Good” Game.

Even traditions with deep and serious reflection on the issues that erode faith often keep those resources tucked safely away in a closet on the fourth floor of the house of faith where you have to ask permission to see them. Senior Youth Group: Visit atheists for a conversation or play Goofy Golf? Duh.

Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists. If you applaud the point-scoring at debates, you’re missing the point entirely. The fact that someone like Dan Barker (and there are dozens more) is out there at all, making it plain that the Christian journey has brought a crowd of people just like YOU to the point where atheism looked far, far better than what you were hearing in church and trying to live is all the ammunition that’s needed for thousands of people.

You see, evangelicals have made such outrageous assumptions and promises about happiness, healing, everything working out, knowing God, answered prayer, loving one another and so on that proving us to be liars isn’t even a real job. It’s just a matter of tuning in to an increasing number of voices who say “It’s OK to not believe. Give yourself a break. Stop tormenting yourself trying to believe. Stop propping up your belief with more and more complex arguments. Just let go of God.”

You can send an army against an army. What do you send against a group saying “None of this has any point. Give it up and go have a coke.”

Don’t think I am avoiding the case the new atheists are making. I take it very seriously. My students learn the Dawkins and Hitchens arguments by heart. They are deserving of the best responses we can put forward and we need to know what they are saying.

But I don’t believe the new atheists are making converts because they have a better argument. I think they are making converts because the fruit is ripe to fall from the tree, and we have little or no idea it’s happening. We’re setting up for the great ideological debate and the kids have found that it’s just more fun to have a drink with the non-religious crew.

Keller is still great. C.S.Lewis is still helpful. Craig is still impressive. But I’m not sure their arguments are on the right channel. Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious.

What we’ve said and written is fine. What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships has spoken louder.

We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.

You can’t understand why some people just say atheism has about it the beauty of simplicity? You don’t see why Occam’s Razor is so powerful, even among students who have no idea what it means?

Pay closer attention. The game has changed.


  1. chilling Imonk,

    this is reason number one i have decided to not subject my children to the type of high pressure, manipulation that i got as a child and the circus that is many batist churches

  2. alright this is completely off topic, but can anyone tell me how to get one of those cool pictures of myself with my posts? up in the right corner

    • Ben Cheney says:

      Sign up at gravatar.com. You just have to use same email address in the Mail field here.

  3. The biggest advertisement for why not to be a Christian is the attitude and lifestyle of most Christians. I ain’t like Jesus. We (Christians) talk like everything is in order when it isn’t and we LIVE like it isn’t. The fact is we are better hypocrites than we are believers.

  4. question: was this EVER the game? I know all about modernism and the emphasis on absolute certainty and logic and scientific method and rational thinking, and how that used to be the norm and now we are postmodern so that stuff doesn’t matter anymore. But I still have to wonder, has it EVER been the case that the best argument for Christianity was a philosophical one? Or has a life reflective of the gospel always been more powerful than a rational argument for the gospel? Just wondering.

    • I think Mike K is onto something. It seems to me that the practical failures of the church have always been there, it is just that now they are more on display to those outside.

      In reality it is likely not the general failures themselves that is the biggest turnoff, but the particular failure to be honest about it.

    • I like to think that an honest Christianity has no good arguments, only great invitations.

      • No good arguments? Wow . . . Um, I think I’ll skip an invitation to a faith that claims historical grounding but turns out to have no good arguments.

        • Todd Erickson says:

          What is the best logical argument-response to children dying of cancer, or people starving to death, or leper colonies, or hospices full of AIDS victims?

          What help does “the best argument” hold for somebody who is dying for a drink of water, or a hug, or a handshake?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I could say the same thing about all the Progressive Activist (TM) types I ran into in and after college. They had all the arguments, the Intellect, the Rationality, the Reason, the Dialectic, the Cause, and it was all just intellectual masturbation. NO help at all (or even offered) to “somebody who is dying for a hug or handshake”. And Christians are just as prone to intellectual (or more often emotional) masturbation for The Cause.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qh17DBekp2U
            Good song to get the heartbeat of the culture in regards to “causes”. Plus it’s fun.

        • Christianity doesn’t have any good arguments. There are no propositions, axioms, logic is niether here nor there: some people followed a guy around for a couple years, he was killed, and they swear He came back to life and told people.

          The Apostle Thomas is pretty much the archetypal Gospel story in a “for instance”: he knew Jesus personally and after Jesus was killed Thomas quite rationally told the rest of the disciples that he could never be convinced that Jesus came back until he SAW IT HIMSELF. And none of the Christians around him could produce an argument to change his mind.

          And then he saw it himself.

          And Jesus invited Thomas to put his fingers into the holes in Jesus’ resurrected body so he could FEEL it himself.

          And Thomas felt like an ass. What had he really been holding out for?

          So where in that archetypal story of Jesus’ ministry do you see room for any kind of rational argument in favor of the Divine Personality?

          Christianity has never produced any good arguments. Just great, crazy, “you-had-to-be-there” invitations to love.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Ever thought that Christ chose Thomas BECAUSE he was such a hard man to convince?

      • I think i understand what you are saying. The most powerful thing about Christianity love for one’s enemies. Like Jesus said, so what if you love those who love you? Even the heathens do that.

        The key point is that loving one’s enemies isn’t an argument, it’s an action, and one that requires real spiritual power to perform; one simply can’t decide to do it, it requires real power from God. That’s why it is something that is rarely seen, I think its a miracle.

  5. Christiane says:

    I have always thought of Ockham’s Razor as the original version of the ‘KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID’ advice.

    About atheism: at LEAST the individual has asked the question ‘Is there a God?’
    And in order to ask the question, the individual has had to somehow process the concept of God through his/her brain. Now, this is good. A beginning.
    God can do a lot with a little. And ‘His Way’ is always a heck of lot more creative than many of our own efforts, some of which are so mean-spirited that we drive the individual into ‘Confirmed Atheist’ mode, from which his pride will make it a lot harder for him to get out of, should the Good Lord make His move on the individual. In short, remember, you can relax, the Holy Spirit has not left the building. Given an opening, the Holy Spirit might even direct YOU to say something cool to the individual to get him/her thinking on things eternal.

    Now, if you’re a Catholic, just invite the individual to a good old-fashioned Irish wake. After one of these fun things: tons of jokes and stories about the deceased, lots of laughter, singing, and mucho libations, the individual will begin to wonder, ‘Gee, if they are that joyful, maybe they really do believe they will see their friend again in the afterlife. ” Lots of ways to show the strength of our faith without overwhelming the individual with the usual talk-a-thon.

    • If you have good reasons to believe your religion is true then why not be honest and straight forward and lay out the facts and let the atheist make a rational and justified decision instead of trying to play games?

      • Christiane says:

        If you have to ‘tell the facts’, and the person cannot see your faith,
        you have already lost a chance to help him.

        Problem now is too many people talkin the talk.
        And these are the very ones who have no problem sitting at the rich man’s table while Lazarus is dying outside the gates.

        You want to get someone’s attention. Point to Christ.
        With your whole being. With all that is in you.
        Point to Christ.

        • Christiane,
          Anyone that reads your post can ‘see your faith’.

          What I’m asking for is honesty. If you have good reasons to believe your religion isn’t a myth then please share them so I can make an informed decision. The fact that you think the best way to convince someone your religion is true is to avoid discussing the facts and evidence and instead use emotional tactics makes me conclude you know the facts aren’t on your side hence the games you play.

          • “Point to Christ”

            Point to Christ? Go ahead, where is he? Or is that just religious mumbo jumbo talk that means nothing?

          • This thread needs to stop it. Now.

          • I don’t know if Michael will let this through, and I understand why if he doesn’t. I just wanted to talk about what ‘reasons’ are. Because if the proof you are seeking is based only on your own reasoning powers, then your atheism can be justified in spite of all reasoning to the contrary just as my Christianity can be.

            Aristotle and his followers showed what happens when you try to base a science or philosophy on reason and theory alone. At some point you have to look at the actual practice. You have to see if your impeccable ‘reasons’ are borne out in reality. If my Christianity gives me hope, gives me self-control, gives me love for people around me, gives me something to live for, then it doesn’t matter how ‘reasonable’ atheism is, because being a rational human being obviously isn’t winning me any points.

            I have no reason to believe Jesus ever lived, much less died and rose again. I have no reason to believe I am not a product of a chaotic, uncaring, godless universe. I have no ‘reasons’ why I rejected atheism. I only have the fact that my life was unbearable when I didn’t have God, and I would rather live a beautiful lie that brings me nothing but good than live a truth that brings me nothing at all.

            So you see, trying to share our beautiful lie with those around us isn’t a game. Rather, trying to share this power, whether it is based in truth or lie, is the most loving thing we know to do for those we care about.


          • What do you say to someone who admits they’re lying to themselves? It’s not often someone admits it though, the honesty is refreshing.

  6. Somebody: respond to Austin’s second post, please. We all want to know.

    But back to the topic: None of the atheists I know are bufffoons and none of them are angry misanthropes. In fact, some of them outperform us Christians in caring for the poor and sick and elderly.

    I think that evangelicals have become so conditioned to believe that doing good works won’t get us into heaven that we shun good works as if they were sins.

    Not that I’m a Calvinist, but I feel that I have no choice but to be a believer in Christ because I have seen the truth in a manner something like Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. Having had that revelation, there is no turning back, whether I like it or not. If I could choose my religion–if all religions were on par–I would likely be an atheist.

    But I can’t. I’ve seen the light. There is no choosing otherwise, and this has nothing to do with Calvin. It’s Jesus.

    • Christiane says:

      “In fact, some of them outperform us Christians in caring for the poor and sick and elderly”

      Perhaps they know Christ better than you realize. They know Him through their experience of the poor, the sick, and the elderly, and they have responded to Him with love.
      It is said, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter into the Kingdom . . . . . ”

      Sometimes I think we need to reframe the debate about what goes into being a ‘Christian’, especially with so many suffering these days, while ‘good Christian people’ walk calmly past them on their way to Church.

      • Well said. Thanks.

      • These are the folks who’ll come to meet God face to face, the same God they swore all their lives didn’t even exist, and ask Him, “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”

        And God will pat them on the head and call them righteous.

        • I can think of several folks that I know only by reputation, and hope that they are in that group.

      • I think it’s funny how someone can do good works because they, as an intelligent being, know it’s good, and because it makes them feel good. How they can believe that the same things you call sin are wrong and avoid them. They can even teach others to avoid them. But you look at it and say that he couldn’t be doing it on his own. It HAS to be Christ. It HAS to be your religion that moves him. Saying something like that is insulting and disrespectful. Christianity does not have a monopoly on good deeds. I just wish more would realize it and respect the good deeds of non-Christians for what they are.

    • Todd Erickson says:

      My father sees social justice programs, like soup kitchens, as a slippery slope into competitive works based lifestyle. There’s simply no place for it in a life based around bible study, proper teaching, prayer, and moral living.

      • Christiane says:

        Dear Todd, somewhere in your Bible study, Read the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25.
        And then pray that people get heavily involved in helping the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the ones in prison, and the ones who suffer.

        We desparately need the ones who need us, so that we may know Christ through and He may recognize us on the Last Day.

        As a matter of fact, don’t just serve in a soup kitchen. Go sit down and visit with someone while they eat and keep them company. And listen to them. Be ‘with them’.

        Then you will begin to understand that ‘proper teaching’ and ‘Bible study’ cannot replace real love for one another as He has loved us.

        • Christiane says:

          Todd, I realize, after reading your comment, that you were speaking of your father’ s beliefs. Excuse me, that I directed my reply to you. My bad.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        My father sees social justice programs, like soup kitchens, as a slippery slope into competitive works based lifestyle. There’s simply no place for it in a life based around bible study, proper teaching, prayer, and moral living.

        More results of the divorce between the Social Gospel (a gospel of social works without personal salvation) and its Fundie backlash (a gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation). Both are equally out-of-balance, just in opposite directions. What prevents him (or you) from doing BOTH?

    • Hi Ted,

      I also was converted by an unusual experience/set of events (an unexpected experience that I was not looking for). But when it happened, I realized I had only two choices: God or the other direction. It did not happen from reading the Bible or attending a church service (although in subsequently choosing to become a Christian I started to do these things in order to deepen my faith and connection to God). But trying to explain to others why my “experience” converted me is almost useless. I cannot transplant what I went through into others. Perhaps we are called in different ways, and evidently some of us are not called at all. Who knows. In any case I am at peace with this. Around atheists, I am having less and less shame about disclosing that I am a Christian. But I don’t try to get into arguments. I try to listen to them. I try to affirm whatever is good in them, without endorsing their worldview. And I don’t deny that many aspects of faith, such as miracles, may seem outwardly ridiculous. In fact I still appreciate that feeling. The absurdity is not lost on me. I can indeed sympathize with atheists, although theirs is not the world I believe in anymore. It may be “unbiblical” to say so, but I suspect that the more we can concede areas of our faith that are challenging or uncertain (while remaining nevertheless committed to it), the more people will recognize that we’re actually onto something that approximates the Truth (I say approximates here because I don’t think any of us have it quite right or ever will….)

  7. Sobering and insightful. I have a great deal of respect for people like Ravi, John Lennox, etc. They are brilliant thinkers and godly men. But it seems we have limited the “weapons of our warfare” to the same playing field as the ungodly. As Christians, we believe we can out persuade, out smart, out reason, out debate, and all for the defense of Christ. Although I believe this to be part of our arsenal, the manifesations of the Spirit in our lives through worship, prayer, acts of love, repentance, generosity, sacrifice, a firey and holy longing for Jesus to come and inhabit his people and pour out his Spirit through our lives so he may be lifted up, etc, are ancient weapons that have no equal. I’m not talking emotionalism but the coming of the Spirit into the lives of God’s people that leads to radical transformation not the slighly improved, mostly complacent but eternally secure me. Lord, have mercy

  8. “Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists.”

    While I’ve reached a point where Jesus means everything to me, the the team still doesn’t look so good to me.

    For the most part.

  9. I’m going to go ahead and give this post a big Amen.

    Now, if I could only figure out what following Jesus is apart from participating in some devolved nonsensical theological bandying-about and guilt-tripping, I’d feel a lot better about calling myself a Christian.

    I’ve encountered exactly the phenomenon you’re describing in my personal life, and I found that my friends’ suspicion of even the hint of Christian idiom would utlimately break down our conversations. I’m glad you’re pointing it out to people, Michael.

  10. Paul Sanders says:

    Speaking as a person who just came back to Jesus a few months ago from Atheism, I emphasize alot about this post. It isnt’ convicting to me, because I’ve lived it. After years of hearing “Every Man’s Battle” and 5 points to doing this, and doing ministry, I got engaged. After sin was shown, after the chips fell, I just decided that being an atheist was easier. It really was. I didn’t have to try anymore, I felt like I could relax as the first time in years. In my heart, I still wanted to love Jesus, wouldn’t call myself a Christian, and didn’t go to church out of respect for him. So, I know I was still a christian, at my intrinsic level, I loved Jesus.

    But I didn’t hear about him in church, and I got really sick and tired of hearing about warm fuzzy God and the application fo the week. And the new ministry strategy for the dorms. And the new plans for bible studies. I got tired of “saving myself” for marriage, only to find, when I did sin eventually, no bolt of lightning came down to smite me. (I regret it now, but still, the moralism crap has got to go). Speaking as a person who ministers right now to 20 year olds and college guys, I have to talk about Legalism moreso than you think. Its easier in our society to be an atheist, especially for a guy, cause it allows us to just sink down to the apathy and weakness we naturally assume, rather than the robust content of the Gospel that gives us sonship.

    I’m just saying, basically, it was easier. Be an atheist, work my job, sleep with my girlfriend, play videogames. The only reason I am back now is hearing about Jesus at an Acts 29 church

  11. I agree that many kids are rejecting Jesus because they “have found that it’s just more fun to have a drink with the non-religious crew”. And in that sense, philosophical arguments aren’t going to persuade them one way or another. At the root of this is the “dumbing-down” of society, surely. But to dismiss the incredible work of the Craigs, Zacharias’, because of this, is missing the point. Twenty-five years ago, we had very poor answers for the atheist’s arguments. We’ve come a long way, and need to stay at the front of this game. Kids aren’t the only ones we’re inviting to the field to play, after all. You say you’re “convinced the game is not primarily about arguments any more”. I disagree completely – it was NEVER about arguments in the first place. If you listen to Craig or Zacharias, they’ll be the first to tell you that, and they repeat it over and over.

    Having said that, I agree that we have to change our tactics for those kids, and the only way we’re going to win them over is by being the love of Christ in their lives. At the end of the day, if you ask any teenager what they REALLY want in life, their heart-cry will be “I just want to be loved”.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – apologetics will have it’s turn in every devoted, truth-seeking life at some point. It may not be how we bring them to the Kingdom, but it will be crucial in their discipleship – the big questions always become important at some junction of their lives.

    • Fastthumbs says:

      “Twenty-five years ago, we had very poor answers for the atheist’s arguments. We’ve come a long way, and need to stay at the front of this game.”

      I’m very curious to what new apologetics that have come out in the last 25 years that are not variations on Pascal’s Wager, Cosmological arguements, Ontological arguemnets, Arguements from design, transcendental agument (TAG) or Anthropic arguments?

  12. pyromanfo says:

    I think this is a brilliant statement of the problem. I was a functioning Agnostic for years, still saying I was Christian but not really believing any of it. The fundamental disconnect was reconciling the Christianity I had been taught with the wider Baptist world of constant bullshit, lies and sales pitches. I couldn’t have a conversation with anybody about my doubts, except of course the atheists. It was only later, after I stubbornly persisted in examining the problem, that I determined why I was having doubts and what I could do about it.

    Most people just don’t get that far. They shouldn’t have to fight the church, and other Christians, in order to explore their beliefs (or lack thereof).

    I feel like the game the church is currently trying to play is the hard sell. Don’t let them out the door, no matter what. I think what that does is turn a group of 9 Christians and 1 Atheist into 10 Atheists. Better to let the Atheist who truly does not have faith go, and welcome them back if they come around. Better than trying to convince everyone not to examine their beliefs honestly, which means Christians running through the motions but functionally Agnostic.

  13. Bill Bryant says:

    I just got assigned the 12th grade apologetics course at the Christian school where I teach. I grew up on Lewis. I spent my youth in apologetic discussions with my seminary professor father. I’ve got shelves full of Kreeft, Craig, Schaeffer, Keller, Sire, Denton, Geisler, Wright, and so many others.

    But when I think about going into that class with Ashley and Shantelle and Peter and Cordell, it stops me dead in my tracks.

    What am I going to do this very Monday morning at 8:00 a.m?

    • 8 o’clock on a Monday morning, you could tell them the moon was made of green cheese and it’d be all the one.

      Okay, enough with the flippancy.

      Suggestions? From my vast experience substitute supervising all of three Religious Education classes when the teacher was out sick, here is my advice (ahem).

      Well, depending on their age (I am assuming 12th Grade in America is something equivalent to 6th Year here in Ireland and that they’re around 16-18?), ask them:

      (1) Make it clear that. although this is not going to be a free-for-all, and a classroom is not a democracy and you are the Absolute Ruler of all you survey, it will be a place for discussion and no-one is going to be hammered for saying the ‘wrong’ thing.

      (2) What do they believe themselves?

      (3) Why do they believe it, or do they have an idea why they do these things? I tried telling my innocent little victims that it’s easy enough to have a ‘faith’ based on what they’re taught in school and at home and through being brought up as believers, but when they get older/leave school, they must work out for themselves if they really believe it, or is it along the lines of ‘these are the kinds of forks we use in our house’ as C.S. Lewis puts it in the “Screwtape Letters”.

      Dunno how effective that was in getting them to reflect on their faith and what it meant and thinking about deepening it, but you could try. The Parable of the Sower may be helpful here.

      (4) Don’t be afraid to deal with the “yeah, but why do all the different branches of Christianity believe different stuff and fight and all that?” Don’t be afraid to discuss doubt, even amongst believers (although that depends, I suppose, if there are likely to be hordes of angry parents accusing you of turning little Johnny or Mary into an unbeliever when they come home and say “Yeah, well, Mr. Bryant said in class that …”). Jeremiah could be good here – “You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped!” Also, Jonah running as fast from God as his legs could carry him. Don’t be afraid of the suffering and hardship. Also, yes, you can be a ‘good person’ and not religious. But the natural (pagan) virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude – do not save. The theological ones – faith, hope, charity – do. Sorry, that’s it. Yes, God is mean. Religion is not about being a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person.

      That’s one of the unpalatable bits that may make them stop in their tracks and think about it. ‘Hey, waddya mean it’s not enough not to be a bank robber or murderer? That God doesn’t care how many cookies I baked for the church bazaar?’ (Though God does care about justice and mercy). That the purpose of Christian charity is not to make human life more comfortable but to save the souls of the poor. On the other hand, almsgivng is *not* works righteousness, and we’ll be held to account for what we did to “the least of these”.

      (5) Be honest. Try and answer the hard questions about Christians behaving scandalously (though, for my sake, if someone pipes up with the Inquisition, please straighten them out on the historical facts as distinct from the popular legendry. Not saying the Spanish Inquisition was fabulous, but didja know, for instance, that it was a state affair? That there was a separate Roman Inquisition? That there wasn’t a single body running over Europe burning witches and heretics for six hundred years?)

      (6) The hardest part – try and get them to *think*. If Johnny or Mary says “I don’t believe!”, then okay, fine, you’re not going to drag them out to be burned at the stake. Why don’t they believe? What convinced you otherwise? Please dig deeper, Johnny or Mary, than just “Science says” or “It’s been proven” or “Everyone knows”.

      And contrariwise, get those who say “Nope, never even considered otherwise”, to think about why they accept the truths. And do they accept the truths? Go through the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, ask them if they really, *really* do believe the statements, and why?

      Good luck!

    • Bill,

      If you have time, try N.T. Wright’s book, “Simply Christian.” I think this is a bit more in tune with the times than some of the others.

      And remember that what most people of any age want is to be loved unconditionally. Christianity still pretty much has a monopoly on that one. 🙂

      Peace and joy.

      • John, in Christianity, God’s love is not unconditional – it’s conditioned on belief/faith. Those who don’t believe go to hell. If you find yourself unable to believe, God’s love is not even an option.

        • I disagree. I think God loves first, and He loves regardless of how we choose to respond to that love. “For God so loved the world that…..” NOT “For the people believed long and hard enough that God finally decided to love them.” In the end, yes, some people will reject that love, and God will let them do so. Heck, I reject that love every day, every time I sin. (Grace, love? What’s that? I don’t need those. I got this one; I’ll do it my way.) But God still loves me. In fact, He loves me enough to knock me upside the head on occasion.

          I think that saying “If you can’t believe, God doesn’t love you,” is probably one of the fastest ways to ensure that any unbelievers you’re talking to stay unbelieving. Also, I would think that there would be a lot of collateral damage among any Christian “innocent bystanders.” And anyhow, if you think that God doesn’t love you because you haven’t screwed up enough intellectual willpower to believe in a God who won’t love you until you do, why would you want to believe in that anyway?

          • Katie, I think what Helen was getting at is “If you can’t believe, you are going to hell.” This isn’t a universal Christian teaching, but it’s quite common, and adding the qualification that God still loves you is not comforting to the skeptic in that situation. To someone who has thought about the evidence and come to a sincere belief that there is no God (or that there may be god(s) but not the Christian one), that teaching can feel like being told “shut off your mind and accept this theology anyway because otherwise you will be miserable for all eternity.”

            It’s just not the case that everyone who honestly seeks after the truth concludes that Christianity is true. This is a real obstacle to evangelism for the branches of Christianity that teach that unbelief sends you to hell.

          • Thanks for your response, Katie. It seems to me that love has no meaning if someone who says they love me would send me to hell. (If that’s love, what’s hate??) And I don’t think people who find they can’t believe in God have rejected God’s love – because if something doesn’t exist then it’s not possible to accept or reject it.

          • Thanks David.

        • Helen, if what you say is true, then show me the door… I want out.

        • No, Helen. I am sure that’s not so. God never stopped loving me even when I didn’t believe and ridiculed the concept of faith. I don’t feel qualified to speak about afterlife stuff. All I know about is the here and now, and I know that God never stopped loving me.

        • We call that “invincible ignorance”. It’s kinda complicated, and the good old Catholic Encylopaedia entry isn’t perfectly helpful here, but basically and very roughly:

          There are two types of ignorance, vincible and invincible. Invincible ignorance is that ignorance which a person cannot rid himself of, despite reasonable efforts.

          If you CAN’T believe the doctrines of Christianity, despite reasonable attempts to inform yourself and understand them, then that’s invincible ignorance and is less culpable than, for instance, deliberately choosing not to check out the facts because you prefer the caricature of Christianity in your head.

          God will not, on this reading, condemn you merely for unbelief; the act of the will has to accompany it (deliberately choosing either to scorn faith, despite the possibility of being convinced, or turning away because you DON’T want to believe). That’s based, amongst other things, on Matthew 25:16 (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats): “Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ”


          “For instance, a man who would refuse to learn the doctrines of the Church from a fear that he would thus find himself compelled to embrace them would certainly be in a bad plight. Still he would be less guilty than the man whose neglect to know the teachings of the Church was inspired by sheer scorn of her authority… Vincible and consequent ignorance about the duties of our state of life or the truths of faith necessary for salvation is, of course, sinful. Ignorance of the nature or effects of an act does not make it invalid if everything else requisite for its validity be present. For instance, one who knows nothing of the efficacy of baptism validly baptizes, provided that he employs the matter and form and has the intention of doing what the Church does. “

          • Martha, thanks for sharing that doctrine. I don’t really understand how the Sheep and Goats fits in a discussion of faith because in that passage people are assigned to heaven or hell based on their behavior to others rather than their faith – no-one mentions faith at all in that passage.

        • Helen,

          IF God’s love is conditional, then I’m with Justin; get me out of here.

          BUT, if a human parent, after trying all the things that they know how to do, to save their child from drug abuse, finally lets them go to whatever bottom is needed for them to try to get help, then why can’t God who is Love completely and fully do the same to us, his children.

          I’m not saying that it is easy for God to do so, but only that He could.


          • That analogy only goes so far, though. It’s one thing to say that hell is a voluntary separation from God. It’s another to say that it is eternal and unescapable. If hell was like Lewis’ “Great Divorce,” a deliberate fleeing from God that still allowed the possibility of repentance, then yes, I agree with your analogy, but that’s not the kind of hell most (especially evangelical) churches teach.

            In your analogy: if my kid was caught in drug addiction, I would do my best to help but I would also have to acknowledge, at some point, that I can’t FORCE them to do the right thing and that real recovery depends on them voluntarily accepting help. Fine, that is The Great Divorce. But the more typical evangelical hell is more like my walking into my child’s room, seeing them dying of an overdose, and deciding “I’ve done all I can, I guess we’re really separated now” and refusing to dial 911.

            And that’s on top of the problems with comparing chemical addiction to what, for many, would be a sincere mistake. If I died and woke up with God standing there in front of me, it would take me about 1 second to decide I’d been wrong about everything about the universe, and to beg forgiveness on my knees. If God then said “Well, I know you did your best to seek the truth, but you guessed wrong” and sent me to hell, I think that would say some unflattering things about that god’s mercy and unconditional love. That’s not about saving me from hurting myself.

            Like I said earlier, I know not all Christians believe in this concept of God and hell. But if you have a different take on eternal punishment you should be very clear about that when skeptics ask about it, because Dante’s concept of eternal-torture-for-everyone-who-disagrees-with-me is strongly embedded in popular culture and in a disturbing number of churches.

          • Anna A and Helen,

            Why wouldn’t that parent go to the bottom with the drug addicted child?

            If God isn’t willing to do that… if the so-called “Hound of Heaven” will eventually give up on the trail…

          • Anna, what you describe seems more like an analogy of purgatory than hell.

            The hell I was taught about is simply eternal torture – you’re there forever no matter what. Which doesn’t really make sense to me because who after a short while in hell wouldn’t repent even if they did reject God’s love enough to go there in the first place? And if God loves them why would he not listen – why would he leave them there forever?

            But maybe those are not your beliefs about hell.

  14. Sometimes I feel that there are several stages to Christianity:

    Stage 1: Highly experiential, subjective, ‘magic’. Your conferences, praise & worship, pentacostalism and the like fit here.
    Stage 2: Well, subjectivity only gets you so far. Let’s figure it out, here. Apologetics textbooks, perfectionist theologies, that whole side of things prop up this stage.
    Stage 3: Way too many gaping holes in the theories, and the best ones have the smallest minority followings. But Christianity is about *following* God, right? Love God, love your neighbor? Not sure about the first, but I can manage the second.
    Stage 4: This is ludicrous.

    I finished reading 50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. Harrison. I have one reason; I’m afraid of unbelief. None of the others hold water for me anymore. Jesus is, in Gervais’ words, brilliant. The Christian ethic inspires me. Grace is amazing. But the systematic theologies are swiss cheese and wishful thinking only takes on so far.

    The most beautiful people I’ve met are devout Christians. I’m determined to walk this out to the end, whatever that means, so I’m actively trying to see if I can re-rewrite stage four to become more like Jung’s mystic, seeing the whole beyond the holes.

    We’ll see.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Sounds like we’ve got a lot of arrested-development cases walking around, stuck in Stage 1.

  15. Follow-up:

    And you can’t talk about this in the church, or with your friends or family many times because *their* faith is so fragile that it can’t stand up to simple questions, let alone the hard ones. People are afraid that you’ll deconvert them, even if you never fully deconvert, and sometimes they’re right.

    I’m been fortunate to have a few people with whom I have been able to negotiate these questions…it’s a lonely road, otherwise.

    • I doubted God a lot over the past few years, sometimes I felt so awful and frightened. My mom is very strong Christian, but I didn’t want to talk to her about what I was going through because I didn’t want to risk infecting her with my doubts. I don’t feel like I’m a Christian any longer, but I would hate to cause someone else to stop being a Christian.

      I’ve seen friends walk away from Christianity, and these were spirit filled leaders whom i never in a million years thought would ever deconvert. Learning of their deconversion made me feel physically sick.

      • I talked to a fellow this week who described a friend who went through a long period of deconstructing and, eventually, reconstructing his faith. He came out the other side to find that his wife’s faith was utterly gutted….

        Even if one believes that this loss of faith is ultimately better, there’s a form of violence in that sort of unintentional destruction.

  16. Great comments but, how does one even get the conversation started? So many people are offended by the idea of God even being brought up in a conversation. They react as if a bad smell entered the room.

    • Christiane says:

      It’s the way God is ‘brought up’.

      If the ‘atheist’ cannot SEE a difference in the way you live your life and encountrer certain difficulties and challenges, he probably won’t think that you have ‘digested your words’ and allowed your spoken faith to become a part of who you are.

      Try to think of an atheist as someone who needs more than ‘just talk’ from the witnesses of Christ. My goodness, I look at the vitriol of some Christians in the way they have contempt for one another and, honestly, Christ is not present in those behaviors, or those words designed to ‘let people know THE TRUTH for their own good ‘ in the most abrasive, insulting, and disrespectful ways imaginable.

      I like the gentle way that the Lord Christ handled the doubts of St. Thomas, with such kindness.

      I like the healing response of Our Lord in the family of the one who said, “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.”

      So much love in the ‘kindness of our God’.

    • I’ve run into this on occasion – not often, because I don’t evangelize, but i remember one time when I involved my church in getting some formula to a sick baby in Russia. Afterwards, one of the students who had helped raise money for the project came to ask me about my religion. She wanted to know how I could belong to a religion that was so cruel to gay people.

      Perhaps the most productive thing christians can do in this situation is to just shut up for eight or ten years.

  17. A couple straightforward reasons that people, especially young ones bail on the faith:
    guilt and its constant use to engender religious commitment and moral behavior, and the constant need felt by pastors and congregations to treat people poorly because they think their doctrinal system demands it.

    Even in non-Christian faiths like Judaism and Islam, guilt drives many people to agnosticism or atheism when the primary motivation to faith is guilt.

    We have our children ” re-dedicate” and walk the aisle over and over again, and you can bet a large percentage will walk away from the faith in their teen years. Whats almost worse are those who don’t ditch everything, but purpose in their heart to “just not take the whole thing so seriously.”

    Many Christians just aren’t equipped to deal with a child who turns out to be gay , or someone whose life choices have taken them far away from what we consider a “Christian lifestyle.” We cook up an answer or reaction that we think we are supposed to have based on the latest sermon series and then wonder why people are so bitter against the church.

    • “walk the aisle over and over again”

      And when they see others do this and the “others” seem to never change….

      They start to ask “What’s the point?”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Even in non-Christian faiths like Judaism and Islam, guilt drives many people to agnosticism or atheism when the primary motivation to faith is guilt. — Patrick Kyle

      Except in Islam, they won’t let you quit (Death to Apostates), so when that happens you just go through the external motions.

      We have our children ” re-dedicate” and walk the aisle over and over again, and you can bet a large percentage will walk away from the faith in their teen years. — Patrick Kyle

      This also happens when you become a notch on Bible after Bible due to guilt-based “break down his assurance of salvation and then re-Save His Soul”. After you’re a notch on a dozen Bibles that way, you start wondering if it was all BS from day one.

  18. How hard it is to differentiate following Jesus from creating institutions that have to be maintained by emotional pressure. I’m on my way to full-time ministry, and in my heart I could never leave Jesus, but I do sometimes wonder whether my life would be better if I could just give it over and sleep in on Sundays. What we need is spiritual freedom, and a genuine relationship with God apart from the manipulation of others. Karl Barth said of the church and its dogmas that they are like the canals of Mars – places that show where living water once flowed. Hopefully it can flow again.

    • “Karl Barth said of the church and its dogmas that they are like the canals of Mars – places that show where living water once flowed. Hopefully it can flow again.”

      A really bad example. There never were any canals on Mars. It was an illusion seen by one person or he was making it up or whatever.

      And like many of our Christian arguments, a bad one to use with people who might know the truth about said canals.

      • Re: canals on Mars:


        We know indisputably there’s ice there. Maybe there was water.

      • Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer who observed the straight-line features on Mars; he called them “canelli”, which got translated into English as “canals” and from there the whole theorising about was this evidence of water on Mars got started, up to the ‘maybe there is/was intelligent life on Mars!’ Still, at least we got some good old-fashioned pulp SF out of it 🙂

        However, there does seem to be some evidence that there may still be water on Mars – though not flowing in neat riverways.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Karl Barth said of the church and its dogmas that they are like the canals of Mars – places that show where living water once flowed. Hopefully it can flow again.”

        A really bad example. There never were any canals on Mars. It was an illusion seen by one person or he was making it up or whatever. — Ross

        But it was an illusion/misinterpretation that became general knowledge until we actually got hi-res photos of the Martian surface from the Mariner probes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Barth quote dates from that period before the canals were disproven. The phrasing of “where living water once flowed” sounds like he was working from Lowell’s romanticized vision of Mars as a dying desiccating world, with the canals as artificial attempts to head off the eventual doom. This was the picture of Mars throughout the era of Pulp SF, from Wells to Burroughs to Heinlein to Piper to Space: 1889.

        • Atheist gladiator says:

          No, no–there *were* rivers on Mars. Just not artificial canals. And long since dried up.

          • My point, which seemed obvious to me but obviously wasn’t to others, was that canals were never on Mars. And people with even a casual interest in real astronomy have known it for decades. And to get back to the point of this post, when people use bogus examples tied to a Christian theme, many of us turn them off before they can get their message across. Why listen to someone using bogus examples to make their point?

            And yes I was a fan of “John Carter of Mars” in my youth in the 60s. But I knew it was pure fantasy based on a non existent civilization that built non existent canals.

            My philosophy is “If you’re going to defend the faith with secular examples, may sure they are real.”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Doesn’t matter whether “canals never were on Mars” or not.

            For around a century, there was a general belief that canals WERE on Mars, and a lot of the idioms reflected that. If Barth’s quote dates from the period before the Mariner photos, he was just reflecting the general belief of the time and using an image from that general belief to make his point.

  19. I disagree with a comment in your post – that some people believe atheists are “making converts because they have a better argument”. (MOD EDIT)

    I have had the pleasure of attending a debate featuring [Mod edit] William Lane Craig, and I must say I was not impressed by him. I suppose you could blame my atheism for a biased opinion, but really doesn’t everyone attending such a debate go in knowing who they are rooting for? It is like attending a sporting event – how many people really go without having already decided to cheer for their home team?

    While Craig certainly comes across very polished and “likable”, what he (and many like him) failed to accomplish was a logical argument. I see a great number of apologists with this problem – they make great leaps in their hypotheses without any premise. Sadly, I do not have the notes from the debate in front of me and I would rather not try to assert his position from memory, but his “proofs” were essentially glorified assumptions. Like many before and after him, Craig failed to demonstrate an understanding of word definitions and the art of the logical argument. This could have been, and most likely was, done on purpose to confuse the points. In my experience, most of those young students you so quickly dismiss as taking the easier path (a la Occam) do so not out of some mental fit of laziness, but rather out of an increased mental awareness that the pretense of proof fails under minor scrutiny. More people are learning that the word “Theory” when used correctly is much stronger than the hunch that is usually garnished with the title. They are learning the art of argumentation in a classroom setting and applying it to their lives.

    Perhaps we have Court TV and crime dramas to blame, but people are demanding more from their proof than implications of complexity and probability. When your only proof is a book that has been translated and edited many times over, no matter how highly you regard it you have no proof (in that context). Why does your book have greater weight than any other? The Torah? The Vedas? The Book of Mormon? Dianetics?

    • Its not my conclusion that atheists have better arguments. Your first sentence is totally deceiving. Could you revise it please.

      • Donalbain says:

        I think it is just bad punctuation. Try it like this..

        I disagree with a conclusion in your post. Atheists ARE “making converts because they have a better argument”.

  20. My dad became an atheist when he asked his parents about God and they had no clear answers. So he dared God to strike him down with lightning. When God didn’t, Dad concluded that He must not be there.

    I grew up thinking the average atheist had as much basis for nontheism as Dad. And the atheists that pastors debated were about as intellectual. That is, till I got to college and met some real atheists: folks who had grown up Christian, and were now intellectually rejecting it. They had heard all the arguments for God’s existence; they had heard the logic, the testimonies, and had read their Josh McDowell. They weren’t buying it.

    It got me away from the idea that there’s one type of atheist. I’ve met the intellectual kind, and the decidedly non-intellectual kind. Most of the young atheists I’ve met are the non-intellectual sort: We Christians make no sense, are no fun, and are too judgmental. It’s easier to believe in nothing. The intellectual sorts studied their stuff largely in order to defeat the Christianity in their heads. The non-intellectuals never had it to begin with.

    • “The intellectual sorts studied their stuff largely in order to defeat the Christianity in their heads. The non-intellectuals never had it to begin with.”


  21. “Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists.”

    I appreciate your honesty here. As an atheist I can only agree. I accept that your team looks, to you, to be making some good points. I have watched so may debates on youtube, and what the comments tell me is – both sides are sure they won! “Our guy blew your guy’s arguments away” “all the Other guy had was those same old points we’ve heard before” – we BOTH get to say this!!!

    Even in my own experience, I’ve read “The God Delusion” when I was a believer, and it made me angry but didnt stop me believing in god, and I re-read it as a non-believer and wondered “how did I get angry at this, it is so reasonable”

    So I think you are right. Arguments aren’t going to win the day. We are both unconvinced by the other sides arguments. Of course, one side is right that the other only has wishful thinking and is ignoring the valid points being made. But there’s no way to tell which is which… except by more argument.

    I will say that de-converting for me was very much like you described. It was a weight off my shoulders. I was free to make moral decisions, and to value this life as more than a test. I’ve seen both sides and I am happier over here. But I am glad you and your commenters have the integrity to look at this so honestly…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists.”

      Nobody is conscious of their own blind spots.
      That’s why they’re called Blind Spots.

  22. Monk: you got linked by Friendly Atheist again. FWIW, the evangelicalism I came out of wasn’t intellectually shallow. Maybe it wasn’t typical, though: I’m becoming aware that the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union is perhaps different from a lot of evangelical culture. I read Lewis and Zacharius, and I know those Cambridge folk are now well into Craig and Keller. As it happens, I’m still impressed with some of your team. I’ve just left comment at Friendly Atheist pointing out that Craig is formidable and opponents who underestimate him tend to get thrashed, just as you saw. I still think he’s wrong, naturally, but it’s annoying that few of his opponents can stand up and say why (I still hope to see Craig vs John W. Loftus). But anyway…

    Even coming from an intellectual conservative evangelicalism that was suspicious (perhaps too suspicious) of flashes and bangs and, you know, feelings, there there’s something about your idea that atheism is simpler that is familiar to my experience. At some point, I was trying to make sense of it all and I became aware that atheism was a way to cut the knot (with Occam’s razor, maybe). I don’t know whether you’re read Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”, but he has a great passage (I liked it so much I put it in my atheist testimony) about how evangelicalism creates a great valuing of the truth per se, which leads apostates to abandon evangelicalism when it doesn’t seem to be the truth. It felt like that.

    Trying to live a decent life is going to be hard, but I think evangelicalism does make it harder than it needs to be (even the conservative sort which doesn’t do cheap tricks is very big on guilt). I guess we’re not going to agree on whether there’s a God, but if you can convince evangelicals to make it less hard, I’m in favour.

  23. Atheist gladiator says:

    You are not going to “demolish” atheism, except perhaps in limited debate situations. (Without having seen the video, let me say that I’m sure we could point to equally inept or unappealing representatives of Christianity. But that would be a “straw man” argument.” )

    Nor are atheists likely to disprove religion–at least, not any more than has already been done. In other words, reasonable people can believe either one…as well as any of the hundreds of other belief systems out there.

    Oh yeah, those. Good luck on distinguishing yourself from all the other spiritual claimants (including rivals from within your own religious family) through anything other than mere rhetoric, and the accidents of political power.

    Have any of you read either of the books by the late philosopher, Sam Francis? His tone is very different than what you seem to associate with atheists. For intellectuals (of all persuasions) I recommend “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist.

    • “Oh yeah, those. Good luck on distinguishing yourself from all the other spiritual claimants (including rivals from within your own religious family) through anything other than mere rhetoric, and the accidents of political power.”

      Actually, Christianity as a whole is pretty well-equipped for internal self-evaluation: all those fruits of the spirit that people claim or declaim are pretty objective, and the Bible is distressingly to-the-point with stuff like this:

      “Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world.” James 1:27

      The point being that a church or teacher that de-emphasizes basic stuff like orphans and widows and dilates on The End Times or private ecstasies or Calvinism or The Virgin Mary is practicing a religion unacceptable to God.

      And the Bible being a pretty long book with that being the general theme, you see how it goes.

      As for “distinguishing ourselves from other spiritual claimants”, I’ve never been mistaken for a Jain or a Muslim…?

      As for demolishing atheism, PHILOSOPHICALLY there are strong arguments on both sides (Platinga, etc., though I didn’t find Boyer’s explanation all that convincing myself), but I hope that no Christian seriously views their life (or Jesus’s!) as a demolition project…

      ..though we all know that such Christians are, at this moment, reading this blog…

      • Atheist gladiator says:

        By “distinguishing” I don’t mean that it is hard to tell you apart from say, Jainism–I mean that Christianity and Jainism seem to me about equally plausible. (A more wicked atheist would introduce the FSM at this point.) In other words, religion is largely a matter of opinion, since we can never really know which of us is right (at least, not before I get thrown into the lake of fire).

        Are you seriously claiming that Christians tend to be more compassionate than Jains? (Be careful not to use “Christian” as an honorific, e.g. “Any TRUE Christian would be identifiable through his / her compassion.”)

      • We aren’t going to have this debate. Nip it in the bud as Barney says.

    • St. Thomas Aquinas kicks off the “Summa Theologica” with the two main bases for atheism (though he doesn’t call it that) and spends the rest of the work laying out his argument.

      I’ve seen these summarised along the lines of “Who needs God? We can explain how stuff works just fine” and “Theology isn’t real, it’s only fairy tales”

      “Article 1. Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?
      Objection 1. It seems that, besides philosophical science, we have no need of any further knowledge. For man should not seek to know what is above reason: “Seek not the things that are too high for thee” (Sirach 3:22). But whatever is not above reason is fully treated of in philosophical science. Therefore any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous.

      Objection 2. Further, knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save what is true; and all that is, is true. But everything that is, is treated of in philosophical science–even God Himself; so that there is a part of philosophy called theology, or the divine science, as Aristotle has proved (Metaph. vi). Therefore, besides philosophical science, there is no need of any further knowledge.

      Article 2. Whether sacred doctrine is a science?
      Objection 1. It seems that sacred doctrine is not a science. For every science proceeds from self-evident principles. But sacred doctrine proceeds from articles of faith which are not self-evident, since their truth is not admitted by all: “For all men have not faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:2). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science.

      Objection 2. Further, no science deals with individual facts. But this sacred science treats of individual facts, such as the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and such like. Therefore sacred doctrine is not a science.”

      Heck, you don’t even need to be as recent as the thirteenth century; go back to, for instance, Lucretius (1st century BC) and his poem “De Rerum Natura”, the purpose of which was specifically to give a natural explanation for the world:

      “According to Lucretius’s frequent statements in his poem, the main purpose of the work was to free Gaius Memmius’s (and presumably all of mankind’s) mind of superstition and the fear of death. He attempts this by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius apotheosizes as the hero of his epic poem.

      Lucretius identifies superstition (religio in the Latin) with the notion that the gods/supernatural powers created our world or interfere with its operations in any way. He argues against fear of such gods by demonstrating through observations and logical argument that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely in terms of natural phenomena—the regular but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space—instead of in terms of the will of the gods.”

      There have always been atheists. There have always been believers. And the atheists aren’t evil or lazy, and the believers aren’t stupid or hiding their head in the sand from the harsh reality of life.

      • Atheist gladiator says:

        I began your post thinking that you would be proving religion to be by means of Thomas Aquinas (atypical behavior for evangelicals), but…I agree with you.

        • Ah, that would be because I’m not an Evangelical, but an Irish Catholic.

          Michael is very tolerant who he lets ramble on here 🙂

  24. Thanks for a great and perceptive post — part of me, from the UK (Ricky Gervais and all) side of the pond, wanted to say “welcome to our world,” certainly one that reflects the way things have felt these past thirty years.

    For me, the real heart of your wisdom was “Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious.”

    There seems to be a world of difference between debates where people shout at and past each other, and the sort where people actually listen to each other — and without wanting just to quote the bible at people, St James’ advice about being “slow to anger, slow to speak, eaher to listen” seems like, not only the bes strategy, but somethng I thought was par of our Christian value system in the first place….

    There’s a BBC radio show airing right now involving my old boss, which shows what a mutual rather than knockabout discussion with intelligent atheists might be like: excuse the plug, but it has been very interesting and relevant to this thread: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00m1nm2

    • This was a fascinating program with some challenging questions. I have often heard the “I can be good without being Christian” line. OK. I”m sure I used the line often enough back in my agnostic days. If being a Christ-follower is only about good behavior, the boat called Christianity has already sunk.

      I think the most challenging part of the program was when they interviewed the three students; one Muslim, one atheist, one Catholic. They asked the Muslim girl what would happen to her atheist friend after death. And they asked the Catholic boy what would happen to his Muslim friend when she died. I believe the only way Christian schools can encourage respect for diversity while living their own faith is in simply doing that. Live our faith.

  25. Christianity seems to die out in people not in a bang but in a wimper. It dissipates out when first the more venal things that evangelicals warn about are not found to be as deadly as they are said to be. Once you have a couple drinks or fool around a bit with your significant other and find that you don’t become a drug-addled AIDS patient right away, the churchian scales start to fall from your eyes, don’t they? You miss a few church services and you aren’t struck down… It goes on like this. Sooner or later you’re freed from this religious pressure which, ironically, I believe Jesus wanted to free people from.

  26. For years, O’Hair provided the face of atheism to America: an angry, ranting, God-hating, bitter old woman who wanted to force her bitterness on the rest of the country.

    One of the things that struck me when reading her Son’s biography, was the extent to which this face is now the face of Christianity in the western world. Young people can come out of church assuming we are angry, ranting, people hating and intent on forcing our bitterness on the rest of the world.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      …angry, ranting, bitter people hating and intent on forcing our bitterness on the rest of the world.

      That sounds a lot like women of my family once they hit retirement age. They’d often be completely consumed by bitterness, and seek to make all they contact as miserable as they were. Like “I’m miserable! Why should anyone else have it better?”

      I wonder if the “face of Christianity to the western world” is due to a similar dynamic. Lots of Christians being disappointed by reality — no Name-it-and-Claim-it Riches, no Rapture on schedule, no Magic Bullet Proving YEC, no Absolute Proof of God and the Bible — and are taking it out on everybody else. When Islam got future-shocked by reality, they responded with their own version of the Culture War, attempting to force the rest of the world into a perpetual Year One of the Hegira; what reason is there for Christians to not have a similar reaction?

      Another problem is, as reality diverges farther and farther from what the bitter ones desire, their bitterness grows, and their attempts to spread the misery around to prove themselves right will become more and more extreme. (Climbing to higher and higher floors in Christian Monist’s building metaphor, where ground level is absolute reality.)

      So I would expect as Evangelicals lose more and more in “the real world”, their attempts to force everything back to their Mythic 1950s Normal through the Culture War will get more and more extreme, their rants and anathemas and denunciations louder and more shrill, their worship fads (“You Spin Me Round”) to keep their numbers more and more extreme, their use of End Time Prophecy as escape/revenge fantasy more and more intense. With all this meltdown behavior synergistically accelerating The Coming Evangelical Collapse.

      Until everything hits bottom like a drug Intervention. Question is, how much damage will have been done (by both factions) by then?

  27. “We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.”

    This should be written on the doorposts and lintels of every mega-church and Christian book store. On the back of every ticket to the latest ‘life changing conference’ and every ‘inspirational worship experience.’

    Christianity is unappealing because it is unreal and, if you read the introduction to most Christian devotionals, unachievable. Where have all the practitioners gone?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      That’s the behavior of someone with serious doubts themselves, trying to stifle those doubts through more and more Faith Faith Faith and Devotion Devotion Devotion. Keep up the glitz and hype and frenzy 24/7/365 so you never have to face it.

  28. iMonk, I’m curious. On that bookshelf of yours. Do you have Carl Sagan’s ‘The Demon Haunted World’? If not, I hope you will and please read it.

  29. Todd Erickson says:

    Growing up Baptist equipped me with a great deal of knowledge, but no love.

    It taught me about the books of the bible, and about guilt, and about arguments against things, and rationales, and defenses.

    But love was just a word on a page, something we talked about a lot but didn’t actually go anywhere near.

    We turned all of the mentions of the Kingdom of Heaven into allegories for something we were going to get to some day. We practiced distance, and correctness, and identifying who the bad people were.

    And now…now I have to be very careful about the conversations with my dad, and he’s beginning to sense that there are things that he’s missing, that the words don’t mean the same things, that his advice is becoming slippery.

    If discipleship is supposed to free me, expanding my world, healing me, then so much of what I find in church is an anathema to it. In fact, church serves mostly as an immunizing agent, something to form discipline against, while watching for the other people who are surviving on their way through it.

    To paraphrase Donald Miller, “I won’t defend Christianity to you…but I will tell you about this person named Jesus, who really loves me, and who wants to see you become the person you were meant to be.”

    Not, “Christ loved you, so he did this incredible thing, and now you need to form a life reaction based on guilt.”

    Not, “You know these things are wrong, so you stand convicted and bound for hell unless you accept my deal.”

    Not, “God is waiting to strike down all of the evil people who wouldn’t repent at the end of time, so you’d better shape up before you get yours.”

    I have a Saviour who decried the religious experts who lived only to place heavier and heavier weights on the backs of those they were meant to be rescuing, who healed people simply because he could without expecting recompense, who wept at the sight of a hurting world and who wanted to free it, and who praised the churches for their love and excellence.

    We have lost our first love. We may have never truly known what love was. You can’t argue love, you can only live it.

  30. The first problem is that American Evangelicals are the biggest secularists around if you go back to the original definition of secular, which focuses on the “here and now.” Their theology has replaced unspeakable mystery with linguistic propositions, and they have reduced the Christian experience to a consumer product. When atheists deride American evangelicals as people who believe in a Big Imaginary Friend, they are right. And I am not saying this as an atheist — I consider myself a Reformation (i.e. European-style) evangelical, which is quite far from what the American version has become.

    The second problem is that to the extent evangelicals have associated themselves with the Religious Right, a political movement which exploits religious rhetoric for secular political ends, they have associated themselves with a moral landscape which should give them pause. Is it really true that universal health care is “theft” and torture is OK? There may be good arguments against universal health care — and I think there are excellent arguments against Obama’s plan — but how many of the arguments conservatives advance are really rooted in the first-century gospel and how many are rooted in Enlightenment-influenced 18th-century republicanism? Do they know the difference? Millions of young people, a lot of whom would like to be Christians, simply look at American evangelicals and — correctly — say, “These people do not make the world a better place.”

  31. great post, I have been talking to atheists for a while now and I agree that Christianity has created the majority of atheists through complicated, Pharisaical, legalism. The good news is that it is easier to convince an atheist of the simplicity of “following Jesus” than is is to convince an evangelical christian to consider that an atheist may be simply looking for truth rather than seeking to disprove that God exists.

  32. I was an atheist until I was 21, and this post earns my Seal of Approval.

    There’s a place for putting apologetics out there. But I would leave argument aside altogether. It’s just useless. The problem is too subtle: you won’t encompass it and probably won’t even address it. Now, I actually was converted to theism from atheism by a well-done little bit of philosophy. It was Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols.” So… figure that one out.

    If you have anything to do with an atheist’s eventual acceptance of Christianity it’s going to look like this 99.9% of the time.

    1) You live an earnest life of good example. You tend to talk about all manner of thing in a fair and intelligent kind of way. The atheist will slowly cease to look at all Christians with seething contempt and begin to look at only some Christians with seething contempt and your ridiculous ideas with seething contempt. (Note that most atheists are already here.)

    2) Atheists like you personally, and because you seem a reasonable person, and they are genuinely perplexed, they want you to explain what Christianity is and why you believe it. At which point you state simply what Christians believe and why they believe it. Always let them do the asking. Proselytization and debate is each about as effective as standing there and peeing yourself as you go into a long monologue with an air of authority.

    3) The rest is out of your hands.

    • Fastthumbs says:

      Well said.

      My experience when talking to reasonable religious people (be it Christian, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Seek) why they believe their respective beliefs in my experience boils down to:

      1) My parents were ______ and I have not seen any reason not to believe in ______ (which shows the person probably has not given much critical introspection into WHY they hold on to their belief(s) other than for the sake of tradition – not very convincing to an outsider)

      2) I had a personal revelation (and when pressed, it is never verifiable or falsifiable, thus being only antidotal evidence at best – again not very convincing).

      3) I had to convert in order to marry my spouse (which is understandable for that’s person’s household harmony, but not very convincing otherwise to an outsider).

  33. I just submitted a comment that vanished into thin cyberspace. Please check your SPAM folder for a pertinent comment that just disappeared.

  34. Some great points in your post and in the comments. But there is one important misconception that seems to be implicit in what a lot of people are saying. Atheism doesn’t mean nihilism. Atheists don’t have to “believe in nothing” or accept that all of this just doesn’t matter. Listen to what Ricky Gervais is saying here and in other videos — he isn’t talking about how he feels relaxed because he knows life isn’t important. He talks about how important it is to live well in this life, and to do good for its own sake.

    This is another lie like the ones you allude to in your post: if you don’t believe in God, the universe is empty and morality is meaningless. That’s simply not true. If you want to claim the truth or goodness of Christianity, fine, but if you tell people that atheism equals nihilistic despair, then they will be lost to you as soon as they meet an atheist who cares deeply about truth, beauty and meaning. The most nihilistic atheists I know of are former fundamentalists who believed what their church told them, and when they realized it wasn’t true they didn’t know where to turn. Their fundamentalist theology, not their atheism, made them give up on living a good life. Their upbringing made that lie into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the world is worse for it.

    I also agree with Gordon above — everyone’s arguments sound good to people on their own side. I heard a debate where the “Christian” side was arguing against atheism by making fun of evolution. It was painful to listen to, because to anyone who knows even a moderate amount of evolutionary science, he was making an idiot of himself and of Christianity in general. But then I saw a Christian blog about the debate that talked about how he mopped the floor with the silly Darwinist.

    Point being: these debates might be reassuring to people who already agree. But I think in the long run (and probably even the short run) they are only driving people away. Jesus saved his mockery for religious hypocrites, not for people who couldn’t give a theologically grounded explanation for why they loved their neighbor.

    • I like the comment and generally agree. I will say, however, that even as an atheist, I thought Hitchens’ “God is not great” to mostly be a poorly written, weak set of arguments for anything.

      • Fair enough, Hitchens is also my least favorite of the current atheist rock stars… and back when I was Christian I wasn’t too impressed by “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” But if you take the best arguments that each side has to offer in the way of logical debate, I think they will appear to be simplistic or missing the point to 90% of the other side.

  35. I think you hit the nail on the head, Michael. It’s not really primarily about the arguments any more, and maybe it never was for most of the ones we were trying to reach. It’s about the witness that our whole lives and beings represent, and about intelligent and thoughtful presentations of the good news in a compassionate context that cares about people.

    I have two teenagers and I can’t really recall the last sermon that actually engaged them or challenged them intellectually or in any other way. Young people are smart and have much less patience for a lot of the nonsense that passes as good teaching and worship in evangelicalism these days.

    My daughter recently had a school assignment which asked her to opine whether humans were inherently good or inherently evil, then defend that position. She chose a both/neither position, which made me proud. It tells me we’ve raised them with a balanced view (not going to get into a debate on calvinism here folks, so don’t go there) that reflects what Pascal said about us being a “glorious wreck,” that is, created in God’s image but horribly marred by the Fall.

    But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a coherent, engaging discussion of this or plenty of other core theological issues in the evangelical churches we’ve attended, and certainly not in a way that makes it relevant to younger folks (or even to me a lot of the time). This lack of depth and relevance is one of the main reasons none of our family is too enthralled with the idea of church right now, though we still search and hope.

  36. I don’t understand the video. He is telling a very serious story and the audience is laughing, not just giggling, but actually laughing uproariously. What is that all about?

  37. This reminds me of a frustrating conversation I had with a seminary student a few months ago. The subject of athiesm came up and he talked at length on how he just could not understand an athiest, absolutely could not grasp how someone could not believe in God and how silly that mindset was. With that attitude, I doubt he’ll be a very effective preacher, which is too bad, because he is a nice guy. I think you are absolutely correct that most athiests are not awful, angry people; they are just people who, for various reasons, see no point in church. Most athiests I’ve run across are very decent, generous, and caring, and not much different than you or me. Most Christians don’t realize that because they don’t bother to get to know them, but see them only as “projects” to convert.

    • as an atheist I thank you for that TeeDee.

      Christianity is to me as Hinduism probably is to most Christians. If you can think of how uncompelling the arguments for Vishnu are you’ll see how Christianity looks to me. Hinduism, Sihkism, Islam, Jainism… they all make extraordinary claims and offer lame or no evidence and thus I cannot believe them even if I wanted to.

      • I think you’re in the wrong paradigm as far as evaluating religion. When we’re talking about beings that (conveniently, one might argue) transcend our understanding, anything could go or not go. Can’t be proven or disproven, etc. When I was an atheist I was never all like, “Logic, logic, everloving hell, I just can’t deduce the existence of God. NO LOGIC WHATSOEVER.” I was all like, “You know, looking at my understanding of my world and my understanding of sociology and my understanding of human psychology… it just makes more sense to me that all this God business is nonsense.” My atheism was an act of intuition, a gut feeling. No offense– and maybe this is just a difference in our approaches to things and not that I’m better or smarter or anything like that– but it wasn’t long before all this logic-fetishizing bugged me as much as the Christians did.

        None of the Big Five world religions– or atheism or agnosticism– look stupid to me. They all look perfectly coherent, reasonable, and intelligent. They each present varied worldviews, and that’s where they differ and that, IMO, is what we need to keep clear is their basis of evaluation. We adopt our religious or irreligious positions intuitively. Not to say unreasonably, because if we’ve done our homework, our worldviews are cultivated through thinking and critiquing what’s going on around us. But still… get real.

    • “…he talked at length on how he just could not understand an athiest, absolutely could not grasp how someone could not believe in God and how silly that mindset was.”

      This describes me perfectly!! I thought, ‘There are no such things as Atheists, only God-haters.”

      I got saved at age 7; last year at age 35, I suddenly saw things the way atheists see things. Like the original post said, ‘Easier’ ‘Occams Razor’ etc.

      I felt nauseous, and cried a lot and wished I hadn’t come to view things the way Atheists do. You can notice in the language I’m using that I can’t bring myself to identify myself as an atheist, but calling myself a Christian feels dishonest of me.

      I go to church on occasion, I guess I am hoping for some kind of cure – some way of going back in time, erasing my memory, and thinking like how I used to think. I don’t want to become an Atheist, but I seriously wonder if anyone has a real choice in the matter.

  38. Great post. I completely agree that many churches will be reaping what they have sown in the evangelical circus of the past 20 years.
    My comment is on the statement

    “Pitt was a kid walking the aisles in Baptist revivals, trying to find God in that mess when he met a Methodist preacher’s daughter who told him it was OK to just say no to it all. He didn’t have to live like that. He could call the torture sessions off and just be himself.”

    But is this so different than what we have been seeing for years? People have always walked out of the faith. The main difference I see is the past they stayed in church, giving the occasional offering, attending once a month, and just keeping thier mouth shut about what they really thought. Now they have a more vocal community that says, “None of this has any point. Give it up and go have a coke.” I don’t want to make light of the influence the athiests have made in recent years, and I admit I could be very wrong in this, but my 2 questions are: Are those who had faith really leaving our pews or are the unbelieving just finding better reasons to not hang around?, and Is this entirely a bad thing?

    • I think you are correct, RP. I’m…well…in my middle age and when I was a kid, people went to church because that is just what you did. I don’t think half the people there knew why they were there, but they were because that was the cultural norm. Now, it’s ok to not go, so I think people are questioning more and giving themselves the option to not participate if they sense anything false or fake. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, really, because I think it makes all of us delve deeper into why we believe what we do, and even to understand why we don’t believe, if that is the case.

  39. testing my gravatar, we will see if it works,

  40. The flip side to your own sides arguments always sounding good is the old “deep down you know in your heart” and again, we both do it.

    I’ve seen Christians claim that atheists “know in their heart” that God exists but they wish he didnt. Well what’d be the point of that? I know no such thing. If you really felt that god existed it’d be the height of stupidity to antagonise him in case the Old Testament accurately reflected his attitude.

    On the other hand I’ve heard atheists claim that Christians “know in their heart” that it is all a sham, but feel they need to keep up the pretense for some reasoon. Again the reason escapes me.

    I’m guessing we both more or less believe what we say we believe. It is just that the other side (whichever that is) is saying they believe something that makes no sense!

    Another irony is that both sides can be accussed by the other of being a license for rampant immorality and a fast track to depression and nihilism!

    • “If you really felt that god existed it’d be the height of stupidity to antagonise him in case the Old Testament accurately reflected his attitude.”

      I’ve known people who said the opposite, that if that really is God’s attitude then they would side with Milton’s Satan.

      Otherwise I agree, though. It’s far too easy for everyone to make the leap from “I could never believe that” to “You don’t really believe that.” But in this case Christian groups will be the ones to suffer the fallout: the new atheists are offering the younger generation a life of honesty, simplicity and meaning. These are things that Christianity should be able to offer as well (and for many people it does), but this is dangerously underrepresented by the visible church today. And in the you-don’t-really-believe-that game, “I believe in making the most of the here and now” versus “Millennia-old texts say that God wants you to hate your gay friend” isn’t much of a contest for most under-30s. (I’m aware that this is oversimplifying the real discussion — but it is how things come across to a lot of the mainstream right now.)

  41. Has the game changed, or are some just learning how to play it? Man is the same as he always was, God the same, the problems of disbelief no different. The fake ,plastic, American Evangelical “God Club” that considered itself the very core of Christ’s Kingdom is finding that they were only successful in deceiving themselves into believing that their little clique was on the right path, and all others lost. To me, coming into the family of Christ 30 years ago from an atheist past, the Evangelistic crowd always seemed fake, and a cult of weirdness. I tried to beat myself into conformity with them, but my head would not fit in the box, and was thrown out of a few churches for thinking.
    If Paul’s words,” Come let us reason together” were heeded, the evangelicals would look and act with less silliness, and if Ricky Gervais had a mom who listened to that advice he might not have turned atheist. By the way, i wonder how many other world view and lifestyle decisions Gervais made when he was adolescent that he still holds as true. It seems as if his spiritual development became stunted , pray he will allow it to mature with age.

    • Actually, willoh, that’s another point.

      So many of us have a faith that’s stuck at a seven/twelve/sixteen year old level; we’ve made no effort to, or we haven’t been shown how to, develop an adult faith.

      So we hit into the world face-first, and of course our knowledge of what we learned when we were seven isn’t enough. And naturally what we say is “I can’t believe this stuff”. No, because we should be eating solid food and we’re trying to nurture ourselves on sops. So faith gets put aside regretfully, or tossed aside with relief, as a relic of ‘childish things’.

      Just as our secular education doesn’t end when we know how to read, write, and count past twenty, our religious education shouldn’t either. But a lot of us don’t bother, or don’t know how, and are getting little or no help from our community, our fellow-Christians, our priests/pastors.

      • And a non trivial number of Evangelical churches deliberately stop at a child’s level. I think it goes with the “youth” phase that many churches and denoms have created. They’ve discovered that if you make growing up in the church (and also out of it) nothing but fun, they never want to “grow up”. So they are stuck making church a fun place for older and older kids.

        And they can’t figure out how to stop the train. And many don’t even think there’s an issue.

        • Ross,

          As an evangelical to Catholic, I can say that the same thing seems to be true in Catholicism. I will give the evangelicals some points for having a program for adult education; most Catholics stop after confirmation.

  42. I would encourage anyone who has read this post and is about to fall for the invitation to debate an atheist in this space to reconsider. I will moderate all material that is off topic, and atheist/Christian debates are off topic.

    Internet debates have done NOTHING for the understanding of either side. Give it a break people. Don’t make me have to set the whole place to moderation.

  43. Also, whoever is suggesting that the Gervaise video is up there as a “poor example” of atheism, far from it. He’s up there as an example of exactly what I’m talking about- a kind of Occam’s razor choice.