One critical challenge you will not be able to avoid as a Christian ambassador is the challenge of the atheist. Yet, most Christians are not prepared for—and are therefore understandably apprehensive about—encounters with them. I want to help you be ready when the opportunity comes your way.
There are two reasons engaging with atheists can be daunting.
First, the most vulnerable part of any worldview is its foundation. Undermine that, and you undercut every single thing resting upon it. Destroy the footings, and the whole lot crumbles.
It’s an effective general strategy we use often at STR, but there’s a reason atheism puts us on the defensive side of that approach. Our story starts, “In the beginning, God….” If there is no God, then there is no story and Christianity never gets off the ground. Simple.
Second, atheists are often confident, aggressive, and unyielding. Plus, their complaints against theism initially make sense to a lot of people who are on the fence. Their points are often rhetorically clever and complex, making them difficult for Christians to counter.
That’s one reason they’ve been effectively turning heads in recent years. According to a current Pew Research Center poll, those who describe themselves as atheists account for 4% of U.S. adults, up from 2% in 2009. That’s a 100% increase in the last decade.[i] There’s even a popular tutorial available providing tactical training to help atheists make an atheist out of you.[ii]
With the spate of deconversion stories recently making their rounds on the internet, it’s clear the approach is having an impact on Christians. That’s why you need to be prepared with specific plans to help you engage the issue thoughtfully and with grace when you encounter it.
In the book Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions,[iii] I detail the larger plan for engaging with non-Christians. Here, though, I’m focusing on one application of that plan that I’ve called “Street Tactics,” a battery of specific questions you can use to challenge a dissenter on a particular topic. This approach keeps you in the driver’s seat of the conversation in a pleasant way, protecting you from the risk associated with more head-to-head encounters.
First, I give you some insight into the specific weaknesses of the challenge offered. Then I provide specific questions to get you started (rendered in bold) along with samples of how the initial stage of a dialogue might unfold.
Those initial questions are important. When dealing with a tough issue, it’s always good to have an opening move at the ready. If you’re prepared with a question giving you something to say right out of the gate, it gives you a safe launching pad into the conversation.
When I know my first move, it relaxes me and gives me confidence since I’m the one taking the initiative in the conversation. It gets me going in a friendly way, yet with little risk.
I explained the general Street Tactics approach in the last issue of Solid Ground. There, I gave the guidance you need to maneuver though the minefields of one the most frequent challenges you’ll face, the problem of evil.[iv]
Of course, there is a plethora of issues atheists raise and a rack of titles offered by thoughtful Christians responding to them.[v] My purpose here is not to retrace that ground.
Instead, I want to give you insight into three general moves you’ll face with atheists and then provide some tactical questions to get you moving forward comfortably in conversation on those concerns, yet with a minimum of risk.
Take note, the goal of this approach is not to close the deal. We’re not in harvest mode here. Instead, I want to help you do a little gardening by offering a few simple questions to get your friend thinking. I call it “putting a stone in his shoe.”
There are three errors you will consistently confront when talking with atheists. The atheist’s first misstep is a defensive move, a deflection. By redefining the word “atheist,” he attempts to absolve himself of any responsibility to defend his own view. His second move is another redefinition, this time of the word “faith,” distorting it to make it impossible for you to defend your view. Finally, there’s the blanket dismissal, “Believing in God is irrational. There is no evidence.”
Before I go further, though, let me give you a general maneuver. My first response when somebody tells me he’s an atheist is, “Really? That’s interesting. What kind of atheist are you?”
My question trades on the simple fact that atheists do not agree on everything. Most atheists are materialists—convinced that nothing exists except physical things known empirically by the five senses—but not all are. Some believe in objective morality; some do not. Some flutter back and forth between atheism and agnosticism, depending on the definitions.
Asking this question has a number of advantages.
First, I want the atheist to see I’m not shocked or intimidated by his announcement but rather curious about his convictions and comfortable learning more about them. An opening question like this also buys me time to think about where I might go next with my queries.
Next, this question immediately forces the atheist to begin thinking about his own view in a more precise fashion, something I’m convinced most atheists have rarely done.
My second general question is, “Why are you an atheist?” I have no idea how my friend is going to respond—except to offer a vague claim that there is no evidence for God or that theism is irrational (I’ll deal with those canards in a moment).[vi]
Notice, since I’m the one initiating the conversation, I’m in the driver’s seat. Because I’m using questions, there’s no pressure on me. I’m in student mode, not persuasion mode. It’s a safe place to be.
With your initial queries in place, let’s move on to the three faulty maneuvers I mentioned that atheists frequently make.
Oddly, many atheists apparently no longer believe there is no God. Instead, they say, they merely lack belief in God. They don’t claim God doesn’t exist. Rather, they simply don’t believe He does exist.”
Atheists are not un-believers, then. They are simply non-believers. Since a non-belief is not a claim, it requires no defense. Thus, atheism secures the inside lane as the default view of reasonable people. Or so atheists think. That’s the strategy here.
Some will attempt to find safe harbor in a vague agnosticism. Since they don’t know God exists (“Theoretically, it’s possible He does”), they’re not really atheist but agnostic—in knowledge limbo on the issue.
These moves are almost always disingenuous coming from someone who is clearly a committed atheist. True agnosticism is an intellectually noble position, of course. But that’s not what’s going on here.
Theism, atheism, and agnosticism are not knowledge categories, but belief categories. Most of our beliefs are fallible—capable of being false—yet we still think they’re true, often with good reason. If agnosticism merely means lack of certainty, then each of us is agnostic on just about everything. This is silly.
The label “skeptic” often suffers from the same linguistic subterfuge since most self-described skeptics are not the least bit skeptical about their own skepticism; they are fully committed atheists.
Here is the insight that betrays the flaw in this verbal sleight of hand: Atheists may lack a belief in God, true enough, but they do not lack a belief about God. They are neither agnostics nor non-believers. Rather, they are believers of a certain kind: They actually believe that there is no God, even if they don’t know for sure.
The root word “theism” means the existence of God, and the prefix “a” is a negation. An atheist, then, is one who holds “not God,” or “God is not.” In plain language, atheism is the belief that there is no God. This is not linguistically complicated. It never has been.
If I were an atheist, I would not take this route. I’d fear people would think I was cheating with words, betraying weakness, not strength. This, as it turns out, is exactly what’s happening. Yes, there is a difference between non-belief and un-belief, but there is no refuge here for the atheist. Here’s why.
If you asked me which rugby team was the best in England, I wouldn’t know where to start. Since I have no beliefs about the quality of rugby competition in the U.K., I am truly a non-believer regarding the question. I am neutral.
This is not the case with atheists, though, since they are not neutral on the God question. If they were, they wouldn’t be writing books or doing debates. No one pontificates on their non-beliefs. There’d be nothing to talk about.
Richard Dawkins is currently the world’s most famous atheist. He makes his case in his best-selling book, The God Delusion. If God is really a delusion, then He does not exist. Simple. Theists say there is a God, and atheists like Dawkins contend they’re wrong—even delusional. Thus, atheists argue that there is no God—hardly a non-belief.
Look, anyone who has a point of view has a belief he thinks is true even if he doesn’t know it’s true. Atheists have a point of view. This makes them believers of a particular stripe: They believe God doesn’t exist.
With that insight clearly in place, here is how I would proceed in a conversation with someone I’m convinced is actually a standard, run-of-the-mill atheist in spite of his evasiveness.
“Given your claim that you simply lack a belief in God, would you mind if I ask you a question?”
“No. Go ahead.”
“I’m going to make a statement, and I’d like you to respond to it. Okay?”
“Here it is: God exists. What do you personally believe about that statement?”
“Like I told you before, I don’t know for certain.”
“Right. I got that. But I’m not asking you what you know. I’m asking you what you believe.”
“If you were truly an agnostic, you’d have no opinion one way or the other. From what you’ve said so far, though, you’re not neutral on the subject of God. So let me put the issue another way. Given my statement ‘God exists,’ it seems you have one of three choices.[vii] You could either affirm the statement (that would be my view, theism), you could deny the statement (that would be atheism), or you could completely withhold judgment since you have no opinion one way or another (agnosticism). Can you think of any other logical options?”
“No, not really.”[viii]
“So what’s your view—affirm, deny, or withhold?”
“Like I said, I lack a belief in God.”
“I get that. But that’s not one of the logical options available here. Are you really saying you have no opinion on this matter? If so, then what are you trying to convince me of? It doesn’t sound like you simply want me to ‘lack a belief in God.’ It sounds like you want me to believe there is no God. Which is it?”
The purpose of this line of questioning is to even the playing field. Both the Christian and the atheist have a conviction—a belief—and those beliefs are at odds. Fair enough. That means both have a view to defend. If you’re not clear on this issue, you’ll always be on the defensive and the atheist will have a free ride in the discussion. Don’t let that happen.
The atheist’s first maneuver keeps him from having to defend his own view. The second is an attempt to keep you from defending yours. The ploy is a common one, a mistake in thinking even Christians have unwittingly abetted, so it’s an error made on both sides of the aisle.
Suppose I claim that atheism is lame since atheists don’t believe in science. After all, they don’t believe in God because they can’t see Him, but they can’t see atoms either, so their existence must be in question, too. Since atoms are pretty foundational to science, atheists, then, must not believe in science.
You can immediately see the errors here. I have misrepresented the atheist’s view in a number of ways, easily “defeating” the distortion. This is not only bad manners, it’s bad thinking—an informal fallacy called a “straw man.” Erect a caricature of someone’s view (the straw man), then easily knock the scarecrow down.
This is precisely what atheists continue to do with “faith.” Peter Boghossian is typical. “The word ‘faith’” he writes, “is a very slippery pig…. Malleable definitions allow faith to slip away from critique.”[ix] He’s right on this point, of course. Definitions should not be malleable. Twisting the definition of faith to suit his own purposes, though, is not the answer, just as twisting the definition of atheism (by Christians or by atheists) is equally illicit. Boghossian himself acknowledges he’s redefining the term to suit his purposes.[x] Don’t let atheists do it.
Boghossian defines the “faith virus”[xi] as either “belief without evidence,” or “pretending to know things you don’t know.”[xii] In fact, “if one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. ‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief.”[xiii] This, of course, is circular.[xiv]
Clearly, faith is critical to Christianity, so it’s an obvious target. Let me say respectfully, though, that it does not matter how atheists like Boghossian define faith or even how some misinformed and confused Christians characterize it. It only matters how Christianity itself defines faith. Otherwise, the critic will be jousting with scarecrows. For this we must go back to the Christian’s authority, the Bible.
The biblical accounts are replete with appeals to evidence to justify its claims.[xv] The summary at the end of John’s Gospel should be enough to make this basic point:
Therefore many other signs [miracles] Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (Jn. 20:30–31)
No appeal to blind faith here. Simply put, in the context in which it’s used, the Greek word for biblical faith—pistis—means active trust, and this trust is continually enjoined based on reasons and evidence.
It’s tiresome having to keep correcting this distortion, but you must insist on this definition in your conversations with atheists or you’ll have no grounds for discussion—and little ability to defend your view. Your insistence is based on a simple rule: If someone wants to critique a view, then he has to critique the view itself and not something else.
A single question should suffice to clear the air: “It’s clear we have a different understanding of ‘faith.’ If you are critiquing my view, though, what is more important, your definition of my view or my definition of my view?”
The perpetual distortion of faith by atheists is tied to another misconception.
“Show Me the Money”
There’s a reason atheists insist that Christian faith is blind. They’re convinced there is no evidence for God, so belief in Him is irrational and faith in Him must be a leap. But the assertion is baseless; it’s simply not true.
The easiest way to get to the heart of the issue is to ask probing questions. Here’s my first one: “Precisely, what is irrational about belief in God?” Here I’m looking for specifics. It’s not enough for the atheist to respond, “It’s just dumb.” Exactly what is “dumb” about it?
An irrational belief is one that either contradicts good reason or flies in the face of solid evidence to the contrary, so ask, “How does belief in God violate reason, and what is the evidence against belief in God?”
Any evidence contrary to theism would actually be evidence for atheism, since it’s the only other alternative—in rational terms, either A or non-A, either God or not God. But giving evidence for atheism is precisely what many atheists are trying to avoid with the first maneuver mentioned above.
The question “What exactly is the evidence for atheism and therefore against theism?” is in order here. Some have offered the problem of evil, but objective evil in the world—the only kind of evil that matters in this complaint—ironically turns out to be evidence for God, not against Him, as I demonstrated in the last issue of Solid Ground. I’m open to hearing other suggestions, but the offerings have been thin.
Evidence for God, by contrast, abounds, and tomes have been written detailing it. These include arguments for the beginning of the universe (cosmological arguments, e.g., the Kalam), arguments from obvious design of all sorts in the natural realm (teleological arguments), and arguments based on objective morality (the moral argument), to name just a few. There is Lewis’s argument from desire, there is evidence based on well-documented miracles, and there is historical evidence in support of Jesus’ resurrection.
When an atheist claims there is no evidence, then, I have a few questions for him.
“What specific arguments for God have you considered?”
“I haven’t seen any.”
“Well, if you haven’t considered the arguments for God, how do you know no such evidence exits?”
“Well, I have considered some of them.”
“Good. Then please tell me which ones you’ve thought about and what, in your opinion, is wrong with them. How, specifically, have they failed?”
You might even ask, “What would count as legitimate evidence for God, in your mind?” This query tests the atheist’s intellectual honesty.
These questions are good ones even if you’re not versed in the arguments for God themselves. If the atheist gives any content, make note of it, thank him for it, and tell him you’ll give his ideas some thought. There’s no obligation to answer every challenge on the spot, especially if a particular issue is out of your depth. Do some research later, on your own, when the pressure is off.
The key here is to not settle for vague generalities. Make the atheist spell out the specific shortcomings of belief in God, if he can. I want him to be clear on the exact reasons why belief in God is nonsense.
A warning is in order here. Often, there’s a shell game going on. There is a difference between having credible reasons to believe something and having reasons adequate to convince a hardened skeptic. The claim that there is no evidence is not the same as saying the evidence available is not convincing. That’s a different matter. A piece of evidence is an indicator, not necessarily a decisive proof.
Generally, a thoughtful theist’s approach is what’s called abductive reasoning. All things considered, what is the best explanation for the way things are? That’s a matter for thoughtful discussion, not thoughtless dismissal.
When atheists keep asking, “Where’s the evidence?” they’re either not paying attention or they’re misunderstanding the role of evidence—both odd since they identify themselves as the party of reason.
There’s much to discuss with atheists, but clearing the air on these three critical misperceptions—or in one case, outright distortion—is critical to making progress.
Both atheists and Christians make claims. It’s an even playing field in that sense. Both are required to give reasons for their views. We’re ready to do that, demonstrating that our confidence in God is grounded not in wishful thinking but in a body of evidence that needs to be addressed rather than dismissed as naught.
Use these questions as friendly probes in conversation. They’re formidable tools to keep you in the driver’s seat of otherwise difficult interactions with those trying to undermine the very foundation of Christianity: God.
[i] “U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 17, 2019.
[ii] Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2013). Find my response to Boghossian’s project in “Tactics for Atheists,” Solid Ground, May-June 2019, at str.org.
[iii] Gregory Koukl, Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
[iv] See “Street Tactics I,” Solid Ground, Jan-Feb 2020, at str.org.
[v] Standouts include Turek and Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, J. Warner Wallace’s God’s Crime Scene, and Ravi Zacharias’s Can Man Live without God?
[vi] Often atheists will reflexively invoke the problem of evil. In the last issue of Solid Ground I gave tactics to deal with that challenge.
[vii] I owe this line of thinking to my philosopher friend Douglas Geivett.
[viii] This would be an intellectually honest answer, unless he can offer a fourth option, which he can’t since it doesn’t exist.
[ix] Boghossian, 22–23.
[x] Ibid., 80.
[xi] Ibid., 68.
[xii] Ibid., 23-24.
[xiii] Ibid., 23.
[xiv] I go into detail on Boghossian’s mangling of “faith” in “Tactics for Atheists,” Solid Ground, May-June 2019.
[xv] Whether or not a critic believes the accounts is irrelevant to the question. My point here is only that, since the Bible offers reasons for faith, biblical faith is not blind. Whether those reasons are persuasive to a skeptic or not is a different issue.