My reading material today has included Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris and the first part of Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch 22. I was struck by a couple of similarities: both authors have had bad experiences with Christians and both have a terrible understanding of Christian theology. Given this, it is hardly surprising that they are atheists. If I understood Christianity the way they did and had been treated the way they have by Christians, I just might be too.
Surely this is one of the reasons that, as Paul explains, “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
I don’t think this means that we can never debate, but when it comes to talking to atheists, Christians need to do a lot more telling, and a lot less yelling. As I can (unfortunately) share from experience, one of the reasons that talking with atheists is often so fruitless is that a) the Christianity that is defended by the apologist/evangelist is different than the Christianity being rejected by the atheist and b) the apologist/evangelist presents the argument is such an unloving manner that it doesn’t matter what is said, it will not be accepted.
Regarding a), I have spoken with skeptics of all types: from ex-pastors who have doctoral degrees from Christian seminaries to high school kids who have never read a word of the Bible and I have yet to interact with one who was not operating, at least somewhat, from a false understanding of the gospel and the evidence upon which we believe it. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Very little of the opposition we meet is inspired by malice or suspicion. It is based on genuine doubt, and often on doubt that is reasonable in the state of the doubter’s knowledge.” People may be skeptical, but because of what they believe, that skepticism may actually be warranted.
Therefore, listening and educating is almost always the first step toward convincing. Before Christians can adequately debate or discuss, we need to ask questions, find out what is actually believed by the atheist and then gently instruct as necessary. If we just start arguing without establishing what each side is actually trying to defend, each person will simply
speak past each other and the conversation will go nowhere.
Unfortunately, this approach takes time, patience, and humility, which is why I find it so hard to practice. It is always much easier to get defensive about some point and start arguing. This, then, leads to point b). When someone calls or emails to say what an idiot I am for being a Christian or to give me some silly argument that “proves” there is no God, my first inclination is to tell them what I think of their intellectual ability (and not in a loving manner). Obviously, that temptation must be resisted. The right response is to open up a dialog and, over time, make sure that this person is at least skeptical about the right message (this will undoubtedly involve instruction) and is doubting even in the face of all the evidence.
In the end, I suppose many people continue to reject the gospel even when they know it properly, are aware of all the evidence that supports it, and have been taught this by loving, thoughtful Christians. However, it would be nice if more people, including Hitchens and Harris, got that chance.