First, realize that most atheists can’t be persuaded. Most people are too entrenched in their central beliefs to ever be dislodged. And most atheists just won’t be interested to talk to you about religion. Once you start talking about magic and atoning sacrifice and all that, they’ll roll their eyes and move on to something that’s more important to them.
So this isn’t a guide on how to convert any atheist. Rather, it’s a guide for how to persuade those atheists who can be persuaded.
Don’t be stupid
Persuading atheists is kind of like picking up chicks. You’re 80% of the way there if you just avoid the really big mistakes that most people make. Most of what you have to do is just not be stupid.
Unfortunately, most Christians only use stupid approaches, so it’s no surprise they get turned away every time. Here are some simple rules on things to avoid:
- Don’t quote the Bible. Would you convert to Hinduism if somebody quoted the Vedas? Of course not. An ancient, mythological book is just an ancient, mythological book until after you accept the religion. Quoting a book with as much cruelty and absurdity as the Bible is going to make atheists laugh at you or get angry, and it definitely won’t persuade them.
- Don’t mention creationism or deny evolution. This makes you look really stupid, like those who believe in astrology or deny the theory that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the solar system. Take St. Augustine’s words to heart: “…a non-christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world… Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian… talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”
- Don’t pretend Christianity is morally superior. The atheist probably feels he is a moral person, and will feel insulted if you tell him he is morally inferior for not being a Christian. Besides, the atheist probably knows Christianity is among the most violent religions ever, and encourages violence and prejudice in its Scriptures, whereas other religions like Jainism and Wicca don’t have such a violent history or violent scriptures.
- Don’t tell atheists what they think. Christians often say things like, “How can you believe that a monkey gave birth to a human, or that life popped out of some grey goo?” The atheist probably doesn’t believe any such thing. Let him speak for himself. Atheists have a wide variety of beliefs, just like Christians do.
- Don’t use threats. Don’t tell them they’ll go to hell if they don’t believe. That’s no reason to believe, it’s just a threat of violence. Try to convince atheists with reason, instead.
- Don’t psychologize. Don’t pretend to know why the atheist believes what he believes. Don’t say things like, “You must hate God” or “You just want to live a selfish life.” Maybe the atheist denies God because he doesn’t see any evidence – the same reason you deny Vishnu and fairies.
- Don’t evade serious questions. Atheists may ask heavy questions like “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why does he allow so much innocent suffering?” or “If God wanted to reveal himself to us, why did he do it through a contradictory and confusing Bible that has led to thousands of splits in Christian theology, so that almost nobody – if anybody - heard the revelation correctly?” Don’t evade these questions with answers like “God is mysterious” or “He has a plan that we can’t understand.” That just looks suspicious, and it looks like you haven’t even grasped the implications of your own worldview.
- Don’t assert things you can’t defend. Christians often memorize points from an apologetics book but don’t bother to study whether those points are true or why they are supposedly true. An atheist has heard most of these before, and has a ready answer. If the atheist gives an answer and you say, “Uh, well, how about this…” and move on to another topic, you’re only going to look foolish and ignorant.
Good things to do
The easiest way to avoid these mistakes is to not talk to atheists, but that’s not going to convert anyone! So you have to do some things, to. Here’s what you should do in conversations with atheists:
- Consider atheism seriously and honestly. Atheism is a view with serious intellectual clout; most philosophers and scientists are atheists. So don’t shrug off atheism as if it’s not worth your consideration. Go out of your way to try to understand the atheist’s view, and especially why they think atheism is true. Consider their points openly and honestly, with the conscious understanding that you could be wrong, and they might be right. Everybody likes to have their views honestly and fairly evaluated, and atheists are no different. Since Christians almost never consider atheism seriously, you’ll win a lot of points with atheists if you do this. They’ll see you as a different breed of Christian, one actually worth talking with.
- Explore the truth openly. Don’t talk to atheists from the place of apologetics: the place of starting with your conclusions and then using reason to back them up. Rather, embark on an open and honest search for truth. Tell atheists you’re not sure about Christian faith, but you’re inclined to believe it… and then give your reasons. When atheists make a good point, say “Yeah, you might be right about that. Let me think about that.” Atheists will respect you if you’re on an honest search for truth, even if they disagree with where that search has lead you.
- Admit mistakes. The easiest part of this is to admit the mistakes of Christians you disagree with. Hopefully you’re not a creationist or Biblical literalist. Openly admit these as mistakes, and show that you’re open to recognizing that huge parts of original Christian doctrine are wrong. The harder part of this is to admit mistakes when you make them. For example, perhaps an atheist points out where you employed a logical fallacy. Admit your mistake, and then restate your argument without using a fallacy if possible. This is huge. Atheists will respect you for this and will want to talk with you more often about your faith. Admitting your mistakes is very impressive.
- Come prepared. Actually study philosophy of religion, historical method, epistemology, and so on. Study the arguments for God and present the best ones in their strongest form. Study popular atheistic arguments and be prepared to give solid – not evasive – answers to them. Listen to 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
- Gently point out flaws in the atheist’s reasoning. Everyone makes flaws in their reasoning, and atheists are no exception. But people don’t like their flaws being pointed out, so try to approach their flaws from a curious standpoint, not an attacking standpoint. Example: “You say you reject God because there’s no evidence for him: he’s invisible and mysterious. But you believe in intrinsic moral values and intrinsic moral rights, for which there is also no evidence, and which are also invisible and mysterious. I don’t understand. Could you explain why you reject God but accept the existence of intrinsic moral values?”
- Appeal to reason and evidence, not faith or personal experience or Scripture. Atheists don’t see any use for faith, which they see as “believing without evidence.” To the atheist, “I believe becauase I have faith in God” sounds as silly as “I believe in astrology because I have faith.” Likewise, your personal mystical experiences with God aren’t going to convince the atheist. The atheist didn’t have those experiences, and can’t verify them. Besides, the atheist knows that billions of other people around the world claim personal experiences with contradictory gods and spirits and aliens, so he doesn’t see personal experience as reliable evidence. And we already talked about the problems with Scripture. Instead, defend Christianity with reason and evidence, two methods of truth-finding the atheist already accepts.
- Show good humor. At some point, the atheist may resort to mocking you for believing in “magic” or “Jesus the man-god zombie Lord.” Don’t react with anger; that just shows you have thin skin, which confirms an atheist stereotype of religious people. Instead, show good humor and draw the conversation back to reason and evidence.
- Offer a trade. Offer to read a particular atheistic article or book if the atheist you’re talking to will read a particular Christian article or book. Then, pick up the conversation later and ask questions about the Christian thing they read, and answer their questions about the atheistic thing you read, showing that you actually read and thought about it.
- Invite them into a world of friendliness, community, and emotional support. This is my best advice. Reason and evidence is the best way to persuade a truth-loving skeptic, but many atheists will convert if you simply invite them to a life that is happier with Jesus than their life was without him. Show them that Christians are fun and friendly. Invite them to a Christian party and show them all the fun things Christians do together. If the atheist is broken in some area of their life, show them how comforting life in the Christian bubble can be. The atheist may join the faith for emotional reasons, and then later justify his emotional choice with reason and evidence.
Now, how do I end this? Um… “Good luck”?