How To Actually Talk To Atheists (If You're Christian)

Update 3.31.08: A number of people have emailed and asked if they can print and distribute this article / email it to friends / tattoo it on their buttocks, etc. If you think there's value in it, feel free to print or email it :) Also, thanks to Bishop Alan for his kind words about the article. It's nice to see an actual church blessing on my work.

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You know what's great?


In fact, unicorns are freakin' AWESOME. And you know why? Because once you accept one into your life, they provide you with a lifetime membership into the Beer, Massage, Chocolate and Steak club. Have you not heard about the beer, massage and steak club? Well, let me tell you all about it - it doesn't matter if you don't like beer, or steak, or chocolate, or massages - whichever one you like, you get 24 hours a day for the rest of your life. And if you like all four or any combination of them, well... You're in luck! Because That's what the rest of your eternity will be - massages (happy ending or not, your choice), steak cooked just the way you want it, chocolate of any sort coated in any topping (or as a topping on anything you want), and any beer ever made or ever conceptualized, always on tap and never flat. And to get all of this, all you have to do is accept a unicorn into your life.

What? You don't believe in unicorns? Well, I assure you that they are very real! And I know this because I've accepted a unicorn into my life, and I trust that it will one day gain me admittance into the BMCS Club. How could I have accepted it into my life? Well, I just believe in them. And I trust they exist, because there are texts available to me that discuss them, as well as people available to teach me all about them. I mean, after all, with such great eternal rewards, why wouldn't you believe?

Okay, fine, don't believe in them - you're going to end up in the Pushups For Eternity club. That's where you have to do knuckle pushups on mounds of broken glass with Rush Limbaugh sitting on your back for all eternity. All because you won't accept a unicorn into your life.

Pretty silly, right? Well, my dear Christian friends, that's exactly how you sound to an Atheist.

Now, I know that the message of Christ's death and resurrection sin so that humans can spend eternity in Heaven isn't being sold by (most) Christians as steak and chocolate and unicorns. That's not my point. I do not want or intend to discuss the actual merits (or lack thereof) of the Christian faith. My point is simply that you're asking a group of people to believe in something they do not believe exists, for a reward they cannot prove they'll ever obtain.

And I'm sure that the first reaction that you, as a Christian, felt toward my example was distinctly negative. I'm sure your feelings ranged anywhere from marginal discomfort to outright repulsion; given the notion that your chosen religion - the belief system that you've based everything you know and do around - could be compared to unicorns, steak clubs and push-ups in hell, well... I think I'd be offended myself. But I assure you, it is not my intention to offend you. I have but one goal, and that is to illustrate a single fact:

What you're currently doing - cold-call witnessing and talking to strangers at the mall about your faith and standing on street corners holding signs that read "REPENT"? Well...

It's not working.

This? Not working.

It's at this point that you're probably ready to just write me off as yet another heretic. And that's your right, and I certainly can't stop you. However, you need to understand that I didn't intend to upset you. If I did, however, I will not apologize. Instead, I'd ask that you give me a chance to explain my case by pointing out that your reaction to my comparison actually proves my point:

Confronting a person by attempting to convince them that everything they believe and know is wrong and that you are right is quite possibly the worst way on Earth to persuade them.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Before I illustrate how your current arsenal of witnessing tactics are not only ineffective, but are actively harming your religion and its' stance in an ever-growing public consisting of non-believers, I need to give you a bit of background information. And it's very important that, no matter how much you THINK you know these points, you pay attention to what I'm about to say, because the rapid swelling of the ranks of the Neo-Atheist movement have proven that what you think you know about them is absolutely, unequivocally, 100% WRONG.

First (and most important):

Atheists do not believe there is a God.

Yep, I'm using the definition of Atheism as my first point. And I do this not because I think you don't know what the word means, but because I'm fairly certain you've not yet realized the concept. When you witness to an Atheist, the person whom you are addressing does not believe there is a God - therefore, any information about God, Jesus, the holy trinity, the parting of oceans, great floods, and the creation of man falls on deaf ears.

To put this in more universal terms, you're attempting to sell a concept for which there is no proof other than the beliefs of men who have spread the word before it.

Whether you like it or not; whether you accept it or not, the fact remains - you're attempting to convince someone that something they cannot see, feel, hear, or otherwise partake of any empirical evidence of its existence, exists. Regardless of how much you believe in the story and how much it has affected your life and the lives of those around you, they do not.

This is important to understand. Until you do, you're arguing with a stop sign.

Second, Atheists do not need to believe in a God.

We've established that you're communicating with a person who does not believe what you are sharing with them exists. You're asking them to buy on faith the fact that spending time in church, telling other people about this belief and living a life based on it may one day reward them. That's difficult enough. When you add to this the fact that you are not only selling them something you can't prove exists, but that they don't even want, things turn from difficult to impossible.

Atheists assert that the foundation for their actions and deeds lie in proven methods related to science and the establishment of undeniable fact. In this, they believe that they have everything they need to live a healthy, rewarding life.

They're not wrong - no more than you are in asserting that your faith in the tenets of Christianity are all you need to live your life. And that's the point. It's hard to convince a man with two working legs that he needs to buy a third, or worse, get rid of his and try the ones you have on. And when he looks for your version and cannot see, feel, touch or otherwise prove that they actually exist, he's going to completely dismiss you. It's not personal, it's just how we work as people.

You're no different. Think about the last time you heard about a confidence scheme on the news - twenty or thirty elderly couples were duped out of their life savings by a man promising investment returns or selling a product which did not exist. If you are honest with yourself, you'll admit that your very first reaction - the one you had before you caught yourself and realized that these poor people are victims - was "Holy cow, why didn't they research it before they invested?"

It's crazy to buy something you can't prove exists, isn't it?

Witnessing is interruption marketing.

It's unfortunate but true - just about every method of "witnessing" to non-believers equates to human spam. To start, I'll list just a few of the methods we all know about:
  • Knocking on doors and talking to strangers about your new church / Christ / a church-related event designed to get new members
  • Cold-calling people from the phone book / phone lists to invite them to your church / discuss Christ and his teachings
  • Direct mail campaigns
  • Holding up signs on street corners
  • Walking up to strangers at Starbucks / the mall / anywhere besides your church
  • Handing out literature (i.e. "Chick Tracts")

This = Human Spam.

It's really easy to point these out as interruption marketing because... Well, they are. Honestly, they're low-hanging fruit. Easy targets, right? Probably unfair of me to just pick those and use them to illustrate the tactics all Christians use to witness. So let's talk about some techniques you may have employed that, to you, probably didn't come across as brazen as the above mentioned tactics:
  • Have you ever asked a co-worker to attend church with you?
  • Have you ever asked a stranger to attend church with you?
  • Have you ever asked either of the above about their faith in God or Jesus Christ?
  • Have you ever shifted a conversation that had nothing to do with church, Christ, or God into a conversation about any of the above?

When you did any of those things, did you notice an eye roll? Did the person groan? Did they shift in their seat and, at the very least, say they would go (or research what you just said, or give the matter some thought) and then never got back to you?

These techniques probably feel natural to you. They feel like you're sharing the good news of your faith and the joy it brings to your life, and it probably feels great to share that joy with others.

There's another organization / concept that those involved are equally as glad to share, because it's changed their life and they can't wait to spread that good news. This organization thrives on new members. Each individual collection of people works diligently to get more folks into the stable, because the larger they grow, the more they thrive and the farther they can spread the word of this great, life-changing group.

Surely, you know who I'm talking about. It's called Amway.

Now, before you get up in arms, I did NOT just compare your belief in God and Jesus to selling cleaners and credit cards and pre-paid cellphones. But I did, however, compare your technique of spreading the word about your belief to the technique of spreading the word about Amway.

Again, try to put yourself outside of your own perspective and into the shoes of your intended audience. You're interrupting their time and space to bring them a message you feel is important. And sure, you have the right to choose your faith and the right to free speech, but as GK Chesteron said, to have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it. And ultimately, "You need to hear this because I need to say it" is the ultimate in self-serving causes... And if you're serving yourself, you certainly aren't serving God.

So. You're dealing with an audience that doesn't believe that what you want to share with them even exists. They don't need it. They don't want to hear about it. Your attempts to share it with them are seen largely as annoying or, at the very least, an interruption in their day. And the result of these tactics is a massive swelling of the ranks of the "New Atheist Movement" (Neo-Atheism) in America and abroad; a movement that has been covered in great detail and has caused great concern within all denominations of the Christian church.

What to do, what to do...

Well, considering the facts, you've really only got two choices. The first is to just keep doing what you're doing. After all, it worked in the past. Your church regularly asks you to do it. It feels good to witness, and at the very end of the day, you can justify a few "lost sheep" if you gave it your best effort, right?

Well... If you're fine with that - if screaming your message through a megaphone and praying (literally) that someone hears you - is okay with you, well... Look forward to staying as frustrated as you are now (if not moreso). Stay persistent, right?

Well, to quote Seth Godin, quite possibly the most brilliant modern marketing guru alive today:
Persistence isn't using the same tactics over and over. That's just annoying.

Persistence is having the same goal over and over.
And the goal is to get people to follow the teachings of Christ and live a Christ-like life, right? Well, telling them to do so over and over again in ways that disrespect their time and personal space is nothing more than simple badgering. It might FEEL like you're doing the right thing, but as we all know, feeling like you're doing work, and actually getting work done are two different things. But there's something you can do that will bring you far closer to your goal than just talking and hoping:

Become the prototype.

Live the example, and let your actions spread the message. Get people to see the merit in the life you live and adopt your practices.

Let's follow two scenarios - one for each path you can take.

Using the traditional, human-spam model of witnessing, you use interruption-marketing techniques to spread the word about your faith. Because you are Christian, and because you are employing techniques that are unwelcome and unwanted, you communicate the following through your actions:
  • Christians would rather be correct than listen to differing opinion.
  • Christians do not respect the personal space (mentally and physically) of non-believers.
  • Christians feel they are superior to non-believers because they have salvation.
  • Christians would rather rely on faith as evidence than rely on fact.

All of these are going to lose your audience. Period.

And as I said before, if you're fine with that - if you're okay with the notion that saying the words and annoying or inconveniencing people with your methods of spreading what is supposed to be a message of brotherhood, unity, respect and love... Well, let's just say that you might need to evaluate the motives behind your actions, for they couldn't possibly be borne of love, respect or brotherhood.

Did Jesus ever hand out a pamphlet about himself? Did he ever tap people on the shoulder and say "Hey, have you heard the good news about me?" No... Not according to any of the literature I've ever read... And I've read a lot of it.

No one pays attention to magazine ads and billboards. People use Tivo to skip commercials on television. There are any number of email spam filters available to prevent just that sort of communication from inflicting itself on you digitally. In every segment - including yours - interruption techniques fail.

Considering your audience's opinion that you are infringing on their freedom to choose not to follow your faith, and their personal space with selling tales of what they consider to be mythical tales and arguments based on belief, you've lost before you've begun... And to go ahead with that program anyway implies a selfishness that only further harms your cause.

Its time for a new tack.

If I am the target for your message, I'm going to be far more receptive to one that incorporates respect for my time and my belief (or lack thereof). I will probably dismiss, as you do, the one which interrupts my routine and infringes on my time to tell me you're right and that everything I have spent years figuring out and pondering and basing my life and views around is wrong.

The second scenario, using my proposed example of witnessing by example, you employ the exact methods that Christ himself used to bring people inline with a respect and love based lifestyle. Live the teachings of your faith and sway action by your deeds. It may not feel like it’s as effective as talking and handing out literature - but the rational being will concede that that stuff has already failed everywhere it's being employed. And ultimately, living the example may not SEEM like it's as much work as hitting the street to hold posters or cold-call people to invite them to your church... But it's far less intrusive and far more effective in the long run.

Make no mistake - this is NOT giving up on saving souls or witnessing. Its a changing of tactics, one which requires diligence in action, commitment to the lifestyle, and confidence that those around you are taking notice.

Spreading the 'good news' is fine... But its hardly news at this point, and there's nothing good about not respecting my right to be who I am. And I can't guarantee or even suggest you'll convert everyone you meet with this new tact. But obviously, judging by the level of concern within all denominations of the rapidly spreading New Atheism, what you're doing isn't working the way you think it should. In fact, its doing more to push people toward the movement you're fighting so hard against. That doesn't seem like a good plan to me.

Eventually, living the example will entice someone who is paying attention to ask you your motives, or at the very least, inquire about the specific actions you're undertaking (such as volunteering for community service, feeding the hungry at a shelter, working with Habitat for Humanity, etcetera). And when they do, you'll have to engage them in conversation about your faith.

When you do, you should know that electing to enter into conversation with an Atheist equipped with your faith and scripture as tools is akin to electing to explore the ocean with a torch. The equipment you've chosen simply will not work in that environment. You can't blame the environment - after all, it is what it is, and you chose to go there.

So, here's a few pointers:
  • Don't bring it up first.
  • If you do bring it up first, and the other person is disinterested or reacts negatively, just let it go.
  • If the conversation does continue, remember that respect is paramount. You're not right, and I'm not wrong - you simply have faith in something I do not. That's not a weakness on my part, even when you consider it a strength on your part.
  • The faith you have? It's belief in the absence of proof or fact. That's the definition of faith. So, don't offer belief as evidence. You can, however, offer it as motive. "I believe in God" does not prove that God exists. "I volunteer at hunger shelters because I believe in God" does prove that you have a motive for your actions.
  • You will not sway an Atheist with promises of eternal reward or threat of eternal damnation. You can't point to heaven or hell on a map, so there's no evidence of their existence. Furthermore, bribery and intimidation are the tools of those who seek power, not those who seek redemption.
  • The Bible is not regarded as the word of God to an Atheist. It's a book written by men. Using it as evidence or proof of anything more than your motives for doing what you do is going to be dismissed.

Even if the conversation never ensues, it's a universal truth that action speaks louder than words. People DO take notice of those who act in accordance with a respect and love based lifestyle. They feel good when they see a person helping another person - and in fact, it makes them want to help out themselves. One need only look at the total figures of collected donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Center attacks to see this in action. Deed follows deed. Tell a person what to do, and you may get them to do it... Make them want to do it, and it'll get done, no matter what.

Ultimately, salvation has very little to do with saying the words "I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God and died for my sins." There are many, many people - some of whom hold the highest offices in the American government - who say this, and then go on to live lives that, by any account, are not at all Christ-like. How many people in your church have spent a week engaging in debauchery and other 'sinful' behaviors, only to appear in church on Sunday, ready to ask forgiveness for what they've done? And how many go right back out and do it again? How are these people better than those who live good lives and help their neighbor and further advance brotherhood and unity... But don't believe in God?

Which of these two types of people would you rather point to and say, "I taught them that?"

If you're more interested in lip service than in actually influencing people to live better lives, I'd say you need to revisit that book you proclaim to live by and, you know...

...Actually read it.