How should Christians respond to atheists?

October 8th, 2015

Defining atheism

Atheism is on the rise in the United States. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 2.4 percent of Americans identified themselves as atheist. This was up from 1.6 percent just five years earlier, in 2007. The same poll revealed that most atheists tend to be male (67 percent) and are proportionally younger and more likely to have college degrees than the general American population. Books by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins have been regularly appearing on the New York Times best-seller list in recent years. Dawkins’s The God Delusion reached number four on the list.

Given that atheism is on the rise, some questions ought to be explored. First, what is atheism? The simple definition, according to, is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” This definition of atheism and the reality of the beliefs of those who identify themselves as atheist differ. According to the Pew Research Center poll cited above, 14 percent of those who call themselves atheist still claim to believe “in God or a universal spirit.” 26 percent of atheists think of themselves as “spiritual,” and 82 percent say they feel a deep connection with the earth or nature.

Atheism is different from agnosticism. According to Oxforddictionaries. com, an agnostic is defined as “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” It seems like some of those who claim to be atheist might be more appropriately described as agnostic, according to this definition.

A study by researchers at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga confirms there’s a wide disparity amongst those who identify themselves as atheist. The study identifies six “types” of atheists and admits there are probably even more than that. “In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types,” said Christopher Silver, co-author of the study. 

The six categories range from the “intellectual atheist/agnostic,” who likes to learn and debate about religion, to the “ritual atheist,” who likes to participate in rituals, perhaps with music and meditation, but doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife. In between these types are those who are militantly atheist, such as the “activist,” and those who “embrace uncertainty,” meaning they don’t know what they believe, and they’re okay with that. This group is described as the “seeker-agnostic.”

Atheism through history

The history of atheism goes back to ancient times. Greek philosophers such as Epicurus argued that the only thing that really existed was the material world. These ancient philosophers didn’t necessarily deny the existence of God or gods; they just didn’t think gods had any interaction with human beings if they did exist.

This way of thinking is similar to the concept called deism, which became popular in the 18th century. Deism holds that “God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation.” Some notables in American history were deists, such as Thomas Jefferson, an early advocate of the separation of church and state. Thomas Paine, famous for his pamphlet Common Sense, also published a pamphlet called The Age of Reason, which critiqued the Bible and “sought to open up the questioning of organized religion among the common people of Britain, America and France.”

The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 gave a scientific grounding for the deist belief that God set the world in motion and then backed away. Some took the theory of evolution even further and said there was no need for God at all. In the 19th century, prominent German philosophers began publishing books critical of religion, including Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously proclaimed that “God is dead” and that humanity killed him.

Atheism today

In the early 21st century, a group called the New Atheists began to emerge. These were writers who, while not really presenting any new thought on the subject, nevertheless began to write about atheism with “an unusually high level of confidence in their views.” These are the books that have ranked high on the New York Times best-seller list, as described at the outset of this essay.

The writers in this group, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are unambiguous in their denial of the existence of God or any other supernatural deity. They rely on the natural sciences to make their case, believing that “empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world.” They claim science gives no basis for a belief in a Creator and even demonstrates the opposite.

Perhaps what is different about the New Atheists is their tendency to go on the offensive against religious belief and against the arguments that are often used against them, such as the assertion that it’s impossible to behave morally without religious belief. The New Atheists point again to science to explain moral behavior by those who don’t have religious principles to guide them. They then go on the offensive, saying it’s the God of the Bible who fails to act morally. They describe what they consider to be the “moral deficiencies” of the Bible, along with the “factual errors” they perceive in the text.

In dialogue with atheists

The interactions between atheists and Christians have been heated, particularly with the rise of the New Atheists in the early 2000s. Michael Bleiweiss, a physicist and atheist from Methuen, Massachusetts, describes the vehemence as a “backlash” due to “Christian militancy.” As some Christians have become more vocal and fervent in attacking evolution and in advocating on social issues, so some atheists have become more vocal in attacking the Christian faith.

Some on both sides have taken a different approach in debating their differences. For Christians, there’s a realization that polemical rhetoric rarely draws someone through the church door. For atheists, there’s a realization that they’re more able to combat stereotypes and change popular attitudes about atheists through dialogue.

A cordial and productive connection took place in an unlikely way. Hemant Mehta, an atheist, was selling his soul on eBay. Jim Henderson, an evangelical pastor, was the highest bidder (at $504). Henderson, who had been interested in finding out why people were turned off by the church, asked Mehta to attend 15 churches and report what he found.

Though Mehta didn’t end up converting to Christianity, he has been able to provide insight into how outsiders view the church and what churches can do to attract them. He has written a book called I Sold My Soul on eBay and speaks to churches and humanist societies around the country. He maintains a friendship with Henderson, who has continued his work in exploring how outsiders perceive the church, this time in cooperation with another atheist, Matt Casper.

The openness that this dialogue exhibited, and the work that Henderson and Mehta continue to do, reflect a way of reaching out that some churches have been doing in an attempt to connect with nonbelievers in such a way that draws them in and doesn’t push them away. Pastor Phil Wyman of Salem, Massachusetts, invited atheists and Neopagans (Salem is the setting of the witch trials, after all) to come and talk about their beliefs and the challenges they face in a predominantly Christian world. “Christians for quite some time have been creating events and trying to draw people into our little box, and we call that ‘outreach,’ ” Wyman says. “This is an exciting opportunity — people are opening, listening and seeking out spiritual things.” In the end, this listening and seeking might be the first steps toward accepting and believing.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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