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How to Evangelize An Atheist

October 27, 2010

Yesterday I posted a video about patronizing Christian author and radio personality June Hunt and her demonstration on how to convert an atheist using a simplistic argument and drawing.

Today, Jason Boyett, of O Me of Little Faith made some observations on Hunt’s argument.

But it occurs to me that, using the same logic, the same isn’t-your-knowledge-pretty-limited? circle-drawing approach would be just as effective in forcing a Christian to consider that Allah could be the true god and Islam the one true religion. Because couldn’t some form of truth exist outside that which think we know?

It could also force us to admit that Norse mythology could an accurate worldview. Or that Joseph Smith and his Mormon faith were true. Or that Mictlantecuhtli, the skeletal Aztec god of death who wears a necklace of human eyeballs, could possible exist in a horrible afterlife somewhere outside our limited range of knowledge.

Know any Christians who are just a few quick questions away from making those leaps? Me neither. Then why do we expect atheists to be ready to do the same?

Jason ends his argument this way, “I think humility is good, and admitting the limits of our knowledge is healthy. That’s why we doubt: because we don’t know everything. And that’s also why we seek truth.” However, in his rebuttal to Hunt he has made the same error she has: belief and knowledge are not the same thing.

Let me give you an example. Recently, in fact just a couple of weeks ago during Thanksgiving (I’m in Canada) I had a conversation with one of the persons on my wife’s side of the family. There are members on my wife’s side of the family that are into Religious Science or the Science of the Mind. Unfortunately, what they have is a weird form of religion with absolutely no science!

Anyways, in a discussion of our ‘beliefs’ this family member stated that they could light the candle sitting on the table with their mind if they really, really wanted to do so. To my chagrin this person had support. For some reason, after making their argument that they could do magic with their mind they decided to ask me, “Don’t you think so Scott?”

My response? “No, that’s absolute bullshit.”

We’ll see if I get my invite to Christmas.

Anyways, I went on to say after they asked me why: We live in the scientific age. We know how combustion works. We can repeatedly test it under observable conditions that will be sustainable upon peer-review. We have knowledge of how fire and combustion work. If we line up one hundred candles and you try to light every single one with your mind, and I try to light every single one with a lighter, you will light zero and I will light one hundred.

What we see here then is that I have knowledge of how fire and lighting a candle work. It is good and adequate knowledge. I may run out of fuel and not be able to light a candle but it is not because my knowledge is inadequate or limited. What my relative had was a belief of how those forces (acted upon by their magic mental abilities!) worked. It is a bad and inadequate belief. It will never, ever light a candle. To say following this discussion, “Well it’s possible that outside of your limited knowledge of how fire works that it’s possible I can light candles with the power of my mind is confusing and fundamentally missing the point!

To ask a person who is committed to observable data and to processes that reasonably explain that data to revert to a God of the gaps, or to “beliefs” is like asking a fish to stop swimming in water and receiving its oxygen in that medium.

So how does one evangelize an atheist? I’m not sure. Demonstrating your arguments in a repeatable format might be a real good place to start… but apologetics? Nah, I don’t think so, “even with powerful illustrations of empty circles.” (Boyett)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    October 27, 2010 12:44 pm

    I don’t want to defend the woman’s approach or style or the effectiveness of her argument, but I think one element is being missed in saying that her argument can just as well be applied to her own beliefs.

    She is making (in not-very-clear form) the argument that it’s harder to prove a negative proposition than a positive. “X exists” is a proposition that can be absolutely proven by finding only one instance of X. “No X exists” is much more challenging to prove. If no logical proof is possible, it can only be proven empirically (to 100% confidence level) by examining the entire domain.

    Now, I don’t think most atheists actually believe “It is 100% provable in strictly logical terms that no god exists.” Most probably believe, “Given the information I have, I believe it is more likely than not that no god exists.” So her argument is probably not very effective.

    But I don’t think it’s an argument that would be effective on her belief system, either, because she would feel that her circle of knowledge and experience includes “God exists”.

    • October 27, 2010 12:53 pm

      I am certain she would feel her circle of knowledge was larger than any atheists. However, it would be fun to have an epistemological throw-down with her!

      Me: What is knowledge?

      Her: It’s what I believe and have been told

      Me: June, I think we might have an issue


  2. Tory permalink
    October 27, 2010 1:28 pm

    I was wonering if you could elaborate on how you would evangelize an atheist? I think you’ve adequatley shown some good ways how not to do it but I would be curious in how you would do it in the real world.

    • October 27, 2010 1:58 pm

      Short answer: I wouldn’t.

      Long answer: I would not.

      If you are a Christian I suppose I could point you to the Bible, “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” There simply is no magic soul-winning technique, especially when you are engaging persons that are committed to positive proofs of reality other than, “Well I believe…” or “The Bible says…”

      Here’s a good start to talking to any person and treating them like a valuable member of the human community even if you do not like some of their ideological or scientific positions: 1)listen; 2) do not cite Psalm 14:1; 3) listen; 4) actively listen; 5) try to understand; 6) empathize.

      • Tory permalink
        October 27, 2010 11:29 pm

        I understand the point about listening to person and accepting them as a valubable member of the human community. I also understand the point that no one can come to faith without the work of the Holy Spirit. I also understand the point about not constantly trying to get a notch on one’s belt. But isn’t there a point where a Christian should share what they believe? And if there is, when would this point be? Wait until one is asked? Wait until the conversation or context allows for it? Or are you saying that one should never share the Christian faith at all with an atheist?

        • October 28, 2010 7:53 am

          Frankly, I don’t know. Any atheist care to weigh in on this one? When is a good time to evangelize you? 😉

        • October 28, 2010 10:05 am

          I’m not an atheist, but I am an evangelical. Here is the problem I have with your question: you can’t share the Christian faith – you can share your understanding of Christian faith though and you can share your experience of your faith. I’m sure an atheist (with the exception of a fundamentalist atheist perhaps) would be happy to hear about your experiences of faith, he or she might find that fascinating. They would be happy, that is, unless you were trying to assert that your understanding is the only acceptable one and that they are basically an idiot if they don’t believe what you believe. That sadly is what passes for evangelism these days. I think a better term for it is arrogance. I also think that the reason that Christian faith experience is not so acceptable in normal conversation is the pervasiveness of this arrogance. I agree that we need to tell our stories, I love sharing my own faith life with others. But I disagree that we have a right to assert the dominance of our beliefs or that we have the right to belittle the views of other people.

          • Tory permalink
            October 28, 2010 10:50 am

            I think these are some good comments. Thanks Frank & Agathos!

            • FormerChristian7 permalink
              October 29, 2010 7:26 pm

              I’m an atheist and a former Christian. I don’t have time to detail all of that here, but I can take up Tory’s question and the invitation to comment by agathos.

              Tory, I can guess you believe very sincerely and I can reasonably guess from the tone of your comments that you see “sharing the gospel” as a good and loving thing to do. At the same time, for folks like me who are well informed of the doctrines, practices and history of the Christian church and left it all because we could find no supporting evidence for its truth, frankly your “testimony” isn’t likely to sway us. You may have a compelling personal story and may be a kind and empathetic presenter of the message of Jesus, and I may even appreciate your skillful delivery but unless you can demonstrate to me that the God you believe in actually exists and is not better explained by appeal to what we know of human psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology then the nice story just isn’t going to cut it. If it were real I wouldn’t have to believe, I would be able to KNOW it. Just like I don’t believe in gravity, I can observe it. Does that make sense?

              That won’t cover all atheists now. We non-believers have plenty of reasons for being where we are and not all of us are convinced that there is almost certainly no god by appeal to reason and evidence. Maybe you’d get through to a different kind of atheist out there, but not to me.

  3. Jake permalink
    October 27, 2010 6:32 pm

    I think it’s also important to recognize that knowledge is not superior to belief nor is belief superior to knowledge and that they are both intrinsically bound to each other. Having wisdom and humility regarding the balanced and appropriate application of belief and knowledge might be the most powerful and influential trait a person could have.

    • October 27, 2010 7:15 pm

      Certainly epistemic humility and empathy are powerful traits, that is why I like to say we have good and adequate knowledge not perfect knowledge. So with our good and adequate knowledge we can put a plane up in the sky but sometimes, because our knowledge is not perfect, those planes fall to the ground.

      However, at the same time I would still advise caution if someone was standing on top of a building and “believed” they could fly. I’m guessing my knowledge of gravity would be superior to their belief!

      • Jake permalink
        October 27, 2010 10:23 pm

        But would we ever be able to put ourselves in the position to accumulate knowledge without first the belief that we could do so?

        • October 28, 2010 9:30 am

          No we wouldn’t. However we quickly discover which beliefs are justified – through study I can increase my knowledge of the world around me, and which beliefs are not – I can light a candle with the power of my mind.
          Rational people abandon false beliefs .

          Re: “When is a good time to evangelize you?”

          Never, we appreciate the impulse but loathe the action.

          “Never, try to teach a pig to sing, it’s a waste of your time and it pisses off the pig”

  4. Grant permalink
    October 28, 2010 5:12 am

    Again the B&L Evangelistic Association Technique works even convincing a stooge

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