Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
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06-02-2013, 03:51 PM (This post was last modified: 09-02-2013 04:27 PM by Reltzik.)
Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
Okay, final, final draft. I'm reposting this so that the final version is on the front page of its thread and thus easy to link to. In fact, I plan to use this thread primarily for linking purposes. If I've linked you to this thread by saying, "Mistake C.2", that means that you should scroll down to Part C, read the category blurb, then go to item 2 in the list of common mistakes below the blurb. The mistakes probably won't make much sense unless you read the blurbs preceding them. If you're just here to browse, enjoy!

While this advice is addressed to Christians dealing with atheists, much of it is useful for other religions dealing with atheists, Christians dealing with other religions, Christians dealing with other types of Christians, atheists dealing with Christians, or anyone dealing with anyone. If below I tell Christians to be polite to atheists but not the reverse, it is not because atheists shouldn't be polite to Christians, but rather because it is not addressed to atheists.


Advice for Christians Regarding Atheists


Part A: Wheaton's Law (Don't Be A ****)

Treat atheists as you would want to be treated yourself. Put yourself in their shoes. Don't harass, insult, or persecute. If you feel an atheist has done this first, be the bigger person, turn the other cheek, and don't sink to their level. Kindness, offense, and abuse are all usually returned in kind, and you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Remember, you are an ambassador of Christianity to an outsider, so be on your best behavior.

Common mistakes:

  1. Disagreement is not a personal attack. Attacking a concept is not the same as attacking a person. It's not about you.
  2. Don't share your opinion or belief, and then get offended at the atheist sharing hers. Turnabout is fair play.
  3. Don't lose your temper. Stay mellow and polite, no matter the offense. Even if you are directing your comments only at one individual, others may hear or read them and react accordingly.
  4. Don't stereotype. Not all atheists are the same. If one is rude and offensive, the next might be considerate and polite.
  5. Don't blindly believe characterizations of atheists you hear from others. Draw your own conclusions from your own experience.
  6. Atheism is not grounds for violence, vandalism, firing, denial of service, poorer service, harassment, or ostracism. These can be illegal, can cause atheists to hate Christians at large, and invite reprisals against yourself and others.
  7. Don't be inconsiderate. Before saying anything about atheists, ask yourself if you would be offended if it was said about Christians.
  8. Unless they're actively trying to convince you of something, an atheist is under no obligation to prove anything to you.
  9. An atheist is not required to hear you out, especially if they have something else they'd rather be doing. Let them walk away if they want. Don't harass. If you want to be heard, find a way to spark their interest. Don't invade personal space or territory. Going door-to-door is ill-advised.
  10. Don't go after an atheist's minor children. Think how you would react if an atheist went after yours.
  11. Remember that atheists are people. They have families, jobs, hobbies, interests, friends, troubles. Don't focus on just their atheism.


Part B: Priorities

Understand why you are talking to these particular atheists. What are your overall objectives? Are you trying to educate about what Christianity says? Actively convert? Trying to educate yourself? Simply trying to get along with a family member? Choose your tactics to further these objectives. Deliberately avoid tactics which sabotage them. Analyze what you've done after the fact, ask yourself what worked and what didn't, and apply those lessons in the future.

Common mistakes:

  1. Focus on active dialogue rather than talking points. Few objectives are actively achieved by tossing stock arguments back and forth, because no one really listens to canned rhetoric or one-way lectures. Engage!
  2. Don't forget Part A (Wheaton's Law). Very few objectives are furthered if you piss an atheist off. You don't stop them thinking you're wrong by making them think you're wrong and a ****. If your objective is simply to get them angry or vent your own rage, take a deep breath, count slowly to 100, and try again.
  3. Don't be cryptic. Clearly communicate your objectives. Many times atheists will give you a fair hearing and even help you cut to the chase. Also, dissembling leads to mistrust.
  4. Are you trying to educate others about Christianity? Don't assume what the atheist is ignorant of and don't just toss out stuff expecting it to be believed or even cared about. Find out what they don't know and want to know first. Consider a Q&A format.
  5. Are you trying to educate yourself? Don't assume. Be open in what you don't know and ask plainly. Don't argue, that's not your objective.
  6. Are you actively attempting to convert? Don't even try a one-size-fits-all strategy. Atheists are not all the same. Identify the major obstacles to conversion for this particular atheist. Do this by asking, not assuming. Consider these obstacles carefully, understand them completely, and tailor your efforts accordingly.
  7. Does your objective require the atheist to actually listen to you, consider what you're saying, or have any sort of contact or dialogue with you? Then don't destroy their good will or respect.
  8. Don't expect an atheist to automatically have much interest if you simply state your beliefs or opinion. Beliefs and opinions are a dime a dozen, and atheists are often subjected to unsolicited sharing to the point of apathy and aversion.
  9. Don't make your goal simply having a message heard. This is a tactic to further a goal, not a goal in itself. Consider also how the message will be received and whether it will be believed, and whether these further your goal.


Part C: Critical Thinking and Fallacies

Critical thinking (critiquing claims and arguments to discern if they are true or valid) is popular (albeit not universal) among atheists. Expect any argument or claim you advance to be critiqued. Common flaws in arguments are called fallacies, and these have been cataloged, categorized, and named. Learn the fallacies and avoid them. Atheists will often identify these fallacies by name, so it helps to know the language. If you push forward a blatantly flawed argument, you can lose respect, interest, even trust. A list of fallacies can be found on Wikipedia (under "fallacy"). Some of the most common applications are below.

Common mistakes:

  1. A critique of your argument, claim, or belief is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. Often it is a sign of great respect. It assumes you're interested in pursuing the truth, and have the integrity to consider that you might be wrong and the toughness to endure that examination.
  2. Just because you assert something, doesn't mean the atheist will believe it.
  3. Just because it's in the Bible, doesn't mean the atheist will believe it.
  4. Just because a famous philosopher or apologist said it, doesn't mean the atheist will believe it.
  5. Just because a lot of people believe something, doesn't mean the atheist will believe it.
  6. Just because we might want something, doesn't make it true.
  7. Just because we don't understand something, doesn't make God the explanation.
  8. "God did it" isn't an explanation without a clear how and why.
  9. If everything requires a creator, then so does any creator. A rule can't have an exception and be universal.
  10. If you wish an atheist to buy into a conclusion as the logical explanation of some phenomenon, you must establish both that the phenomenon exists, and that the conclusion is the most reasonable (or only) explanation.
  11. Occam's Razor is a common technique. Expect straightforward, mundane explanations to be favored over convoluted, supernatural ones. Do not expect the reverse.
  12. Conclusions that contradict existing understanding have a heavy burden of proof. Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence. If you want to persuade an atheist that they actually DO believe in God when they think they don't, you've got your work cut out for you.
  13. The more convoluted the argument, the easier it is for a fallacy to hide in it and the less it will be trusted.
  14. Arguments are founded in premises, and are only believed if their premises are believed. Don't expect to persuade atheists by quoting a Bible they think is false. Don't expect an atheist to want salvation from a hell they don't believe in. Above all, don't expect an atheist to believe in any argument dependent on God existing.
  15. Understand what a hypothetical question is. An atheist who asks why God would do this or that isn't admitting the existence of God.


Part D: Avoiding Confusion about Atheism

There are a couple of definitions for atheism floating around out there. It always includes people who fully believe that God (and other deities) do not exist, with little or no doubt on the subject. This is called "strong atheism", or "gnostic atheism", or just plain atheism (in a narrower sense, and yes, this is confusing). It can also, depending on the speaker, include not believing that God or gods exist, but also not fully believing they don't or that there's a lot of room for doubt. This is called "weak atheism", "agnostic atheism", or simply agnosticism. Be clear about how others mean the word, how you mean it, and any gaps between the two. This can avoid some of the worst misunderstandings. Also be aware that atheism is about a current absence of belief and worship, and does not imply a countervailing belief or worship, or a previous absence.

Common mistakes:
  1. Being an atheist does not imply faith or even belief in either evolution or the Big Bang. Belief (without faith) might be the way to bet but it's not a sure thing. Regardless, undermining either theory does not undermine atheism. (Also, if you MUST go off on a tangent about evolution, actually know what the theory says and how it is distinct from abiogenesis. Be prepared!)
  2. Atheists do not worship Satan, for the simple reason that they do not believe that Satan exists. The same goes for any other supernatural, greater power. If you want to semantically redefine worshiping Satan to literally mean not worshiping God, fine, but then atheists get to redefine donkey to mean hat and say you have your head up your ass.
  3. Some atheists are ignorant of the religions that surround them. Most are not. Many are quite knowledgeable. Some hail from those religions and have a deep, insider's understanding.
  4. Atheists are not immoral. Atheism itself is amoral, in that it neither prescribes nor proscribes moral behaviors, and has no moral code. But individual atheists usually adopt moral codes from other sources such as ethics, humanism, enlightened self-interest, and social mores. The moral codes they adopt often have a lot in common with Christian morality, and are sometimes indirectly derived from it.
  5. Atheism is not a religion. It requires no faith, has no congregation, no system of belief, no dogma or doctrine, and makes no statements about the metaphysical. (Some subsets of atheism might, like strong atheism, but atheism as a whole does not.)
  6. Most free, Western societies explicitly or implicitly grant the same freedom to be an atheist as to be a member of any religion, even if atheism is not itself a religion.
  7. Do not equate all atheists with particular atheists. Not all atheists are communists, or subject to the same moral turpitude as Stalin or Pol Pot.
  8. Do not assume a universal atheist agenda. Most desire the legal and social freedom to disbelieve as they are inclined, but otherwise atheists are all over the map on what they want. In particular, not all atheists want to abolish religion.
  9. Do not assume a vast atheistic conspiracy. Organizing large numbers of atheists is like herding large numbers of argumentative cats. A vast conspiracy comprising a majority of these people would be utterly unworkable.
  10. Don't mistake atheism for secularism. Secularism is about separation of church and state -- not having established churches, not mandating religion, keeping religion out of the process of governance, not funneling tax dollars to religion, not allowing religion to dictate laws, and not allowing government to dictate to religion. Many, but not all, atheists are secularists, but many secularists are non-atheists who think government does its job better with that separation, and many are strongly religious people who actually wish to protect religion from governmental interference or the temptation of worldly power. Atheism and secularism do not imply one another.
  11. In a similar manner, atheism does not imply naturalism, philosophical materialism, scientific skepticism, or any sort of scientific bent, nor do any of these imply atheism. They're often found together, but they're also often not.
  12. Just because a person isn't a Christian, doesn't make them an atheist.
  13. Atheists do not hate God. They might hate the concept or idea of God, or the effect that the concept of God has on society, or even the character of God as depicted in the Bible or by televangelists. But that is different from hating God. They don't hate God, any more than you hate purple unicorns, and for the same reason: they don't believe that God exists, any more than you believe that purple unicorns exist.


Part E: Avoiding Confusion about Christianity

If there's a couple of definitions for atheism out there, then there is a multitude for Christianity. They range from the twenty members of a particular church out in the middle of nowhere (who insist that they are the only Christians) to anyone who identifies as a Christian, with no further qualifications. Common variants involve being part of this or that organization, believing certain doctrines (such as Biblical inerrancy), or having undergone certain ceremonies (such as baptism). Because the word Christian means so many things to so many people, it is very difficult for other people to understand what it means to someone who is saying it. Be utterly clear in how you are using the word. The broadest definitions are "anyone who calls themselves a Christian", and "Someone who follows Christ and worships the Abrahamic God, as at least roughly related to what is described in the Bible". If you use a definition other than one of these, expect to encounter confusion if you do not clarify, expect to have some people who identify themselves as Christian but whom you do not identify as Christian take umbrage, and do not expect others to use the word the same way. Also, if you are attempting to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians, spare a moment to ask yourself whether the distinction you are drawing is practical.

Common mistakes:
  1. Don't insist that others use the same definition you use, especially if it's not one of the two above. Being clear on the definition you're using is one thing, but don't expect everyone else to adopt it on your say-so, or even keep your definition straight from all the other definitions out there.
  2. Don't make arguments about how some people who identify as Christians are not true Christians and don't actually represent Christianity. The atheist has likely heard the same thing said about your branch of Christianity, and will be skeptical.
  3. Don't insist that (identifying) Christians who became atheists were not true Christians. There might be doctrinal basis for this, but it is still a narrowing of definition past the norm, and as such invites more in the way of semantic quibbling than real dialogue. See Mistakes C.12 and E.2. Be aware that the atheists in question thought of themselves as Christian, and at the time had no way of realizing otherwise. Ask yourself whether the distinction has value, if it robs you of the ability to say of anyone that they are a Christian because you don't know if they might become an atheist in the future. This must also include your own ability to identify as Christian.
  4. Do not assert that Christianity is the exemplar of moral behavior, and then try to rule out counterexamples of identifying Christians who behaved really, really badly as not being true Christians. In particular, be aware that Hitler publicly declared himself to be a Christian and made (a version of) Christianity into a cornerstone of Nazi Germany. This also includes priests who abuse children and identifying Christian husbands who abuse wives. Atheists are generally aware of some bad examples, and will be skeptical of claims to the contrary or attempts to brush them under the rug.
  5. Don't ignore that there's some nasty stuff in the bible. Argue old/new covenant if you want, or that God's above morality. Argue that this or that portion is flawed, inapplicable, or misinterpreted if you want. But don't outright deny it. It's a part of Christianity and the atheist likely knows it. For example, don't say God would never order genocide and the mass slaughter of infants, and then be surprised if an atheist asks about the book of Joshua. Similarly, be aware that Christian faith has been used to spark and justify atrocities, small and large, across the ages. The atheist will likely be aware of some examples, and this will often be a sticking point in arguments about morality.

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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06-02-2013, 07:13 PM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
Awesome job!

Godless in the Magnolia State
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07-02-2013, 02:56 AM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
(06-02-2013 07:13 PM)cjs Wrote:  Awesome job!
Agreed!
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07-02-2013, 07:24 PM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
Avoiding Confusion About Atheism.

Quote:...There are a couple of definitions for atheism floating around out there. It almost always means people who fully believe that God (and other deities) do not exist, with little or no doubt on the subject. This is called "strong atheism", or "gnostic atheism", or just plain atheism (in a narrower sense, and yes, this is confusing). It can also include not believing that God or gods exist, but also not fully believing they don't or that there's a lot of room for doubt. This is also called "weak atheism", "agnostic atheism", or simply agnosticism. Be clear about how others mean the word, how you mean it, and any gaps between the two. This can avoid some of the worst misunderstandings. Also be aware that atheism is about a current absence of belief and worship, and does not imply a countervailing belief or worship, or a previous absence. Being an atheist does not imply faith or even belief in either evolution or the Big Bang. Belief (without faith) might be the way to bet but it's not a sure thing. Regardless, undermining either theory does not undermine atheism. (Also, if you MUST go off on a tangent about evolution, actually know what the theory says and how it is distinct from abiogenesis. Be prepared!) Atheists do not worship Satan, for the simple reason that they do not believe that Satan exists. The same goes for any other supernatural, greater power. If you want to semantically redefine worshiping Satan to literally mean not worshiping God, fine, but then atheists get to redefine donkey to mean hat and say you have your head up your ass.Some atheists are ignorant of the religions that surround them. Most are not. Many are quite knowledgeable. Some hail from those religions and have a deep, insider's understanding. Atheists are not immoral. Atheism itself is amoral, in that it neither prescribes nor proscribes moral behaviors, and has no moral code. But individual atheists usually adopt moral codes from other sources such as ethics, humanism, enlightened self-interest, and social mores. The moral codes they adopt often have a lot in common with Christian morality, and are sometimes indirectly derived from it. Atheism is not a religion. It requires no faith, has no congregation, no system of belief, no dogma or doctrine, and makes no statements about the metaphysical. (Some subsets of atheism might, like strong atheism, but atheism as a whole does not.) Most free, Western societies explicitly or implicitly grant the same freedom to be an atheist as to be a member of any religion, even if atheism is not itself a religion. Do not equate all atheists with particular atheists. Not all atheists are communists, or subject to the same moral turpitude as Stalin or Pol Pot. Do not assume a universal atheist agenda. Most desire the legal and social freedom to disbelieve as they are inclined, but otherwise atheists are all over the map on what they want. In particular, not all atheists want to abolish religion. Do not assume a vast atheistic conspiracy. Organizing large numbers of atheists is like herding large numbers of argumentative cats. A vast conspiracy comprising a majority of these people would be utterly unworkable. Don't mistake atheism for secularism. Secularism is about separation of church and state -- not having established churches, not mandating religion, keeping religion out of the process of governance, not funneling tax dollars to religion, not allowing religion to dictate laws, and not allowing government to dictate to religion. Many, but not all, atheists are secularists, but many secularists are non-atheists who think government does its job better with that separation, and many are strongly religious people who actually wish to protect religion from governmental interference or the temptation of worldly power. Atheism and secularism do not imply one another. In a similar manner, atheism does not imply naturalism, philosophical materialism, scientific skepticism, or any sort of scientific bent, nor do any of these imply atheism. They're often found together, but they're also often not. Just because a person isn't a Christian, doesn't make them an atheist.

Thanks. That makes atheism MUCH easier to understand. Thumbsup
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08-02-2013, 04:15 AM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
"It almost always means people who fully believe that God (and other
deities) do not exist, with little or no doubt on the subject. This is
called "strong atheism", or "gnostic atheism", or just plain atheism (in
a narrower sense, and yes, this is confusing)."


This has not been my experience. Any amount of doubt about the possibility of gods takes you out of Strong/Gnostic Atheism, and I can't think of a single person on this forum that has advocated for or tried to defend that stance. Not even Dawkins or Hitchens self identified as Strong Atheists...

100% self assured conviction is very common amongst the religious, but relatively rare among non-believers. Probably why one of the earliest collective terms for us was 'doubters', because we're inclined to be skeptical (even of our own views).

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08-02-2013, 04:57 AM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
This will now be the go-to thread Smile

Regards,
Lucius

"It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan
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08-02-2013, 05:59 AM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
I enjoyed reading this.

I almost wish I could print it out (especially part A) and give a copy to most Christians I have ever argued with in real life, but I am pretty certain none of them would read it.
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08-02-2013, 12:17 PM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
(08-02-2013 04:15 AM)EvolutionKills Wrote:  "It almost always means people who fully believe that God (and other
deities) do not exist, with little or no doubt on the subject. This is
called "strong atheism", or "gnostic atheism", or just plain atheism (in
a narrower sense, and yes, this is confusing)."


This has not been my experience. Any amount of doubt about the possibility of gods takes you out of Strong/Gnostic Atheism, and I can't think of a single person on this forum that has advocated for or tried to defend that stance. Not even Dawkins or Hitchens self identified as Strong Atheists...

100% self assured conviction is very common amongst the religious, but relatively rare among non-believers. Probably why one of the earliest collective terms for us was 'doubters', because we're inclined to be skeptical (even of our own views).
Hrrrrm. Yeah, I was mulling over that too. I think I'll switch the word from "means" to "includes".

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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08-02-2013, 12:18 PM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
(Ignore this post. Flubbed it and can't figure out how to delete.)

"If I ignore the alternatives, the only option is God; I ignore them; therefore God." -- The Syllogism of Fail
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08-02-2013, 06:52 PM
RE: Advice for Christians regarding Atheists
(08-02-2013 05:59 AM)amyb Wrote:  I enjoyed reading this.

I almost wish I could print it out (especially part A) and give a copy to most Christians I have ever argued with in real life, but I am pretty certain none of them would read it.

I may do just that the next time someone tells me I'm going to hell.
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