Earlier this month in a thought-provoking interview, apologist Matt Fradd questioned scholar Dr. Randal Rauser, Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary, on “Why Christians Should Rethink Their Attitudes Toward Atheists”.
Fradd begins his post at MattFradd.com by noting enthusiastically:
” I first became aware of Randal through his debates on Unbelievable? In every debate I found myself feeling sorry for the atheist he was up against. He’s that good.”
Indeed Dr. Rauser, a seasoned debater on the existence of God, had some intelligent things to say about the dialogue between Christians and atheists. Many great points were made by both Fradd and Rauser through the course of the dialogue.
I’ve highlighted three essential points made by Dr. Rauser:
1. Don’t be a jerk.
“To note one common target, petitionary prayer is often derided as an infantile appeal to a ‘sky daddy’. This lack of care and basic charity in the attitudes many atheists hold toward with people of faith is, to say the least, a hindrance to dialogue.”
The same applies to theists. Charity is a non-negotiable. Kindness—which embodies gentleness, reverence and charity—is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Not only is a lack of kindness a hindrance to dialogue, but it is also a hindrance to the work of the Holy Spirit; and evangelistic work that hinders the Holy Spirit seems to be a bit contradictory in principle: Hence evangelistic work becomes devangelistic work.
To make his point further, Rauser continues:
“[When] I researched Is the Atheist My Neighbor? it became evident that long before there was a new atheism Christians as a group were themselves deeply hostile and condescending toward atheists. Atheism, the claim that no God exists, is largely a modern phenomenon which traces back to the 18th century Enlightenment. And as I discovered, throughout that time Christian pastors, theologians, philosophers, and other church leaders have consistently expressed scathing attitudes toward atheists.”
Stephen Hawking once said that belief in God is for people “afraid of the dark”. Asked to respond, a Christian mathematician replied that atheism is for people “afraid of the Light”! But how many unbelievers have we prevented from coming to the Light through our lack of care and charity in words and action? We are Christians; but we are sinners; and we ourselves must take a long hard look in the mirror (I’m not kidding. If you really want to grow in the virtue of humility do your daily examination of conscience in front of a mirror).
Being kind, however, does not necessarily imply you must say what your atheist friend wants to hear. Healthy, stimulating dialogue always includes active listening, provocative questions and honest answers. Speaking the truth can potentially make others feel uneasy or even “offended” (Jesus “offended” many people by speaking the truth; in fact it got Him crucified). But it’s also worth pondering on the old cliche, “sometimes silence speaks louder than words”; There are times for truth and times for silence, as Jesus demonstrates before Pilate and Herod (see John 19:8-11; Luke 23:9).
It follows from Christ’s example therefore that the bold and charitable affirmation, proclamation and defence of what one knows to be true is a necessity for Christians. The Church calls this evangelization.
2. Don’t assume insincerity.
“I remember one time I was out for dinner with an atheist friend. I told him that I experience God every day and he was genuinely fascinated by the claim. A day or so later he emailed me with a simple question. “You said you experience God every day,” he wrote. “Why don’t I?” I didn’t sense any hostility or condescension in his question. Rather, it seemed to be driven by a heartfelt perplexity.”
It can be frustrating to hear atheist after atheist (especially in closing statements following debates with such intellectual powerhouses as Dr. William Lane Craig) say” “There’s just NO evidence for the existence of God!” But perhaps they really believe it and are really speaking with integrity.
Of course we see a great body of evidence for theism, thanks to the efforts of great thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Peter Kreeft, Ed Feser, William Lane Craig, N.T Wright, Gary Habermas, Craig Blomberg, C.S. Lewis, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, Fr. Robert Spitzer and G.K. Chesterton. Surely it seems to us like this list could go on ad infinitum. Many atheists, however, just don’t see what we see (or feel what we feel).
We cannot presume dishonesty. We can—and should—judge actions but we ought not judge hearts (contrary to popular notions this is the true meaning of the phrase “Who am I to judge?”). We must always assume the best of our neighbor and if an atheist has not yet seen “good” evidence for the existence of God we must make every effort to take them seriously. For some reason the evidence is not getting through to them. We must recalibrate in this case. This might very well be what Pope Francis meant when he wrote:
“Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all” (Evangelii Gaudium 132)
3. Don’t forget your mission.
Our mission as New Evangelists is to win souls, not arguments. To forget this can result in devastating consequences.
Fradd asks Dr. Rauser for tips on how to love our atheist neighbours. Rauser responds:
“Sure. The best place to start is by setting aside any apologetic or evangelistic agenda. Your neighborhood atheist is not an evangelistic or apologetic project. Rather, he or she is a human being with a story to share … if you’re willing to listen. So take the time to get to know people and hear their story.”
There are at least two take home points here:
First, remember our mission is to love people into faith. Effective dialogue does not always lead to debate. It doesn’t need to. Short of a miracle, an atheist will not convert on the spot. We are planting seeds, and watering seeds already planted. And to build on St. Paul’s “planting” analogy, too many seeds in one spot will not be fruitful. We must be moderate with our seed-planting, and prayer is our best fertilizer (OK, enough of this analogy. I’m starting to annoy myself).
Second, listen. LISTEN. We’ve all heard this before. But do we do it?
G.K. Chesterton wisely noted:
“You’ve not only got to know what is said, but what is meant. There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” (The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, p. 350)
We must listen to our counterparts; and think about what they are saying—not what we are going to say next. Emotion is unavoidable, but we must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed or we’ll be spending a bit of extra time in the confessional. Temperance in all things is a virtue—especially in speech (“For by your words you will be…” – see Matthew 12:37).
Dr Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary where he has taught since 2003. He is the author of several books including his latest, Is The Atheist My Neighbor: Rethinking Christian Attitudes towards Atheism.
Matt Fradd is a Catholic apologist and speaker. He is a regular contributor to Catholic Answers magazine. He lives in North Georgia with his wife and four children. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mattfradd and visit his website, MattFradd.com.