December 16, 2013

15 Things Christians Should Not Say to Atheists

I saw this video a couple of months ago: 15 things to NEVER say to an atheist by TheAtheistVoice (whom I will call AV from here on) on YouTube. I wanted to do a post about it because, A) lists are easy things to make posts about and B) I liked the tone within which the video was done. Some of these 15 things the guy has a point about, while others I think he misunderstands. So for each of the 15, I will include a reference in terms of when he starts talking about it. I recommend you listen to his comments on each, and then read my comments in turn. Here is the video:

  1. Where do you get your morality? (4 seconds) Here I think he clearly misunderstands the question. Perhaps this is due to some Christians framing it poorly (on YouTube this is highly possible), but ethically speaking this is a very reasonable question. Yes, of course atheists aren't evil, but atheism cannot account logically for the morality that they have.
    To understand this question properly, you have to not take it pragmatically, as AV seems to. Christians acknowledge that atheists have morals. But the more philosophical question is what are those morals based on. To some degree morality is instinctual but if as humans we have the ability to rise above our mere instincts and in doing so we have to ask these higher philosophical questions about the justification for those instincts. This is especially true since the exact codification of morality varies from civilization to civilization.
    Also, as a point of clarification, Christians don't define morality off of the biblical law, but off of the character of Christ and the holiness of humanity. But this is worth its own post.
  2. Your life must be so empty!(22 seconds) This is a really interesting one IMO. First of all, I agree with him that Christians shouldn't say this, at least not in this way. The kind of fulfillment that we find in Christ is usually not something that we can speculate on or feel is lacking if we haven't experienced it before. So to expect a non-Christian to miss something that they have not experienced is a major mistake, and likely to be misunderstood.
    This doesn't mean that the question of purpose is a irresponsible question to ask. As a philosophical question, it is incredibly relevant to point out that all of our works (if atheism were true) would come to naught. Take all of the things that he lists. All of those things will cease to be. While it may give him present gratification, it isn't the same thing as seeing that his life has true meaning. But if we fail to carefully separate the question of purpose from the question of personal satisfaction in life, we will come off as arrogant and out of touch.
  3. Why are you mad at God?(55 seconds) Though the unicorn bit is over the top, he certainly has a point here. This is an issue of stereotyping, and is something that us Christians shouldn't be doing. Different people become atheists for different reasons. Some are raised atheist; some became convinced for apparently logical reasons; some are angry at religious people; and some are angry at God for not coming through for them at some point. While it is reasonable to ask the question to the last person, it is unreasonable to ask it to the other three.
    And even then, let us consider that fourth option for a second. It is still unreasonable to ask this question unless they are expressing that anger in that moment. Remember we are not trying to win an argument, but win a soul. It is an entirely different thing.
  4. You can't disprove God.(1:10) Christians absolutely shouldn't say this. This is a retreat and empowers atheist argumentation (as you see here). What exactly is the value in believing in something that is unfalsifiable? I don't see that as productive in the slightest. What is more important is that we take the time to establish what is and is not good evidence for God, and yes we should demand evidence from the atheist as well.
    Writing this something occurred to me. Perhaps a Christian will say this as a polite way to end a conversation. Kind of saying, "You won't convince me, so back off". Even here, this isn't very wise. Instead of ending the conversation, you'll merely be starting a new one. So there is still no advantage to a Christian ever saying this.
  5. What if you're wrong?(1:58) This can be seen as a straw man of Pascal's Wager, and is therefore handled quite poorly. Pascal's wager is worthy of it's own post as well, and requires more serious reflection than this video gives it. Additionally, his answer is merely a straw man of how salvation really works within Christianity. God will not condemn someone for asking honest questions, but He is concerned with how you select those questions, and the attitudes that you hold.
  6. You just have to have faith.(2:53) Again I am in agreement with him here. This is a retreat, and there is no need for us to retreat. If you don't know an answer, than admit that, and point out that you are human and simply don't have all of the answers.
    A proper definition of faith is also in order here. Faith is trusting in God. Trusting in someone when you don't have sufficient answers is not only reasonable, but also necessary. No scientist redoes every single experiment to see for themselves if the conclusions that others reached were legitimate. There just isn't enough hours in your life. To some degree you have faith in others' research, and that's OK. But it is important to explain why that is, and frame it properly.
  7. Just open your heart to God.(3:34) This is a problem of Christianese, and yes, Christians shouldn't say this. As a Christian, you cannot assume that an atheist understands your terminology, or frames his life in the same way that we do. Yes, I would say that if someone is a committed atheist then they have in some manner closed off their heart. However, I do not know how, nor do I expect the atheist to simply fix the problem because I told him to. And frankly, why would you? It is your job as a Christian to instead build a relationship with the person, and participate in this examination. This strikes me more as a Christian being lazy than anything else.
  8. You were never really religious.(4:06) Seriously. How would you really know this? This demonstrates an evangelistic problem with OSAS, which is something I reject anyway. You will never get anywhere by explaining somebody's life to them. They are the ones who lived it, not you.
  9. What happened in your childhood?(5:12) Another that Christians really shouldn't say. Again, it is hubris to assume things about someone else's life, and when you do so, you destroy your credibility, and the credibility of other Christians after you.
  10. Have you read the Bible?(5:42) This one is interesting for a few different reasons:
    1. Asking if an Atheist has read the Bible only makes sense if you are checking to see if they understand Christianity. It doesn't make sense to say this if you are talking about their Atheist beliefs
    2. More interestingly, do we really want Atheists just reading the Bible? Do they have the appropriate hermeneutics training to read what it really is saying? Do they understand how to put things into historical context? Do they understand how different books relate to one another? Let's face it, if you tell an atheist who has never read the Bible to read it, they aren't starting in Matthew, but Genesis, Exodus and then Leviticus. Not really a good place to be to understand Christianity
    Overall, we have to be careful about non-believers reading the Bible. Remember what the eunuch said to Philip, "How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?"
  11. I'll pray for you(6:40)There are a few things to comment on here. Yes, instead of just saying that we will pray for him, we should also do something! Absolutely. But I disagree with him that saying that we will pray for him is something we shouldn't say. That said, we should be conscious of how we say it. We should recognize that they don't believe in prayer, and we can't use prayer as an argument or something. But seriously, us saying that we will pray is nothing more than an affirmation that we believe it, and it does mean more than simply saying, "you are in our thoughts." While I get what he is saying, I think it is completely fine to tell someone that you are praying for them, as long as you are not hitting them over the head with it, and you are prepared to basically deal with this kind of reaction.
  12. Do you worship the devil?(7:34) Sigh...
  13. You must be Agnostic(8:01) Flying Spaghetti Monster: something atheists should really stop saying to Christians. Truly a dumb argument.
    Anyway, I wrote a post on this issue a couple of weeks ago. The problem is that the line between agnostic and atheist is generally drawn on an individual level. For instance even here is he says, "To me, an agnostic is..." Well that's sort of the problem. That is not how the term was originally defined, and you can't just decide what a word means on your own. That said, there is a time and place for this conversation, and many make this point at inappropriate times. But this is legit if it is properly contextualized and actually serves a rhetorical purpose.
  14. Isn't Atheism a religion?(9:02)Ugh. This is annoying because he gets a lot of things wrong here, and so does the Christian who asks this. So just everyone is wrong here.
    First of all, let's look at his definition of religion: a belief in a higher power. The problem is that there are a lot of spiritualists who believe in higher powers and that can't really be termed a religion. Also, classic Buddhism is a religion and yet it doesn't believe in a higher power.
    Religion is a systematized worldview which is upheld corporately through ritual. Atheism isn't a religion because it doesn't naturally lend itself to corporate gathering and isn't ritualistic. (And being a Cubs fan isn't a worldview, so fails for other reasons).
    However, when Christians say this, what they are really saying is that Atheism is a worldview. It is not a non-position. It is not as simple as simply being "off" or whatever. There are certain epistemological and cosmological assertions which form the foundation of being atheist. It is a philosophy. It is a worldview. But no, it is not a religion.
  15. Why are you so angry?(9:40) Actually I think this is a good question if asked honestly. And this is the answer. To be honest, it is for the same reason why Christians get mad at atheists. Both of us address the public sphere and others based off of what we believe to be true, and when other obstruct that vision, it is frustrating because we care about truth and other people.
    What bothers me in the video on this last one is that he cannot see that his frustration is mutual, and his statement that he cares about truth and rights and we don't is simply hubris, and makes him guilty of the very thing he is complaining against.

These 15 things Christians shouldn't say to Atheists pretty much fall into two categories: Good arguments that are often presented poorly, and retreat statements designed to protect the Christian from criticism. For those of the first category, I encourage my fellow Christians to be aware that what we intend to say is not always what is heard, and therefore be sure you are communicating, not simply talking.

For those of the second category, don't say those things. We have no reason to retreat, and presenting Christianity as an amorphous belief that cannot be defeated makes it look fake. Don't do that. Admit when you don't know things, and focus on why you believe it. And lean on your fellow Christians to relieve some of the burden if you feel like you are being constantly attacked. God designed the church to be a body: a living organism that works together for the kingdom.

And yes, buy apologetics books, but also buy atheist books, and compare. Never trust someone who says to only read their side's work, but let the other side define themselves. I love William Lane Craig, but I trust his work because he defines atheism based on what other atheists say and have said. It is important that we do this, and not simply judge the other side based on what our side has said. But we shouldn't just read that side, and ignore the criticism that comes from our side. In other words, it takes work, and there are no short cuts.

But I would like to end on a more irenic note. One of the last things he says is that it is ok to say these things in good faith. I think that this is fundamentally my point throughout this: what these comments mean when said in good faith. There are of course many Christians who make these comments without trying to understand where the Atheist is coming from, and also without fully understanding the arguments that the they are based on. While it is also legitimate to ask questions, especially of friends and acquaintances, but when it comes to engagement in public or on the internet, make sure you were well-versed in the subject. Otherwise, you do more harm than good.


bethyada said...

Here are a couple of interesting articles on atheism. The first I read a few years back.

This is a video on atheism as a religion. I haven't seen it though. I tend to say that atheism and Christianity are both worldviews. Both make claim about the existence of God.

Jc_Freak: said...

I don't think you can call atheism a religion given the definition that I gave, which I would argue is the more technical definition. If you have a loose enough definition where is means an organized worldview, then yes, you can make that argument. But I agree with you that it is a worldview or philosophy.