What Will You Say to an Atheist?
The person you are sharing the Gospel with says, “I am an atheist.” Nevertheless, you still want to find a way to have a discussion with the person and offer them your insights and maybe recommend some books that can help them see that there is solid scientific evidence that points to the existence of a Creator. Does the evidence support the Bible’s description of events, or was Darwin correct?
First, it should be recognized that today’s atheist is not the same as the atheist of 30-50 years ago. The atheists of the 1950s to the 1980s simply did not believe in creation or a Creator and were not eager to share that belief with others. Today, the atheist’s movement is more involved in sharing their beliefs than Christians are. Their messages are on billboards, the radio, and television, and they have actually written many apologetic books defending their faith, i.e., secularism, humanism, relativism, and nihilism. We have now entered the era of the New Atheism.
New Atheism is a social and political movement that began in the early 2000s in favor of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” There is uncertainty about how much influence the movement has had on religious demographics worldwide. In England and Wales, as of 2011 the increase in atheist groups, student societies, publications and public appearances coincided with the non-religious being the largest growing demographic, followed by Islam and Evangelicalism. New Atheism lends itself to and often overlaps with secular humanism and antitheism, particularly in its criticism of what many New Atheists regard as the indoctrination of children and the perpetuation of ideologies.
While the New Atheists authors write mainly from a scientific perspective, we should not assume that every atheist is a scientist. Many atheists have read the bestselling books by such authors as Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949–2011), Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Christopher Hitchens said that a person “could be an atheist and wish that belief in god were correct,” but that “an antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion.” Another thing that we should not assume about all atheists is that they are super intelligent and there is no way that we could ever compete with them in a conversation about science. Most atheists only know what they have read from the atheist books listed in the footnotes, which are not science textbooks.
Well, it should be noted that we have some Christian apologists who have done the work for us, giving us the material so that if we choose to have a better understanding and wish to at least hold our own in such a conversation, we can. The Christian apologists highlighted below are not given extra space because they are all around the best apologists. Christian apologist can have a vast knowledge of many subject areas but they cannot be an expert on everything. While one may be an expert on textual criticism, defending the trustworthiness of Scripture, another may be a Christian philosopher and theologian, while others may be a physicist, mathematician, or scientist, studying philosophy of science, it is the latter, who are focused on here because of the subject matter.
The leading Christian apologist is William Lane Craig. He is a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. He is an American Christian apologist, analytic Christian philosopher, and theologian. Craig’s philosophical work focuses primarily on the philosophy of religion, but also on metaphysics and philosophy of time. His theological interests are in historical Jesus studies and philosophical theology. He is known for his debates on the existence of God with public figures such as Christopher Hitchens and Lawrence Krauss. Craig established an online apologetics ministry, Reasonable Faith. His current research deals with divine aseity and the challenge posed by Platonist accounts of abstract objects. Craig is also an author of several books, including Reasonable Faith, which began as a set of lectures for his apologetics classes.
John C. Lennox is an Irish mathematician, philosopher of science, Christian apologist, and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford University. He is also Pastoral Advisor of Green Templeton College and Fellow of Wycliffe Hall. He is a leading voice defending the notion of the relationship between science and religion. Lennox is a leading figure in the evangelical intelligentsia movement.
Christian apologist Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Christian Apologist William A. Dembski is a mathematician and philosopher. He is a Research Professor in Philosophy at Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth, where he directs its Center for Cultural Engagement. He is also a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. Previously he was the Carl F. H. Henry Professor of Theology and Science at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, where he founded its Center for Theology and Science. Before that, he was Associate Research Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science at Baylor University, where he headed the first intelligent design think-tank at a major research university: The Michael Polanyi Center.
Christian Apologist Norman L. Geisler (Ph.D., Loyola University) has taught theology, philosophy, and apologetics on the college or graduate-level for over 50 years. He has served as a professor at Trinity Evangelical Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Liberty University. He was the co-founder of both Southern Evangelical Seminary and Veritas Evangelical Seminary. He currently is the Chancellor of Veritas Evangelical Seminary, the Distinguished Professor of Apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, and a Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary.
The list of Christian apologists could go on for some time, as we have so many, to name just a few more, Ravi Zacharias (RZIM.org), Greg Koukl (STR.org), Paul Copan (PaulCopan.com), Gary Habermas (GaryHabermas.com), Richard Howe (Richardghowe.com), Hugh Ross (Reasons.org), and (Tim Keller (TimothyKeller.com). Many may be unaware that we now have some very prominent female Christian apologists, such as Judy Salisbury (logospresentations.com), Dianna Newman (ses.edu), Sarah Renee, Nancy Pearcey, Melissa Cain-Travis, Holly Ordway, Leslie Keeney Kristen Davis, Lori Peters, Pamela Christian, and Sarah Geis. These women are taking the apologetic world by storm. They are setting a fine example for young girls, who can relish in the fact that they can prepare to defend the faith and the Word of God just as well as a William Lane Craig or a Norman L. Geisler. Why have I given you so many names and links? These are indispensable resources if we are going to defend the faith against the New Atheism. While many of the above Christian apologists, both male, and female, possess some of the greatest minds, which would seem to prevent the average Christian from partaking of their knowledge, it just is not so. Their books, their websites, their blogs, and their videos are designed for the churchgoer, written on about a 9th-11th-grade level. Below, I will offer the reader the basics of what we can do to succeed in giving a witness to the New Atheist, but first, we must consider the various reasons as to why they may not believe in the first place.
Reasons for Disbelief
Not all atheists were born to atheist parents. Many were a part of some religion or another, believing in God, but over time abandoned their faith. Their faith was weakened by severe health problems in the family, the death of a loved one, or some great injustice befell them. With others, it was one agnostic or atheist professor after another once they reached schools of higher learning, which eroded their belief in the Bible or God.
A man was born with a debilitating illness. As an infant, he had been baptized into Catholicism; he had long felt there was no God. The end came one day when he asked the priest, “Why did God make give me this illness?” The priest replied, “Because he loves you.” The answer was so insane, so he walked out, never looking back. Consider a young woman who was diagnosed as having cancer at the age of thirteen, who spent most of her youth in and out of hospitals. The mother of this child was so desperate; she brought a Pentecostal into the hospital to pray for the young girl because the word was he could heal the sick. Sadly, though, there was no cure, there was no miraculous healing. After her daughter’s death, the most swore that she would never believe in some God, becoming an atheist.
- “I have seen many friends that I went to high school with just completely abandon their faith, and I was in danger of doing the same when I first went to college.” – Chad, college junior
- “No matter what background you come from, the transition from high school to college will try your faith.” – Vanessa, college sophomore
- A pastor’s kid tells his father, “I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t know what happened. I just left it.”
Again, we turn to William Lane Craig’s words, as he offers the following exhortation to parents, which would also apply to pastors and elders as well,
I think the church is really failing these kids. Rather than provide them training in the defense of Christianity’s truth, we focus on emotional worship experiences, felt needs, and entertainment. It’s no wonder they become sitting ducks for that teacher or professor who rationally takes aim at their faith. In high school and college, students are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian philosophy conjoined with an overwhelming relativism and skepticism. We’ve got to train our kids for war. How dare we send them unarmed into an intellectual war zone? Parents must do more than take their children to church and read them Bible stories. Moms and dads need to be trained in apologetics themselves and so be able to explain to their children simply from an early age and then with increasing depth why we believe as we do. Honestly, I find it hard to understand how Christian couples in our day and age can risk bringing children into the world without being trained in apologetics as part of the art of parenting.
Reaching the Heart of an Atheist
Many are like the above example or have other reasons as to why they abandoned the faith. The key ingredient is their reason, which they have dwelled on to the point they have hardened their hearts. If we repeatedly violate the Christian conscience that has been trained to distinguish between good and bad, it will become calloused, unfeeling. To violate the conscience is to ignore it when it is tugging at you to do the right thing. While this applies largely to sinning and ignoring the Christian conscience, it can just as easily apply to irrational thinking as well. If we have an issue with God, with his Word, with the faith, with someone in the faith, with injustices of the world and we ignore these, failing to find an answer, we will eventually fall away from the faith. Paul called this a spiritual shipwreck. Paul told young Timothy “some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” (1 Tim 1:19, NASB) If we entertain our false reasons, our confidence in God and his Word of truth, the Bible, can grow weak and our faith can die. Just as we have reasons for the hope that dwells in us, we can also have reasons if they go unanswered or at least addressed, they can kill the hope that dwells in us.
Many of these ones, not all, simply need a solution to their reason for abandoning the faith. ‘Why does evil exist?’ ‘Why does an all-powerful God of love allow evil to exist?’ Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Why is life so unfair?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Why is there so much religious hypocrisy?’ If we lack understanding of an issue that is eating at us, we begin to drift away, become sluggish, become hardened by the not knowing, so that we shrink back to destruction. Just as we entered the path of life, we can also re-enter the path of death.
Our first goal when someone says, ‘I am an atheist,’ is to ask why. If he is open to talking further, we need to try to find out what led his reason and his falling away. As we listen to his story, we need to do so with empathy because this could be us, or it could be a loved one, and we would want an empathetic ear if that were the case. After we have what we need to make a spiritual diagnosis, we can look for a solution. We can start by saying, it has been our experience that there is a reasonable and logical answer to every Bible difficulty that we have encountered. We can show even more empathy if we have struggled with something that made us pause for a moment. After this rapport, ask something like, “What if I can find you a reasonable, logical answer to this issue that has plagued you for so long. Even if you still choose to remain an atheist, would it not be a relief to have that answer?” If he answers yes, we now have a serious job ahead of ourselves. Undoubtedly, there is much information on the issue. We must find it and the answer that we promised. Undeniably, not all atheists are going to accept the truth. However, there are many who are willing to find a response to the issue that tore them from their faith. Use reason, logic, persuasion and, above all, the power of God’s Word, to lead them into the truth or back to the truth. – Acts 28:23-24; Heb. 4:12.
Books to Help You Explain Your Belief
- God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox
- Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Myer
- God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? by John Lennox
- Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy by William A. Dembski and Jonathan Witt
- Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Myer
Some might feel that they are not smart enough to discuss the science and evolution debate. There are some points to keep in mind to alleviate this fear. What can you do to succeed in reaching the heart and mind of the atheist? First, you might consider why some are atheists. Not all atheists were raised as such. Many were formerly part of some religion, including Christianity. Many lost their faith because they saw the hypocrisy of Christianity, the horrific history of Christianity and Christians. During the Reformation the Calvinists had many arrested, tried, and executed by slow burning for daring to believe differently. Calvin justified his actions in these atrocities by saying, “When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions that they rage cruelly to shed innocent blood, are not Christian magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?” Will Durant, THE REFORMATION: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564 (The Story of Civilization) (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1980), 482.
Others lost their faith because of serious health or family problems or certain injustices that they had experienced. Why is Life So Unfair? For others, courses taught in high school or college have had a negative impact on their concept of God. Some have wondered why God would allow their friend or family member to be born with an incurable disease resulting in horrific suffering and death. Why has God Permitted Wickedness and Suffering? Another might have a friend or relative that has suffered from an illness and God did not miraculously cure the person. Does God Step in and Solve Our Every Problem Because We are Faithful? Another might have had to take a course on Socialist philosophy and atheism.
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Many people who claim to be an atheist or Agnostic would really love to know if there is a solution to the problems that humanity faces, such as the poor, health problems, family discord, injustice, terrorism, and so forth. If there are rational, reasonable reasons for what turned them against God, they will listen to you. When someone tells you he is an atheist, you should first seek to find out the reason why they are saying that. Is it because of the history of religion, the education they had received, or the problems that they have experienced, or the world condition. You might ask, “Have you always felt this way?” or “What is the reason for your being an atheist?”
First, your Christian apologetic evangelism goal is not to win arguments. Second, you do not need to be a genius at science to describe why you find creation to be the more rational reason for the natural world. Most people that you encounter are not genius at science, so basic reasoning like explaining that the natural world evidences design, so there must be a designer will cause the listener to pause. Reason with them, “Imagine that you’re walking down a long deserted beach. There is not one piece of evidence of human beings for miles. You then look down and see a watch on the sand. “What is your conclusion,” you ask the person? The person will most likely say, ‘Someone else has been there.’ You reason with them from the Scriptures that the Bible tells us, “For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” (Hebrews 3:4) You reason, if a mere watch is evidence of a designer, of intelligent life, how much more so the universe and infinite evidence of design in it.
If the atheist states: “If creation is true, then who created the Creator?” You assume that for something to be true, everything about that truth must have all questions answered. Just because we do not know everything about the Creator and creation this does not mean that God does not exist. Think about this, do you know everything about the person that designed your smartphone? Their answer will undoubtedly be, “no.” Then, you ask, “you do believe that it was designed and there was a designer, right?” Of course, they have no alternative but to admit that it was designed by someone. You then let them know that there is so much we can know about the Creator, and then ask, “why are you denying his existence on the one few things that we have yet to discover?” You can then offer, “If you are curious, I would be more than happy to help you appreciate some of the basics, or if you need to move beyond that, I can recommend that you read a few easy to understand books.”
If you offer to talk to them again, you need to be ready. The apostle Peter says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense (apologia, apologetics) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” ( 1 Pet. 3:15) In your preparation, do not fall under the emotionalism of the Charismatic faiths that believe all you have to do is tell the person how much you love God, how real God is to you, and how you became saved. For many rational, reasonable people, it might be best to use examples from nature to explain why it is rational to believe in a Creator and creation. Notice that Peter not only said that we are to defend our beliefs, but that we are to do it with “gentleness and respect.” Many will give you a hearing ear if you treat them with respect for their right to believe as they do even if you disagree, and let them know that they have every right to come to their own conclusions.
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 Hooper, Simon. “The rise of the New Atheists”. CNN. Retrieved 16 March 2010.
 “Census 2011: religion, race and qualifications – see how England & Wales have changed”. The Guardian.
 Christopher Hitchens was the author of God Is Not Great and was named among the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine. In addition, Hitchens served on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America.
 Richard Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion, which was preceded by a Channel 4 television documentary titled The Root of all Evil? He is also the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
 Harris is the author of the bestselling non-fiction books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as well as two shorter works initially published as e-Books, Free Will and Lying. Harris is a co-founder of the Reason Project.
 Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Breaking the Spell and many others, has also been a vocal supporter of The Clergy Project, an organization that provides support for clergy in the US who no longer believe in God, and cannot fully participate in their communities any longer.
 On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Mar 1, 2010) by William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel; Reasonable Faith (3rd edition): Christian Truth and Apologetics (Jun 15, 2008) by William Lane Craig; Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors (Aug 1, 2009) by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan; Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics (Mar 1, 2012) by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan
 God’s Undertaker (Feb 18, 2011) by John Lennox; Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (Aug 23, 2011) by John Lennox; God and Stephen Hawking (Feb 18, 2011) by John Lennox; Gunning for God (Oct 21, 2011) by JOHN C. LENNOX
 Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Jun 3, 2014) by Stephen C. Meyer; Signature in the Cell (Jun 23, 2009) by Stephen C. Meyer
 I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Mar 15, 2004) by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek; Christian Apologetics (May 15, 2013) by Norman L. Geisler; Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options (Jan 1, 2010) by Norman L. Geisler; The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Jun 1, 2008) by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe
 A TIME TO SPEAK: PRACTICAL TRAINING for the CHRISTIAN PRESENTER Authored by Judy Salisbury, Foreword by Josh McDowell
 BASICS OF BIBLICAL CRITICISM: Helpful or Harmful? [Second Edition] F. David Farnell, Thomas Howe, Thomas Marshall, Benjamin Cocar, Dianna Newman
 Top 10 Challenges Christian Students Face in College | eNews .., http://www.cedarville.edu/eNews/ParentPrep/2012/Challenges-Christian-Students-Fa (accessed September 15, 2015).
 The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church | Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/november/27.40.html (accessed September 15, 2015).
 Craig, William Lane (2010-03-01). On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Kindle Locations 267-274). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.
 This author has accomplished this several times with ones who have left the faith. They bought out the time and over an extended period, they finally saw their way out of the long years of darkness, and the light of God’s Word was eventually a welcome sight.