Everywhere you look a resurgent atheism is on the rise: loud, aggressive and all over the media. Just a year ago, three of the top ten books on the New York Times bestseller list were by atheists. So how do we respond to atheist friends and colleagues who’ve read books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and are keen to beat Christians over the head with them?
It’s worth beginning our response by observing that atheism itself is not new. This is not to belittle our atheist friends, but simply to note that most answers to the challenges of the so-called “New Atheism” are ancient ones. Christians have always engaged their critics and been willing to answer the tough questions.
The intellectual peak of atheism probably came in the early nineteenth century. The rise of science, especially the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, meant many atheists thought religion was dying and they could look forward to a godless, secular utopia. The twentieth century demolished that dream. Two world wars showed the evils that mechanised scientific warfare could cause, whilst the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the end of one the biggest attempts to build a modern atheistic state. All these factors and others mean that today, religion is as strong as ever. This partly explains the anger of the New Atheists today — religion has failed to disappear as predicted. It is this that lies behind some of the features that are genuinely new in the “New Atheism”, namely its dogmatism and aggressiveness.
So how should Christians respond to atheist friends and colleagues? Let me briefly outline six broad principles.
First, don’t respond with anger or sarcasm. Show respect and take every question seriously.
Second, pray, frequently and intentionally for atheist friends. Pray for opportunities to speak with them. Pray that they would encounter Christ. Pray that tensions would arise in their worldview that open up questions.
Third, learn to ask insightful questions. Find out what your friends believe (or don’t believe) by asking questions. In particular, questions like “why do you think that?” or “what’s your evidence for that?” are very powerful — many atheists have not thought through what they believe, so look for opportunities to ask questions and then engage with the responses.
Fourth, demonstrate the richness of Christianity in your conversations. The Christian worldview is much deeper than atheism so use that depth in apologetics: talk about beauty and justice, truth and art, morality and wonder, love and virtue. The Christian worldview better explains these things than atheism which often struggles to accommodate them.
Fifth, remember the important of character. Many atheists have tried church and had bad experiences, or have looked at Christianity and concluded that its adherents are hypocrites. Our character needs to display Christ as much as our words. The nineteenth-century British evangelist, Gipsy Smith, once said that there are five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the life of the Christian. Most people will not read the first four.
And finally, as obvious as it sounds, remember to always point people to Jesus. It’s not just about arguments (and certainly not about being argumentative), it’s about introducing people to Jesus. So take every opportunity to talk about Jesus and to introduce your atheist friends to him. Jesus must be the beginning and the end of all of our apologetics.