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How Not to Debate an Atheist

How Not to Debate an Atheist

According to a popular bit of Internet lore, a young Albert Einstein once debated an atheist professor about God and evil. I’ve been forwarded this email dozens of times. It almost breaks my heart to reply, “This never happened,” along with a link to the appropriate article on Snopes.

The rise of the Internet has brought a corresponding rise in atheism. There’s a lot of factors in this correlation, but one is that atheists can speak openly with other atheists without fear of retribution for the first time. Some atheists enjoy this freedom so much that they go on the offensive, and attack religion as a source of evil in the world.

When you combine the powder keg of Christians proselytizing about Christ and atheists proselytizing about secularism on the Internet, you get an explosion of arguments on Reddit, Facebook and Twitter.

Here are some ways I’ve seen these conversations go wrong as a former atheist.

Attack Science

Many Christians are antagonistic towards the power of science to describe physical reality, even as they take antibiotics and use cell phones. Science has done remarkable things for human civilization since its advent—the Church has yet to pray a robot to Mars. There’s no way around it: science works.

Science doesn’t have all the answers, is a weak platform—science is designed to admit its ignorance and look for better data. Science may not know what happened before the Big Bang, but that doesn’t make God the default explanation. When we ascribe to God that which science can’t explain, we put faith on the run, fleeing from the ever-advancing front of scientific insight. After all, we once thought the Earth was the center of the Universe as a testament to God’s love for us, while today we understand the Universe has no center at all.

Let science be science—especially considering how often science reinforces the mental, emotional, physical and social benefits of faith and spiritual community.

Tell an Atheist They Don’t Have Morals

If morality comes from God, then people without God can’t be moral, right? Wrong. This isn’t only offensive, it’s provably false. For example, sociological data seems to indicate that atheists tend to be very moral people who are less likely to divorce than average.

We’re doomed if Christianity is about being the most moral people. Jesus was remarkably moral, but the Scriptures tell us we’ll never hit that mark. Instead, we’re called to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle and self-controlled. Those things are very hard to debate against.

Throw a Cliché.

Have you ever heard this one? “God is love, so no God means no love. Only Christians truly know love.” There’s a fantastic truth in this idea: God is love. Unfortunately, the rest is wrong and offensive. I loved my wife and my children as an atheist, and millions of atheists around the world do the same.

No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace. This is another quip that gets thrown indiscriminately, but what happens when it hits an atheist who enjoys life, gives time and money to charity and readily forgives Christians for insulting them?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a Christian accuse an atheist of using disbelief as a mask for being anger with God. That might sometimes be true, but most atheists are no more angry with God than they are with Santa Claus.

If it’s ever been on a bumper sticker, it doesn’t belong in a debate.

Ignore Their Insights.

Many atheists are former Christians. Many of them know the Bible well. Often, it wasn’t Biblical ignorance that lead them away from faith, but an analysis of the claims made in Scripture.

So, how does it make that person feel to tell them they see contradictions in the Bible because they don’t have the Holy Spirit? It’s like saying that person isn’t even worth engaging until they admit that they’ve lost the debate.

Debate At All

Arguments and fiery debates arouse our psychological defenses. Confrontational communications put us on the offense, defense or both—and the goal becomes “winning.” We all know this feeling, and sometimes we’ll keep fighting even after we realize we’re wrong. Arguments aren’t about finding truth, they’re about being right.

When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment, He told people to love God with everything they had. When asked the second, He told people to love others as themselves. Another time, Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbour?” In response, He told a very subversive story about a man who was mugged and left on the side of the road. The religious and social elite passed, leaving the man without aide. But one of the most hated groups among Jesus’ peers were the Samaritans, and it was a Samaritan who finally helped the man.

Then Jesus asked, ‘Which one of these three people was a real neighbour to the man who was beaten up by robbers?’

The teacher answered, ‘The one who showed pity.’

Jesus said, ‘Go and do the same!’

If Jesus were speaking to the modern church, I wonder if this parable might be about a Pastor and a Deacon who passed by, and The Good Atheist who stopped to help.

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