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 neighbor?” 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 neighbor 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.

3 comments
  1. Raphael – You are using sophisticated sounding concepts from introductory philosophy to justify ignoring some pieces of advice that you clearly, clearly need. This article was written precisely for people like you.

    Re: Hume’s problem of induction – It is indeed a tricky problem. I have hopes that Bayesian epistemology will give us a satisfactory solution, but we’ll see. Also externalist notions of justification don’t have to worry about the induction problem the same way internalist ones do. In any case, you have yet to give a systematic account of how the God hypothesis could possibly give Christians a better solution than the rest of us have access to. Hume’s argument isn’t premised on naturalism. Nor is it a problem with uniformity, per se. It is a problem with how we can justify a belief in uniformity, that most of us nonetheless find difficult to escape. Sure, you could say “God made the universe uniform, and then predisposed us to believe it was,” but that’s not really any better than an atheist saying “The universe was already uniform, so evolving a predisposition to perceive the universe as uniform was adaptive for humans.” Or you could say “God tells us that the universe is uniform,” but to believe what God tells you, you still need to prove that God exists and is trustworthy and is talking to you–and you have to do this without using induction, if you don’t want to be circular. That leaves you with a priori arguments (which have been failing for thousands of years to prove the existence of god) and inference to the best explanation, which is arguably what science relies on more than induction, anyway.

    Also, god didn’t “give us science.” If your world view is right then God made the universe that science studies. But science is a collection of tools and methodologies discovered/concocted by people over the course of several thousand years that has historically been very successful at discovering things about the universe and its workings–regardless of where that universe comes from.

    Re: Morality
    Are you familiar with Euthyphro’s Dilemma? Either morality is grounded in the will of God, in which case the best you can say for your morals that I can’t also say is that some really big guy agrees with them, and if I don’t play along, he will let me die (I expect for you to come back at me with some bizarre metaphysic such that I in fact allow myself to die by not agreeing with the big guy, but even if that’s true, the big guy is the one who made it so metaphysics works that way). Your other option is to say that morals are not grounded directly in God’s will, and that at best God understands them very well, but then you are landed with the same conceptual problems with morality that everyone has. I happen to be one of those atheists that agrees with you that there are some serious difficulties in grounding morality, but this is by no means the only sensible conclusion atheists can come to. Before you use some crude blanket statement calling all of us “relativists,” I suggest you do some serious reading into secular meta-ethics.

    Re: Bible verses that say atheists actually believe in God, really are angry at God, etc etc.
    These Bible verses are factually incorrect. You are claiming that you know what is going on inside our brains better than we do because your book told you so. Of course, it doesn’t matter if I think your bible verses are absurd as long as you are preaching to other Christians who are already predisposed to accept them, but I hope you don’t make appeals like that when you are engaging with actual atheists. They will not win you friends or converts. They will make you look condescending and like you don’t understand the basic precepts of persuasive discussion. Precepts like “start from premises that disputing parties can agree on.” You aren’t going to shock us into realizing we’ve been deceiving ourselves. We’re thoughtful people for actual reasons for the things we believe, just like you are. If those reasons are misguided, it’s your job to show us better reasons to reject them. You are unlikely to accomplish this if you remain trapped inside your own framework.

    (In hindsight this response comes off a little condescending, too. It is fair enough if you want to label me a hypocrite, but I’m going to go ahead and frame this as “turnabout’s fair play.” No hard feelings, though. I hope you are having a good day.)

  2. Don’t worry Austin, I am young and in college and do not get offended easily, nor am i looking for an argument. Rather I am looking for conversations with people who have different opinions because I cannot possibly learn anything if everyone just agrees. I am here to learn and have thought provoking conversations.

    There are many things different between the believes of Islam and Christianity and Judaism, I’m not saying they all have the same beliefs of anything, just that the root of all 3 of those is the same torah. Interpretations very between them and that is where all the discussions and arguments come up in conflict. Also, Muslims all read the Torah in it’s original language, Hebrew. The translation of it into English is referred as that, a translation and not the real scripture. The same w/ the Qur’an, they only read it in Hebrew and any translation is believed to be incorrect. That’s why many Christians who say they read the Qur’an don’t actually have any respect of the Muslim, because they only read a translation- they didn’t actually read the scriptures.

    It is unfair to Muslims to count the terrorists and extremists among them because even they don’t call the extremists to be of Muslim faith. It is the same with Westboro Baptist followers. They say they are Christians but any other christian will say that they are not affiliated and that the Westboro do not speak for Christians and give Christians a bad name.

  3. I guess the problem I, personally, see with Christian faith is that we have strayed so far from our intention and now we are having a very hard time getting back to the core. At least that’s where I am getting frustrated. In the early church, Christians were known by their love. How do we know what this is? “16. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1Jo 3:16 NRS)
    Money was pooled together and dispersed to those who needed it and no one went hungry. If someone had two coats and saw someone without a coat, they gave the best of the 2 coats to the person in need. The church wasn’t about how many people they converted, how big their church was, but about the relationships they were forming with people and the love they were showing through their actions. Conservative Christians call this liberal and Liberal Christians call this conservative. the point is that it is neither. It should be an even balance of the two.
    We also have a problem with getting along with one another. We have so many denominations and everyone competes to see how many followers they can get for their denomination but really most of the stuff they don’t agree on is just fluff and is not actually detriment to their faith and their salvation. “6. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (Joh 14:6 NRS)” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Joh 3:16 NRS).

    Another thing is that sometimes the church preaches what the bible doesn’t actually say. A big example is saying that when we die, we go to heaven. The bible doesn’t actually talk about us going to heaven. I talks about us having eternal life,a new heaven and new earth, living in paradise, the Kingdom. There is the belief that the Kingdom is heaven. I personally do not believe this is true. The only book of the Bible to say Kingdom of Heaven is the book of Matthew and that’s because in that culture, age, society, they didn’t say God or Lord, they just replaced it with heaven. So instead of saying the kingdom of God they said the kingdom of heaven. If everything was made and created perfect in the beginning, when we were placed on earth, then it doesn’t make sense for us to go to heaven once everything is perfect because to say that is to say that everything in the beginning, before sin, was not perfect (we were on earth, not in heaven). since sin happened, everything that has gone into motion-the prophets, Jesus coming, and later returning- is to restore everything back to it’s original, perfect, unblemished state. Sooo we’ll be on earth. If we were meant to be in heaven, God would have put us there in the first place like he did w/ Lucifer and we would have fallen like the angels.

    If you’re having difficulties w/ me saying this then you’ll really need to just bear with me through this next para and actually read it all the way through and not shout out in outrage for what I am about to say.

    A place where Christians often get caught in arguments is when we say God can do all things. We say this and then someone retaliated with a silly remark like “Can God create a rock bigger than he can move” and we get stuck because no matter which side we take, we say God can’t do something. Let me say this. God cannot do all things: He can do all things consistent with his nature. He cannot deny Himself “if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself. (2Ti 2:13 NRS) he cannot sin, he cannot lie. It is against his nature. think of the most sweetest, most caring, nurturing person you know. if you give them a sharp knife and tell them to stab a child, they won’t do it. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it because it is not consistent with their nature, with who they are. God wouldn’t make a rock bigger or heavier than he can move because that’s just stupid. seriously who would do that?

    Again, these are my own personal beliefs and opinions that I have come to from talks with professors and discussions in classes that I’ve had so far. (I go to a bible college.) this doesn’t mean they are necessarily correct and it doesn’t mean that I would be opposed to changing my mind.

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