Noted author and apologetics speaker, Sean McDowell, kicked off our recent Truth Talks Conference in which he donned a pair of “atheist glasses,” and invited questions from the audience. Now, you may be thinking: “Why is this Christian acting like an atheist?” or “What good is a pair of atheist glasses?” Those are good questions, and I will get to both of those—and others—before the end of this post. But first, I want to address a few basics on atheism.
What Is An Atheist And Atheism?
The word atheist comes from the combination of two Greek words “a” (without) and “theos” (God). So, literally speaking, an atheist is someone who is “without God.” The modern day definition is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any god.”1 Atheism is a system of belief or “worldview” that rejects God.
Who Is An Atheist?
No one knows for sure, but two recent studies tell us some interesting facts worth considering. The Pew Research Center noted in a 2014 study that there were approximately 1.7 million atheists in America, but this figure was double the 2007 figure.2 A 2015 Barna study noted similar demographics: atheists tend to be younger males (30’s), highly educated (43% with college degrees), and white (although gender and racial representation is increasing).3
What Do Atheists Believe?
As Sean noted in his talk, atheists tend to believe along a spectrum ranging from those who reject “all gods and anything supernatural” to those who only reject the “Christian God of the Bible” or some aspect of Christianity. Indeed, the Pew study found that 8% of atheists say they believe in “god” or a “universal spirit.” Sixty-five percent of atheists say they never discuss their “religious views” with “religious people.” This range of belief is why Barna has essentially grouped atheists in with “skeptics.” Skeptics are those who either reject God entirely (atheist) or are not sure about God’s existence, the Bible, etc., yet they are open to discussion and possibilities (agnostic). Six out of ten skeptics own a Bible! Both Barna and Pew find that skeptics make up roughly 25% of the population, and they are the fastest growing of the “unchurched” or religiously “unaffiliated.”
A few other characteristics of skeptics is useful to know: (1) they reject the Bible as being supernatural in any way; (2) they do not trust the local church; (3) they are widely exposed to cultural reinforcement of a secular humanism worldview; and (4) they tend to look to “science” to answer questions of right and wrong.
Let me answer that by summarizing a story Sean told onstage. He was at a large Christian conference conducting a similar address and role playing as an atheist. The predominantly Christian crowd amusingly took him to task, jeered him, and declared debate victory. After the conference, a young lady came to him and thanked him for doing his best to “defend atheism.” Sean was puzzled until he found out that this young lady was also an atheist, and she struggled with her beliefs.
She had grown up in a Christian home, read her Bible, went to church, and was now a youth leader at her church. But, she had never gotten satisfactory answers to her questions, so she stopped asking them, and essentially became an atheist.
She did not want to endure the “treatment” Sean received by self-identifying as an atheist. Now, it’s probable that this young lady was not a hardened atheist, rather, she just needed someone to provide thoughtful answers and engaging dialogue regarding her questions. The point of this story is that the chances of you running into a skeptic (atheist or agnostic) in either your community or your church are likely, and how you respond can have far reaching and long lasting effects.
At the start of this post, I asked: “Why was a good Christian like Sean acting like an atheist?” and “What good is a pair of atheist glasses?” Sean had a two-fold point to make.
First, he wanted to familiarize the audience with how an atheist might respond to Christian questions. True to form, Sean (role playing as an atheist) responded to audience questions with educated answers, big words, changes of subject, sentence parsing, scholarly references, and academic and scientific language. First point: Could Christians effectively engage an atheist? That depends. Is your goal to win an argument or present Christlikeness and the Gospel?
Secondly, the “glasses” were not only used to represent the atheist’s worldview, they were also for Christians to see the world from the atheist’s perspective. You might call them “mirrored atheist glasses.” On one hand, the audience sensed the frustration in trying to communicate and handle objections in order to make a coherent point during debate. Additionally, we sensed the emotion welling up as discussions progressed with someone who—although we vehemently disagreed with them—was educated, reasonably informed, well-spoken and confident. When Sean stepped out of role-playing and asked how we would “assess” our reception to our atheist “guest,” audience responses were telling: “hostile,” “antagonistic,” “ineffective,” “snarky,” “defensive,” and “trying to trap.” Second point: How are you communicating? That depends. Are you genuinely concerned with the spiritual well-being and eternal destination of the skeptic?
The Apostle Paul was no stranger to opposition, and he spent some serious discipleship time with young Timothy teaching him how to engage. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul provides some timely instruction that is as true today as it was then:
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
Paul’s words are the essence of apologetics, and he practiced what he preached. Just as Paul did at Mars Hill (Acts 17), modern believers are called to do the same. Our goal is not to win arguments. Our goal is to provide answers for our hope that point to Jesus Christ and to pray that God would draw unbelievers to Himself. Our most heartfelt prayer for you as you engage these Truth Talks is the same as the one Sean gave to close this session: “May you grow in your own faith, understand others, and guide them to answers.”
Visit here for the audio from Session One.