Recently, I had a back-and-forth email exchange with an atheist where my extremely modest goal was merely to get past the barrier of his taunts and connect with him as a human being. I failed.
Today, I came across an article by Randal Rauser that expresses what I’ve been seeing over the last few years:
Incivility was always a New Atheist hallmark. New Atheists assumed that religion is irrational and dangerous. And when something is irrational and dangerous, you aren’t polite or respectful. Instead, you seek to discredit the danger in any way possible. If religion is the problem then you mock their religious leaders, lampoon their religious institutions, and berate their holy texts...
While many atheists no longer identify with the New Atheism, this disparaging attitude is still widespread. As a result, serious conversations with skeptics are often next-to-impossible because the atheist assumes the Christian is irrational, intellectually arrested, and perhaps morally suspect...
The basic problem is that when atheists begin with the assumption that Christians and other religious people are all irrational, delusional, and intellectually arrested, they lose any interest in understanding Christian beliefs with charity or nuance...
Today I regularly meet atheists and other skeptics who have no background in the formal study of theology, church history, or the Bible, and yet they believe themselves adequately informed to opine on each of these topics. And why not if theology is just “fairyology”?!...
There are many atheists who are thoughtful, charitable, and respectful of religion and Christianity.
But what about those atheists who exhibit the characteristic New Atheist hallmarks of incivility and anti-intellectualism? How should we interact with them?
Ah, yes. That is the question. In fact, it’s the question I’ve been pondering all morning. The internet is a different world from what it was when I started blogging over a decade ago, and we need to start thinking about how to develop new skills. I don’t mean skills to help us make better arguments; I mean skills to help us interact with people who aren’t making arguments, skills to help us deal with the uncivil without dishonoring and misrepresenting Christ with our response.
Here are my initial thoughts on some things we need to intentionally develop:
Confidence. The more convinced you are of the truth of Christianity, the less riled up you’ll get when someone challenges you with insults. The less riled up you are, the more logical and gracious you’ll be. Building up confidence requires intellectual honesty (to admit where your knowledge is lacking) and study.
A commitment to dignity. Refuse to treat anyone with anything less than human dignity. I don’t just mean don’t mock him to his face; I mean don’t mock him in front of your friends. Don’t mock him, period. Weep for him. Pray for him. But do not mock.
Trust in God’s sovereignty. When you can’t get an atheist to move beyond his taunts into a substantive conversation - i.e., when the option to be rational is removed from you - you will be tempted to respond in kind out of desperation. But I promise you, just as the atheist’s insults are not remotely convincing to you, yours won’t be convincing to him. And worse, you’ll be misrepresenting Christ, making Him look ugly. So how can you avoid that desperation? Remember that God is in charge of salvation. It’s right that you should care to the point of distress about the atheist seeing the truth and coming to know Jesus, but remember that it’s up to God whether or not a person’s eyes are opened, not you. Represent Christ as accurately and graciously as you can, for as long as the opportunity is open to you, and then leave the burden of that person’s salvation with God. Trust Him.
Prayer. This follows directly from the previous point. If salvation depends on God’s work, then prayer should be our first response. Develop a habit of praying for the uncivil people you encounter.
Lack of pride. You can’t care about what others think of you. Hurt pride will cause you to lash out at others when they insult you. To avoid this, you have to let go of the need to defend your name. There’s only one Name we need to promote, and the way to promote it is to reveal Him to others by responding as He did:
[W]hile being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Pet. 2:23-24)
Jesus took abuse from others for the sake of their salvation. Let us do the same. By our wounds, some might be healed when they see who Christ is in us.
A soul shaped by Christ. Where does this self-sacrificial humility, concerned prayerfulness, trust and rest in God, gracious kindness, and confident strength come from? These things pour out of a soul that’s been shaped by Christ, and we become like Christ by beholding Him: “[W]e all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image...” (2 Cor. 3:18). Immerse yourself in the Bible. Look at Jesus. Let Him conform your soul to His.
The development of these characteristics is no less important to apologetics than the knowledge of any intellectual response to challenges. This is because the enterprise of apologetics is ultimately about a Person - a Person we love, a Person we want others to love - and I guarantee you, you have never convinced someone to love another person by the use of arguments. Sure, you may have corrected someone’s misunderstandings about another person through the use of argument, and that’s important too, but the way someone comes to love another person is by meeting him and seeing who he is. Don’t ever lose sight of that fact. For better or for worse, you are showing others who Christ is. And since doing that well is the highest goal of apologetics, it makes no sense to sacrifice it for the sake of making a lesser point.
Beyond these things, though, there’s still more for us to think about. Is there a way to connect with those who have been so thoroughly steeped in the incivility of internet culture? Should we? Is there a way for us to actively improve the state of discourse today? Our understanding of Jesus needs to direct our answers to these questions.
We have a lot of work to do.