I was recently asked whether Christians should read books by people like Richard Dawkins or other atheists. It’s a good question. It’s wise to acquaint ourselves with people who hold views opposed to our own. At the same time, it might be ill-advised to read authors who devote their time, energy, and intellect to dismantling religious convictions when you don’t normally traffic in that field and don’t have the resources to understand their arguments or respond. Given that the answer is not a simple yes or no, allow me to offer my thoughts on this question.
It's important to inoculate, not isolate. I know it’s tempting to shelter yourself or other believers from false ideas. Often, we think we’re doing the right thing by avoiding material that might confuse us, instill doubt, or otherwise lead us astray. There’s some truth to that, which I’ll address in a moment. In general, though, I believe it’s important to familiarize ourselves with false ideas. This is the process of inoculation.
The church has not always had a history of studying other views, though. Sometimes, we try to shelter believers (especially young believers) from false ideas, thinking we’re doing the right thing. This is hardly helpful. All it does is isolate believers from false ideas, rendering them inept at handling challenges when they come their way.
Instead of isolating believers, we need to inoculate them. This is similar to the way we inoculate ourselves against a virus. To vaccinate against polio, for example, you ingest an attenuated (weakened, but alive) virus. Your immune system responds by producing antibodies, killer cells that seek and destroy the virus. That way, when your body is exposed to polio in the real world, your immune system isn’t caught off guard. It recognizes the foreign virus and then neutralizes the threat with its army of antibodies.
Inoculating believers against a false idea works the same way. You teach them the errant view, the reasons why people believe it, and what’s wrong with those reasons. That way, when those believers come across someone who holds the false view, they’re not surprised by the person’s arguments. They easily recognize the fallacious arguments and are ready to respond.
We’re commanded to know false ideas. The reasons for this are twofold. First, we need to be aware of false ideas so we don’t fall prey to them. Paul warns the Colossian believers to “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). If we can’t recognize a false idea or philosophy, we’re at greater risk of being captivated by it. The solution is to inoculate believers against false ideas so they become more resistant to them.
The second reason the Bible commands us to study false ideas is so we can destroy them. Though the language of destruction sounds politically incorrect, that’s what Scripture says. Paul recognizes that our battle is not fought with the weapons of the world like guns, missiles, and tanks. Rather, he says, we fight to “demolish strongholds.” What strongholds is he referring to? He explains: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3–5). Part of our mission is to destroy “arguments” and “pretensions” that are raised up against God’s truth. We can’t know what false ideas to destroy if we can’t recognize and understand them.
Reading opposing views helps us become more effective ambassadors for Christ. At Stand to Reason, we often emphasize Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 5:20 about our identity as ambassadors for Jesus Christ. Since one of the essential skills of an ambassador is to gain knowledge (both of the truth and the error), learning what Richard Dawkins and other atheists think helps us become better equipped to understand the ideas that are raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5). It expands our knowledge so we better understand the ideas of the world and can respond more effectively.
This is also important so that we don’t create a straw man. This mistake occurs when you misrepresent (either intentionally or unintentionally) a person’s view in a way that makes it look more foolish and/or easier to refute. Then, instead of responding to the person’s actual view, you respond to a view they don’t hold—the one that is simpler to knock down. That’s something we at Stand to Reason care about avoiding. According to our Ambassador’s Creed, “An ambassador is careful with the facts and will not misrepresent another's view, overstate his own case, or understate the demands of the gospel.” Learning opposing views helps prevent us from creating and/or attacking a straw man.
Reading books by Dawkins or other atheists is not without its pitfalls, and some legitimate qualifications are in order. First, I don’t think one should take up reading atheists or false ideas without first being firmly grounded in the truth. That means believers should study Scripture, theology, and the Christian worldview first and foremost. Only after we have a solid foundation for what is true, good, and beautiful should we take time to read opposing views.
Second, consider reading Dawkins or other atheists with a group of other believers. That way, if someone struggles to understand a persuasive—but mistaken—argument by a crafty author, others can point out the missteps in thinking.
Third, young believers or others who might be spiritually immature often need mentorship. We shouldn’t underestimate the rhetorical force of false ideas. Young or spiritually immature believers would benefit from having an apologist, philosopher, or other seasoned thinker read these books with them, especially books that are loaded with false views.
Aside from these important qualifications, I think it’s good for believers to read opposing views. Sheltering believers rarely works, while inoculating them is one of the best ways to prepare for the onslaught of false ideas that will come at believers throughout their lives.