The conflict between Atheist Skeptics and Christians is both tense and intense. While a noble few have put aside their emotions in order to engage the other side in a reasonable way, the majority have locked horns in dramatic shows of anger that cloud judgment and obscure any possible nuggets of truth or wisdom that may be worth consideration.
While it may be difficult for Christians to hear or to admit this, skeptics do challenge Christians to re-assess their beliefs and opinions in order to defend them, and this is no bad thing. A skeptical mindset – carefully and wisely exercised – may help any thoughtful person to sidestep pitfalls that could easily ensnare them in bad dogma and practices that impede rather than advance their cause.
Here are five lessons Christians would be wise to learn from Skeptics:
1.) Question Authority
Ultimately the Atheist Skeptic has no authority but him or herself. If one is to be honest in their skepticism, they must come to the conclusion that everything is suspect and that any person or fact that can be trusted must be investigated and approved by their reason alone. This is a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach, but the only approach one can take when they are their own sole authority.
For a Christian, authority rests in God and his revelation in Christ Jesus. If God does, in fact, exist, he is ultimate being and the ultimate foundation of truth. Abstract standards of law, logic, morality, intelligibility, etc. come from his very nature. This nature is, in turn, revealed through the physical manifestation of Jesus Christ.
The historicity of Jesus and his teachings has been thoroughly defended for those who care to investigate it and form their own conclusions, but suffice it to say that plenty of skeptics have looked into it and become convinced by the historical facts (C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath, Francis Collins, and John Warwick Montgomery, to name a few). Christians, of course, should be encouraged to look at the evidence for the truth of scripture. If it is indeed true, it will hold up to examination.
If the Bible stands up to the test of truth, what this means practically for the Christian is that they cannot be excused for passively sitting around accepting whatever some Christian authority figure is telling them as gospel truth until that truth is proven to be in agreement with the gospel. When a Christian shows up at church on Sunday, they usually have a Bible in hand. The purpose for this is so that they can fact-check what the person in the pulpit is saying rather than simply taking their word for it.
Placing Biblical truth as superior to what a Christian authority figure is saying has plenty of precedent in the Bible itself. When Paul was teaching at Berea the book of Acts says:
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
Similarly, in his first epistle, John warns that there are many false teachers in the world and advises his audience:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
“Blind faith” – believing things without investigating them – is the primary criticism that skeptical critics bring against the religious, and often this accusation is entirely justified. Unquestioning belief in authorities has led the gullible into countless traps throughout history, and it is one of the foremost things that makes religion attractive to those who are eager to use it as a tool to manipulate people for their own gain. Just as the skeptic is his or her own authority, Jesus instructs his followers that God will hold them directly accountable for their beliefs and actions according to the knowledge they possessed:
“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
Each Christian is responsible before God to truly look into the things they believe to see if they hold up to investigation.
Some may respond that the Bible itself defines faith as blind belief. However, the beginning of Hebrews 11 - the so-called "faith chapter" of the Bible - gives this definition of “faith”:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
After making that statement, the author goes on to list numerous examples of Old Testament saints who trusted God despite the cost of doing so, and whose faith was ultimately justified. The author finishes by saying, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
It seems as if the author isn't simply asserting that people should trust God, but presents an evidential argument, citing president, for why they should trust God.
The book of Hebrews is a masterfully reasoned argument for why Christ is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament.
All of this indicates that Christians do not trust Christ blindly without reason, but rather confidently because of reason.
The primary example of faith that the author of Hebrews provides is Abraham. It is interesting to note that Abraham, who had no Bible, was given numerous signs and promises by God - who spoke to him directly - that inspired trust. Abraham could trust God because of the things he knew about God's nature, making it reasonable to accept that even though the circumstances seemed grim, he had reason to believe that God was trustworthy. He "walked by faith and not by sight."
If humans had no revelation from God, they would have nothing in which to invest their faith. Having an overabundance of revelation as Christians now do in scripture, they would be remiss- even reprobate- if they did not examine and deeply consider these things. As quoted above, Jesus himself said that "to whom much is given, much will be required." He rebuked the legalistic Pharisees as "blind guides" who led the blind into a ditch. The Apostle John warned his readers to "test the spirits whether they be of God" lest they be misled by false teachers.
Discernment is the hallmark of a faithful disciple. And of a good skeptic.
2.) Be Sympathetic Rather than Antagonistic
A common complaint among Atheists is that they are poorly respected and generally unpopular. A recent study suggests that Atheists rank just above Muslims for people least likely to be considered for a job position when they are open about their beliefs; and other recent studies suggest that someone who openly claims Atheism is less likely to be trusted by random samplings of people.
This may have something to do with the in-your-face, angry, and condescending tone adopted by the more vocal Atheists who are writing books, posting online, dispensing broadcasts, and talking on Atheist TV.
This strategy of demeaning the opponent doesn’t appear to be winning them teeming masses of converts in the USA, where the number of professed Atheists rank at a meager 4%, with another 12% claiming to be generally “irreligious.”
With all of the negativity associated with Atheists in general, it makes it difficult for a reasonable and sympathetic Atheist to engage in a frank discussion without being pre-judged as angry and aggressive.
Of course, Christians face a similar stigma. Christians are seen as being preachy, judgmental, and condemning. One of the reasons for both dedicated Christians and confirmed Atheists both being disliked is that they both have a hardline take on the nature of truth. They are absolutely certain that they hold the correct worldview, leaving no quarter for any other belief.
Imagine that a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness knocks at a person’s door during dinner. They want to convert that person, and the person wants nothing more than to squirm his or her way out of any conversation with them. This is the exact same feeling that the average non-believer has when confronted by a zealous Christian evangelist.
One thing that everyone is interested in, however, is sharing their own set of beliefs and getting other people’s input on those beliefs. Whether Christian or Atheist, a person who spends less time drilling their opinions into the head of a reluctant audience, and more time being a receptive audience to others, is likely to promote a free and friendly exchange of ideas.
Zealots on both side of the fence would do well to learn to sympathize with the perspective of others, always keeping in mind that the other person is as convinced of their viewpoint as oneself, and that they should have equal time to share and receive input, rather than simply being preached at.
Atheism has made a significant cultural comeback from the stogy old relics of the 20th century, and they now have a significant voice in the media and in science. In light of modern times, it may be difficult to recall that for literal centuries, Christian thought and philosophy dominated the arts, sciences, and philosophy in the Western world. The Christian contribution to past human achievements was not the cheap, superficial kind of Hollywood-style media seen today, either. Think of Handel’s Messiah, or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The reason that superficial atheist films like Religulous and The Unbelievers tend to be moderately more successful in their purpose than comparable Christian endeavors such as Expelled and God is Not Dead, is that atheism’s root purpose is to tear down Christianity, whereas Christianity’s root purpose is to build a profound and thorough worldview that explains the basis for rationality, morality, justice, civilization, etc. Tearing down may be done through cheap shots and tawdry jibes, but one cannot construct a profound worldview in like-manner.
Where Christianity attempts to use such techniques, it frequently succeeds only in making a mockery of itself.
Where Christianity may benefit from modern media, however, is through the use of mass communication and information access currently available. These resources are already on the market, however there are vast numbers of churches and individual believers who are not aware of, or do not take advantage of them.
Another way in which Atheism has succeeded in speaking to the modern culture is to speak to the culture in its own language. For over a century, many groups of Christians – especially the more conservative kind – have largely isolated themselves from the surrounding culture, and it has been reflected by a kind of separate language that Christians have developed to speak to one another, such that when a Christian and a non-believer start discussing things like “faith,” “God,” “Evolution,” and so forth, they are frequently speaking past one another, using entirely different definitions for the same words. Or Christians will speak with words that have fallen out of use in the general culture like “sin,” “redemption,” and “holiness.” Words like this are important to Christians, but one cannot expect a person who does not know the full weight or meaning of a word to receive the message behind it. Just as Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have brought the philosophy and sciences that back their worldview down to a popular level, Christians – if they hope to communicate – must learn to bring the meaning to their audience.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus compares his kingdom to yeast, spreading through bread dough until it has spread to the entire loaf. Jesus did not call Christians to isolate themselves from the culture, but to infiltrate the culture. In modern times, this is a lesson atheists have learned far better than Christians.
4.) Avoid Being Dogmatic
“Dogma” is a belief that a person clings to so absolutely, that they refuse to surrender it no matter what.
In Christianity, one often finds believers who have such a strict set of doctrines to which they subscribe, that if one were to knock down one of these doctrines, the others would fall like a row of dominos.
When one reads of “deconversion” stories – stories of Christians who became atheists – the types of doubts that destroyed their beliefs are rarely arguments that would eliminate the possibility of God’s existence. Most do not even destroy the Christian God. Largely, their doubts relate to one aspect of their particular understanding of Christian beliefs which they held to be important.
In her deconversion story, Rachael Slick tells how her faith was loss when she could not reconcile the seemingly different laws of the Old Testament with those of the New. Convinced that the Biblical God was painted as both unchanging and changeable, she tossed out her entire belief structure. She came to believe that God does not exist because of problems reconciling the Old and New Testament. This is quite a leap in logic.
Bible Scholar Bart Ehrman deconverted (to Agnosticism) over apparent scholarly errors in scripture he felt could not be defended with inerrancy and/or infallibility.
Others have lost their faith over the subject of evolution, unanswered prayers, misbehavior of other Christians, and so forth.
The fact of the matter is that – when true – these types of things only serve as defeaters of specific claims Christians make that do not defeat Christianity as a whole.
A person who clings to every aspect of their belief system as non-negotiable is liable to jettison that system when any single belief is called into question.
A worldview works best if it is open to rational inquiry and adjustment. If Christians remain dogmatic to the degree of blind adherence, the atheists are correct: it does not work.
5.) Grace and forgiveness – not law and legalism
When a person believes in something very strongly, it is only natural that they try to rally others to their belief. Convinced that, say, a vegetarian diet will help people live longer, healthier lives, vegetarians try to champion their lifestyles to the masses. Or if a Libertarian believes that a radical change in government will ultimately benefit the nation, they will proclaim their beliefs loudly to the world.
But one will much less often find people spend a great deal of time and effort championing a dis-belief. Why do certain skeptics spend so much of their energy attacking something they don’t believe in, instead of championing something in which they believe?
Partially, this is because of the damage that many skeptics see religion as doing. Christopher Hitchen’s book, God is not Great is subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything.” And this is the way that a great many skeptics feel about the religion they see around them.
This is not without good reason, either. Religion is and always has been a very handy controlling tool for those in power. With absolute authority at its back, religion may be used to manipulate people to extremes, and has been so used.
With such a spotty history of abuse, the suspicion cast upon the religious is somewhat justified, but this is where evangelical Christianity stands apart. Unlike any other religion in the world, true Biblical Christianity does not preach some system of obedience or set of rules a person must follow in order to win God’s favor. Under Biblical Christianity, a person is accepted by God because of the free forgiveness offered through Christ’s sacrifice. If they act in a “good” way, it is out of gratitude for forgiveness they were already given not in order to earn some future reward.
However, there are sects of Christianity who tend to forget that the core message of scripture is one of forgiveness rather than legalism; and it is these that sometimes unwittingly drive people into the arms of the moral freedom offered by atheism.
On occasion, the atheist podcast “Real Atheology” will feature an interview with a high-profile atheist who was formerly a religious activist.
In the past, the show has interviewed a radio personality who began his religious activity lobbying within increasingly fundamentalist circles of Christianity before abandoning religion; a former Mormon whose forced subjugation to her husband and the church drove her from the faith; and a woman formerly in the extreme fundamentalist branch of Christianity whose beliefs had caused her to isolated herself and her family from the world, lived in utter subjugation to her husband, and had far more children than she could handle before becoming an atheist.
Around the year 2008, atheists in the UK and the US began promoting bus signs with various anti-religious slogans, one of which read “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy life.”
This slogan succinctly sums up the looming threat seen in religion: only good boys and girls go to heaven. God, therefore, becomes a source of worry; of anxiety. How do I know if I’m good enough? With this omniscient authority figure frowning down from heaven on high, constantly judging my every action, ready to condemn, his laws are an oppressive burden that rob life of any enjoyment it might otherwise offer.
Consequently, atheism becomes a source of relief. Freed from the horror of this judgmental God, a person may now act as they please without fear of consequence.
Offering a correct understanding of Christian salvation - grace freely offered by a forgiving God - goes a long way toward correcting a great deal of the hatred leveled at the Christian worldview.
Both the successes and failures of modern atheism are cautionary tales that a Christian should take to heart. Ultimately, the successful worldview is the one which manages to be persuasive rather than abrasive. The one which emerges intact from the fight is not the one who fought hardest, but rather the one who cared more deeply.