His story was unique, but also common. He grew up in the LDS church, but left the church after his academic studies led him to conclude that some of its historical claims were untrue. Now, reflecting back on his journey to unbelief, he concluded, “I just don’t think I can believe in anything right now.”
Many within the evangelical world place a stigma on individuals who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or a “none.” I attended a gathering of local pastors when I first began my current ministry at a professional level health sciences university. Upon learning where I served, a well-meaning older pastor gave me a wry look at noted, “Lot of atheists there.” His implicit warning was that I would find a lot of antagonism to my ministry as a result.
Stigma aside, we must acknowledge that these three designators of faith, or lack thereof, constitute the fastest-growing percentage of any faith designation in the States and they have only become more secular. Christians must reconsider our understanding of how people come to reject and/or abandon faith and re-evaluate our evangelistic methodologies if we have any hope of reversing these trends.
Re-Evaluating Our Understanding
When I have the opportunity to share about this subject with groups, I always like to start with a simple question: “What makes a person become an atheist?” The feedback I receive is always interesting and is probably rooted in personal interactions. While there is no one reason a person comes to consider them self an atheist, and there is a growing percentage of the population for whom atheism is the default position, the vast majority of current atheists have made a conscious decision to abandon a faith system. The question then becomes, “What could make a person abandon a faith system in which they have been raised and make them willing to endure the social stigma from friends and family that comes along with it?”
If you were to ask an atheist who is from a faith background what made him/her abandon faith, you will most likely receive an answer based on some intellectual factor. Common answers include: the church was opposed to science, the Bible has too many errors, believing in God seems logically inconsistent, a good God wouldn’t allow so much evil to exist, etc. But a study by the Fixed Point Foundation into what led college-aged students into atheism revealed that, for most, emotional factors played a significant role in their abandonment of faith.
Far from being militant opponents of faith, many atheists are people who are familiar with faith but who are deeply scarred, either by it or by those who espouse it. The same can be said for agnostics and “nones.” Agnostics are, generally speaking, people with similar experiences to those studied in the Fixed Point Foundation study but who maintain some room for the possibility that God exists. “Nones” are also remarkably similar. A striking 78% of “nones,” a designation that includes but is not limited to atheists and agnostics, were raised in a faith background and have since abandoned it. Now, if you were to give them the choice of designating themselves as a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, et.al. or “nothing in particular,” they will choose “nothing in particular.”
Contrary to much evangelical thought, the term “none” is not necessarily synonymous with “irreligious.” Almost 66% of “nones” believe in God and a majority describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” rather than “neither religious nor spiritual.” They are not hostile towards organized religious expression. Instead, they are either indifferent or believe it to be irrelevant.
Re-Evaluating Our Methods
Since most atheists, agnostics, and “nones” have a background in a faith system and have left it due to a combination of intellectual and emotional factors, our strategy for sharing the Gospel with them must be distinct from our traditional forms. Most evangelistic strategies are well-suited for people with presupposition sets that are similar to those of Christians: a God exists, the Bible is reliable, and people have some kind of problem that needs to be solved. Atheists, agnostics, and “nones” fall outside of those particular presupposition sets. A new, more fluid methodology is needed.
Below are 6 principles for sharing the Gospel with atheists, agnostics, and “nones.”
- Get at the “why.” Most will cite intellectual factors as the motivation for leaving faith. But, as the Fixed Point Foundation study found, intellectual factors only contributed to the decision. For most, a corresponding emotional factor played a significant role. This makes sense. Most of our decisions are emotional in nature. While we gather intellectual information, our decisions are often made on other factors and then reinforced with supporting intellectual information. The same seems to be true for atheists, agnostics, and “nones” who abandon their faith.
Often, our evangelistic strategies key in on the apologetic and philosophical arguments we need to rebut the intellectual concerns raised by skeptics. But if the Fixed Point Foundation study is true for most, and there is reason to believe it is, then we’re only addressing the head and not the heart. Even the most robust apologetic argumentation will be insufficient to convince such skeptics. We must get at the underlying reason why faith was abandoned which means we must learn to ask good questions and listen closely to the responses. Ask about their background. Ask how they came to point the positions they hold (pointer: don’t argue about whether or not atheism is a belief. It’s pointless and does nothing to move you along in the evangelistic conversation).
- It’s a process. Moving from faith to any kind of no faith is always a process. Conversely, we’ve been trained to think of becoming a Christian as a light-switch moment in which you, as the evangelist, share information with someone that resonates in their head and heart and, voila!, they become a Christian, too. While God can do whatever He pleases and it is certainly possible that an atheist, agnostic, or “none” can have a light-switch moment, there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that this simply isn’t how most people, regardless of their background, become Christians anymore (see I Once Was Lost).
Instead of thinking of conversation as a light switch, we are better served to think in terms of a continuum in which “I don’t want to believe in God” (*note* this statement is different than “I don’t believe in God) is a “0” and I have committed my life to Jesus is a “10.” While everyone wants to be the person who gets someone all the way to “10,” your task might be to move someone from a “1” to a “4.”
- Don’t be a jerk. It might take years to move someone from a “0” to a “1,” but it only takes one careless interaction to move someone from a “4” to a “2.” I’m not saying that Christians have to be perfect. Quite the opposite! When I honestly share my failures or on the occasion when an atheist, agnostic, or “none” friend sees me upset, they can relate to me more. They understand that I have real-life struggles just like they do. Then, I have the opportunity to demonstrate and convey how my faith in Jesus influences my response to the situation.
What “don’t be a jerk” does mean is that we have to be careful about the words and phrases we choose in conversations. The Bible certainly says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” but Christians have often used this passage in evangelistic conversations as a trump card to mask their frustration over not being able to convince someone of God’s existence. It might be true, but it’s certainly not helpful to move someone towards faith in Jesus. You might not understand why someone has come to the conclusions they have, but you don’t have to in order to be respectful and kind. Since seeing atheists, agnostics, and “nones” become Christians is usually a process, one of your chief tasks is to make the job of the next Christian who interacts with them easier.
- Be thoughtful. We know that emotional factors are often the primary motivators for abandoning faith. Intellectual arguments are then used as buttresses to reinforce newfound beliefs (or lack thereof). Effective evangelism to atheists, agnostics, and “nones” must certainly get at the emotional roots of the decision to abandon faith, but it also must thoughtfully engage the intellectual component of the decision.
While Christians have expended a significant amount of energy on apologetic argumentation in recent years, our strategies are not incredibly fruitful. Every argument or “proof” has a counter-proof or is susceptible to the accusation of bias. Instead of offering proofs, try building “plausibility.” In this approach, the conversation is less about trying to prove a point than getting a person to see that your belief isn’t ridiculous, could be possible, and is part of a coherent whole.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. Because we often have to move an atheist, agnostic, or “none” so far down the continuum, we can’t waste time with non-essential arguments. The critical question is, “What does a person have to believe to become a Christian?” If you’re curious to the answer, see Romans 10:9-10 (link). All of our discussion should center around Jesus. Certainly, we will touch on other topics, especially if we are addressing a person’s concerns or doubts well. But we must always return to the person and work of Jesus. We are not trying to convince someone of the inerrancy of Scripture, of a literal 7 day, 24 hour period of creation, or even of potential reasons why God would permit evil. These are certainly important matters, but until someone professes faith in Jesus these matters are ancillary.
- Pray, pray, pray, pray. Pray when you meet someone. Pray as you speak with them. Pray for them afterwards. Basically, you can’t go wrong if your instinct is to pray.
Conversion is a spiritual process brought on by the Holy Spirit’s work to convince someone regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 10:8-11). As a result, we might have the best, most air-tight argument presented in a winsome manner by an incredibly likable personality and still not see any spiritual progress in the person. Beg. Plead. Fast. Pray, pray, pray, pray.