As a scientist who is Christian, I often get requests to help other Christians in their arguments with atheist friends and relatives. These requests are usually borne of desperation, because Christians often don’t know how to respond to scientific objections to Christian belief. However, enlisting the help of someone like me is almost always doomed to failure in these cases, and I’ll explain why.
Years ago, when I was a freshly-converted Christian, I got into a protracted argument with a militant atheist who was a retired engineer. For months, we went back and forth about the scientific validity of Genesis, about the reasonableness of miracles, about the historical evidence for Jesus. To my frustration, it went absolutely nowhere. I finally realized he wasn’t merely devoid of belief, as he claimed, but was deeply invested in the idea of the Bible being false. He’d read countless books purporting to debunk Christianity, which struck me as a bit odd for someone who insisted he simply lacked belief. He also got noticeably angry when talking about God, which, as I would gradually realize over many arguments, was a big tell. After months of arguing, I discovered the reason for his anger. His father and grandfather were bad men who had treated him very harshly when he was a young boy, and both died when he was still young. He recalled asking his Christian mother if his father and grandfather were going to heaven or hell. When she told him they were going to heaven and closed off all further discussion, he became angry and resentful. He never forgave God for failing to administer justice to his bad father and grandfather, and an atheist was born.
Many atheists have had similarly bad childhood experiences with religion, and became atheists when they were young. This is because children have a highly tuned sense of justice, and without a wise adult to help them put pain and disappointment into perspective, it can turn into anger and resentment toward God. Anything that is perceived as an injustice on the part of God — a failure to act on their behalf in a time of distress, a failure to punish someone for wrongdoing, or the failure to prevent a parent from abandoning them — is paid back with anger and denial. The scientific arguments against God are just cover for the anger, to give it an air of intellectualism.
The reason logical arguments don’t work against militant atheists is that you can’t logic someone out of an emotional belief.
My engineer acquaintance expressed his anger with God by actively rejecting anything to do with God and trying to convince others to do the same. That was the reason for the books debunking the Bible, the scientific arguments against God, and so on, in spite of his professed “mere lack of belief.” And that was the reason my rational arguments in favor of God and the Bible were ineffective with this man.
However, this is not true of all atheists. I was an atheist for many years, and my lack of belief wasn’t rooted in pain and anger, but in arrogance that was founded on childhood experiences. Growing up in a secular country with atheist parents, what little I observed of Christianity was from a great distance, it was extremely limited, and it was filtered through an adolescent mind. It left me thinking Christianity was silly and for the weak-minded. It took some maturing to humble my attitude, but mostly I came to believe in God by being exposed to evidence that Christianity was intellectually deep and consistent with what I observed in the world around me.
To be effective in an argument with an atheist, you have to first discern what forms the basis of his disbelief. Is it a casual sort of atheism that’s based on lack of convincing evidence? If so, present him with evidence. Is it an arrogant atheism based on preconceived but false ideas? If so, knock down the false ideas. If it’s an angry atheism based on a deep-rooted emotional experience, then you will not be able to convince him through even the most rational arguments and powerful evidence. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do with an angry atheist.
One of my colleagues is a converted Christian who says that in his angry atheist days, his favorite thing to do when arguing with Christians was to knock them off balance. He knew he couldn’t dissuade them from their beliefs with his arguments, so instead he’d try to get them to doubt just a little, knowing it would be a growing source of consternation to them. Christians can take a page from his book and likewise knock atheists off balance.
Most angry atheists like to assume a stance of intellectual superiority over Christians, so you can use that to knock them off balance. Present them with this list of Christians who are in science and tech and note how many of them are also Nobel laureates. Present them with this collection of quotes about God and religion by great scientific minds (not all of them Christian). The reaction will be to wave their hands and say that it just goes to show it’s possible to be smart and believe stupid things, but that’s okay. You will have planted the seed of doubt, and it will grow.
There are other ways to knock atheists off balance, but it requires some skill in rhetoric. Rhetoric is an argument that appeals to the emotions rather than to the intellect, and with most people it has far greater power to convince than rational arguments. This is why so much of politics and advertising is based on rhetoric. So, don’t bother with rational arguments when dealing with an angry atheist — rhetoric is what you should use. If you want to master it, start with Aristotle.
Remember, always respond to atheists in a way that addresses the real problem:
- respond to lack of evidence with evidence
- respond to false notions with truth
- respond to anger and superiority by knocking off balance and with rhetoric, and let God take care of the rest.