Somehow I knew this would not end well. “I don’t appreciate being insulted,” I answered. “You’re saying that if I believe in God I’m a nutso conspiracy theorist.”
Temporary denial and backpeddling ensued, but then came his next salvo: “You believe in one God, right?” I clarified, “Three Gods in one, actually.” I knew this was personal for him because we had both just emerged from a memoir and nonfiction workshop he taught at a big annual writer’s conference. In the class, he had revealed that he was raised Catholic and having a hard time writing his memoir owing to his miserable childhood.
“If you believe in one god, then why can’t you believe in a thousand, or even ten thousand gods?” he asked. Long pause as I just stared at him……….. ”Why would I believe in ten thousand gods?” Of course he meant that the same addled mind gullible enough to buy any form of god could easily believe in any idiotic thing at all. That sort of mind could believe in mobs of Gods, unicorns, azalea bushes that talk, any old kind of Disney phantasmagoria. So here’s the first thing about atheists: they use loopy arguments to prove us believers loopy. We must restrain ourselves from reacting with anger or sarcasm, though it can be difficult not to do unto them as they do unto us.
Sensing he had some personal angst, I asked him about his experience with Christians and as I expected he said some had been vicious to him, unbelievably mean. So this was an opportunity for me to be his ally while offering genuine sympathy. I said I was truly sorry that they had treated him badly, but they were obviously fallen-away Christians since they weren’t following Jesus’ commandment to love your fellow human and treat your neighbor as yourself.
Momentarily thrown off balance, he asked how I had become someone who was writing a book about Christianity. This is how: I was raised Christian like he was, but when I moved to the Colorado countryside I found a gaggle of Christian horse-owners with whom I shared many a horsey camping and riding adventure. These were believers with a depth of personal commitment I had never encountered. Although heartache and tragedy and the resulting doubts about God had often stalked their lives, they’d come back with a faith even stronger, forged in the furnace of many trials. And they were so much fun!
My atheist’s response to my story of deepening Christian life was to ask: if my neighbors were Muslim, would I have become a Muslim? I would think even a nonbeliever should know the answer.
Then our conversation bounced from evolution to the Big Bang theory and swerved to whether God needs to “prove” that He exists. When I said I believe God created everything fully formed as the Bible describes but maybe He invented evolution to tinker with specifics, he flung out a wide arc with his arm and accused me of a circular argument. When I quoted Nobel Prize winning cosmologists and physicists who say the Big Bang is the very picture of nothingness exploding into everythingness just as originally described in Genesis, he said some scientists disagree. Even when I offered up Albert Einstein’s wisdom: “I want to know how God created this world…I want to know His thought, the rest are details,” this atheist was unmoved.
Whenever I made a point, he stabbed his finger at me while sneering out his response. The finger was getting quite the workout by the time we reached the “proof” issue: if God exists, this atheist demanded He give us an explanation, as if the Creator of the Universe were a perp in a CSI episode. I said, “God isn’t interested in proof -- He’s interested in faith. If He made His existence totally obvious, there would be no need for faith; everyone would believe. That would rob God of the ability to work the hearts of humans to trust in Him.”
From my conversations with atheists, I can divide them generally into two categories: those who can’t believe because they’ve been damaged by “religious” people; and those who won’t believe because their massive logical brains tell them God is a silly fairytale. Some, like my last atheist, are a winning combination of the two.
The atheists in the first group got a grim lesson in God from folks who wielded religious rules and regs like a lash. Early on, they learned about a dark and forbidding God who was seriously considering sending them to hell. Or the future unbeliever, like my last atheist, may have been mistreated by religious hypocrites who cheated or abused them. This ungodly behavior by people who pretend to be godly can permanently ruin a person for God. The mistreated atheists deep down think they were rejected by God way before they rejected God yet they’ll still insist their unbelief is based entirely on “intellect.” Really, it’s nothing but raw emotion and festering hurt.
The second variety of atheists thinks they’re smarter than God. They often write books ridiculing the very idea of belief in anything as irrational as an unseen Deity. I recommend not standing next to these people in a lightning storm. You can quote all the Einsteins and astrophysicists and Nobel Prize winners you want at them and they’ll just give you a superior smirk. (Physicist Steven Hawking: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way (the Big Bang) except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”)
Sadly, the arrogant, big-brained atheist probably can’t be reached because his hubris will always be a dark cloud between him and a God who demands humility. But there’s hope for those like my last atheist. As Christians we must reach out with heartfelt compassion for them. We must show them Jesus’ words of love and renewal in the Bible, proving that the people who wounded them got the message of Christ exactly backwards. Gently, we can offer assurance that Christ came for the very sinners that we all are.
I probably wasn’t all that gentle with my last atheist. Now I regret sometimes reacting sharply when he pushed my buttons instead of asking him more about his experiences. I missed an opportunity to start breaking down his hurt and his misunderstandings about Christianity. Still, I know how powerful is Christ’s message of faith, hope and love. And I know the Lord is even now planning to bring him others who can help him find his way to back to his Father.
How have you responded to atheists who attack your faith?