I can’t believe this post needs to be written, but it does. Too many Christians seem to feel a freedom to treat atheists (or others with whom they disagree) with condescension. It’s couched in “truth in love” language, of course, but it only serves to reinforce negativity.
So I’m going to reveal the age-old mystery on how to befriend an atheist (bonus: this advice will help build relationships with anyone):
1. Quit trying to save them
If you’re thinking about befriending an atheist because you’re hoping to get them saved, DON’T. People aren’t tasks, and evangelism built upon the pretense of relationship is no good to anyone.
Jesus always seemed to be surrounded by an entourage of people that the religious establishment detested. They were obviously drawn to him because he valued them just as they were. People can see through our agendas easily enough . . . even when we call it friendship.
Before you start interacting with anyone, you should ask yourself if you’d be willing to love and accept them if they never change. If the answer’s no, close this browser window right now and go do something else. Atheists don’t need you for a friend.
The irony is that a true friendship without an agenda will enable you to have many deep conversations about life and faith, but it will happen naturally because you have a relationship. But it’s not the reason you have a relationship.
2. You don’t have to defend the Gospel
I wrote a post called The Gospel’s Too Silly to Be Mocking Other Faiths. Its point was that, when we truly look at our faith from an outsider’s perspective, we can see that we believe some crazy stuff. Maybe we don’t have to treat people like Christianity is so self evident — because it’s not. Your own faith says that you wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t revealed to you (Jn 6:65).
A pastor friend of mine chided me because posts that make light of our beliefs enable people to disregard the Gospel. Dude, they’re atheists — they already disregard the Gospel. But here’s the thing: my blog is regularly read by atheists. I have a lot of atheist friends, and I don’t feel I have to downplay my faith at all to keep them around.
The reason they are willing to engage with me is because I’m not on the defensive all the time.
If Christianity is true, then it’s not a Fabergé egg that needs to be protected from mean pagans. We need to honestly see what our faith looks like from someone else’s perspective. We need to be completely transparent about how Christianity can be misrepresented by us screwed-up people (and often preyed upon by people who take advantage of our naiveté).
If asked, I’m always “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks me to give the reason for the hope that I have.” (1 Peter 3:15) But that doesn’t give me license to get into endless arguments. In fact, its focus is on responding to people who ask me — not on going around looking for people to force my opinions on. Have you ever noticed that? The active focus is on preparation, not on confrontation.
And even in response, Peter encourages “gentleness and respect.”
3. Lighten up
I follow a couple atheist friends on Twitter with pretty large social platforms, so I see a steady stream of “deluded Christians” and “idiots who believe the bible” tweets. Sometimes it bums me out because, although I consider them friends, I fall within the demographic that they feel such contempt for.
Most Christians find their identity in the Gospel. When someone is crass and aggressively dismissive of their faith, they feel personally attacked, and their natural response for many is to strike back — or get bitter.
But take a deep breath and think about this for a minute. . . where is your significance supposed to come from? If you’re a Christian, I hope you said Christ. Nothing else can really diminish you, and you don’t have to get all up in arms about other people’s opinions.
I have a good friend who’s an outspoken atheist, and I feel our relationship has grown past what ideological tribes we belong to. It kind of helps that we have compatible views on so many issues. One day we were arguing with a Christian on Facebook about something silly and he private messaged me:
“I was trying to write up an explanation that non believers simply do not believe in god. Pretty much in the same way you probably don’t believe in Yosemite Sam. I could not find a way of expressing it without it looking like I think you are insane. Which brought me to a conclusion: I think you’re insane.”
I just said, “So?”
I understand how he feels, and maybe he’s right. I met a guy once who had a whole apologetic on why he believed in the ancient gods of Rome. I’m sure my friend thinks arguments for Christianity are just as goofy. Ultimately, I care more about my friendship with this person than I do whether he respects my religious beliefs.
No one owes you anything
This brings up a HUGE issue. I’m not sure where so many Christians got the idea that we deserve deference or respect for our beliefs. The entire New Testament, from Jesus onward, presupposes that we will not be respected for our faith. If you think the world needs to treat your beliefs with kid gloves, you’re a follower of some sort of Americanized manifest-destiny type of faith — not biblical Christianity.
What I do know is that Jesus wants us to treat others how we would like to be treated, so if respect is something you want, that should be a signal that you should be extending it. It doesn’t matter if you get respect back. Jesus didn’t establish a quid-pro-quo ethic that offers kindness when kindness is received. That’s not how any of this works.
I have seen the worst behavior and publicized stereotypes about atheists from Christians who then turn around complaining that they’re being treated poorly. It’s totally asinine.
We need to set our ego aside; it’s not doing us any favors.
4. Truly and empathetically listen
I’m pretty into the idea of empathy. The ability to see another person’s perspective or experience a situation through their emotions is like a super power. It’s baffling when I have Christians tell me, “I don’t have to empathize with people.”
Here are a couple reasons why I truly listen to my atheist friends:
- I didn’t become a Christian to then plug my ears to prevent any criticism from getting in. I enjoy thinking critically and think we all need to be willing to grill some sacred cow every once and a while.
- Sometimes painful experiences are mingled with their views about Christianity. Some have really been hurt by the behavior of Christians. I don’t believe the God’s Not Dead nonsense that suggests that someone’s atheism is tied to a traumatic event, and if you figure it out, you’ll cure them of their heathenism. But I do want to help undo damage done by people who have claimed to share my values.
- I assume that everyone has come to their views after deep thought and research (only a jerk believes they’re the only one who’s worked at their conclusion). I think people deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt and heard.
- I’ve often had atheists assume I believe things I don’t. I can’t think of many times where an atheist has asked me what or why I believe what I do. On the other hand, Christians do the same thing. We all would rather monologue then dialogue and this means we have to be content with our stereotypes about each other. It’s nonsense, and I’m opting out.
5. Transformation is more important than information
Please read carefully — this might be the most important point in this post (yeah, I saved it for the dedicated people).
I expect people who have 1 Corinthians 13 plastered on every piece of decor, greeting card, and wedding vow to understand its point. No one cares how many books on apologetics you’ve read. No one cares if you’re the smartest person in the room. We could argue information, perspective, and experience for the rest of our lives and get absolutely nowhere.
But there is absolutely no argument against a belief system that is making people more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Christianity’s problem in nearly every debate is that we’re defending it at the same time that we’re undermining it. Part of the faith that we’re arguing for is that Jesus takes one kind of person and fashions from them a person who begins to resemble him — but very few people experience these new, improved Christians.
I hate to admit it, but many would say the opposite about Christians. Christianity tends to make people more dogmatic, more rigid, more unforgiving, more condescending. If this is as good as it gets, we’re selling snake oil, and atheists know it.
We don’t have the luxury of dismissing our boorish behavior with “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” The New Testament tells us that we’re “being transformed into his image ”(2 Cor. 3:18). This is happening by degrees, but it should still be happening. The whole point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that without love our arguments are worthless — even if they’re air tight. And in case anyone wants to dicker about the definition for love, Paul tells us exactly what it is.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.—1 Cor. 13:4–7
I seldom see these traits at play in the debates Christians engage in. Here’s a Christianity pro tip: it’s not our job to make sure the culture aligns with Scripture; but the people who believe in it probably should.
We need to quit focusing all our energy on building a better argument and focus it on being a better argument. Our number one job is being connected to the vine (Jn. 15); it isn’t in endless, fruitless debate.
If you want to make better friends with atheists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or anyone else that doesn’t share your beliefs, it’s really pretty easy — don’t be a jerk.