By Jonathan Soder, Faith Co-Editor (Photo by Jonathan Soder/The Bison)
The very first amendment made to the United States Constitution protects every citizen’s right to freely practice any religion and to speak their mind.
However, many affiliated with religion, not only in the U.S. but globally, have taken to shouting their mind, including Westboro Baptist Church, radical Muslims, and Richard Dawkins to name a few.
In this contentious context which spans the globe, if a Christian and an atheist walk into a conversation, how can they engage one another without falling into a shouting match?
For self-proclaiming atheist, freshman Noah Cassidy, one surefire way to turn a conversation south is to enter into it with a firm position that is built on a misunderstanding of the core issue.
Cassidy has been on both sides of the argument, and even said that it was an intense study of the Bible which led him to denounce his faith. Though not all atheists are as familiar with the Bible as Cassidy, presenting it as evidence for God is one mistake he said Christians often make.
“If you have absolute faith in God and say, ‘I believe whatever the Bible says,’ that’s okay,” Cassidy said. “But, you’re not going to convince me that God is real because the Bible says so or that evolution is false because the Bible says so.”
Another common Christian misconception of atheism has to do with cosmological origins, how one believes the universe began.
“I get a lot of, ‘You believe everything came from nothing?’ which is obviously wrong” Cassidy said.
“The proper viewpoint of most atheists would be, ‘We don’t know where it all came from,’ not, ‘It appeared out of thin air.’”
It’s remarks like these that indicate a misunderstanding of what Cassidy said is the core issue – individual intent.
“I think the most important thing coming into a conversation is understanding why you’re doing it,” Cassidy said.
“If it’s to prove a point, if it’s to make yourself feel better, then it’s probably not going to work. You’re probably going to make yourself look worse, make yourself feel worse, and no one’s getting their mind changed.”
For Christians, who are told to share the story of Jesus Christ in Mark 16, mustn’t the goal of such a conversation be to persuade the other individual of their need for God’s forgiveness – to prove a point? Assistant professor of philosophy Dr. Tawa Anderson said yes and no.
“Probably the more important part of the answer is no,” Anderson said. “So, let’s say you’re my atheist friend and we’re just at Starbucks and we’re having coffee together – you can’t be just an agenda for me or just a project.”
Such ‘projects’ are a result of the desire to persuade someone of their need for Christ driving the relationship with them. This is backwards Anderson said.
Instead, there should be a genuine relationship established which drives one’s desire to share Christ.
For Anderson, who grew up an atheist, genuine relationships are important because conversion to Christ didn’t come as a result of one particular incident.
Instead it was a 3-year process that included friends, acquaintances, and lots of questions.
“I can point you to the time period that I was brought to Christ,” Anderson said. “But behind that time period there’s a whole lot of other things that had already happened. I wouldn’t say that there’s one thing that somebody said [that persuaded me].”
Understanding that witnessing is a process more often than not, Anderson said there are several more things a Christian should avoid.
First, there are times to argue, and times to let things go. Also, a Christian’s primary goal should not be to win the conversation.
“We’re focused on the war, not the battle,” Anderson said. “In the long term we want to win a person to Christ. We don’t want to win this battle now. We want to see their life be given to Jesus.
“So, it’s not important that we win a conversation, or that we win an argument or that we make sure that we get our two cents in right now. What’s most important is that we have a relationship where we truly do love the other person and they know that we love them.”
In addition to avoiding misconceptions about atheism, Christians must be aware that atheists too have their own misconceptions.
Cassidy said that one thing many atheists believe falsely is that Christians’ beliefs stem merely from wishful thinking. Another is that Christians share Christ for selfish purposes only.
“Atheists overwhelmingly believe that Christians want to convert for some strange zombie like reason – they just want to spread their power all over the globe,” Cassidy said.
This is part of the danger of having impromptu religious conversations. How does one share their faith, whether they be atheist or Christian, without treating their listener as a potential number in the ranks?
“I think the only appropriate intention is one of very reserved compassion,” Cassidy said. “Like, ‘Really, this is the correct way, and I want to help you but I’m not going to force this on you.’”
While persuasion will often be an underlying desire, and perhaps even should be, both Anderson and Cassidy agree, the goal can’t be to win the day. Instead, these conversations are really about two people sharing their beliefs out of genuine concern for one another’s well-being.