Arguing with Atheists: Yea or Nay?
Someone sent me the following question:
I have a family member who grew up in a Christian family but later became an atheist. He is bright. He reads a lot from the modern atheists, and he knows the Bible well.
He enjoys debating with Christians and trying to stump them. We have talked at length, but made no progress. He thinks that if Christians were to start taking reason seriously, we would all become atheists.
After hours and hours of conversations over many months, I am at my wit’s end about what to do. Should I continue trying to debate the topic? Should I find someone more knowledgeable about this topic and send my family member to them?
Here are my thoughts:
First, pray for the person daily. Second, find ways to build the relationship with them in other ways. Make sure they know you care about them.
Third, here are my thoughts on arguing at length with atheists who want to argue:
In such a situation, stop arguing.
You have told your family member the reasons for what you believe. They are compelling reasons. If he has questions and wants to understand your position, take the time to answer (1 Peter 3:15). But do not spend a great amount of time trying to reason him into accepting the truth of Christianity at this point.
Do I sound like a Presuppositionalist?
I have some things in common with them. I agree with them that self-described atheists are actively evading knowledge that is right in front of them. While Presuppositionalists might claim this knowledge is built-in from birth, I claim it is inferential knowledge that shouts in people’s face all day every day. They see compelling reasons to believe in God every time they open their eyes and see the world that God made or every time they give thought to their own nature as human beings.
Suppressing the Truth in Unrighteousness
Atheists feel insecure about their position that there is no God, and they often turn to a habit of debating people as a means of reassuring themselves that they are correct.
You’ve already given your family member a lot of reasons to believe. The reasons to believe are numerous and compelling. It is likely that his choices are not based on the reasons he is giving. He is making rationalizations — excuses that do not stand to reason. He doesn’t want to affirm the truth of Christianity because he has an aversion to the idea of being a sinner accountable to a holy God.
Don’t do the the Presuppositional gimmick and try to bash him with that fact. He doesn’t know it is a fact. If he ever comes to understand the truth, that fact will be the last one he understands, so it is abusive toward his mind to start there.
Rather, I would, when the opportunity comes up, just remind him that the reasons for believing in God are overwhelming, you have already outlined those reasons, and you believe he isn’t seeking the truth. That is all.
Remember, he has done the same to you.
Your family member has claimed you are not an atheist because you will not seriously pursue truth and follow reason where it leads.
Point out that the opposite is true: He is the one who is being unreasonable and failing to follow the facts. Since you understand this about him, you are not planning to press the argument. You can answer questions about your beliefs, but you are not going focus on rehearsing the reasons for your beliefs. He has heard them. Always be ready to offer a reason, but do not make the offering of reasons your main ministry to a proud atheist who has already trampled on the pearls you have offered.
This approach will likely infuriate him.
It means an end to the pattern he has created for himself: the pattern of reassuring himself that he is being reasonable.
Every time you have continued reasoning with him after a certain point, in his mind you may have been subtly reinforcing a false idea: that you think he is open to reason on this topic and you think he would already believe by now, had he just been given a sufficient argument.
I’m not saying you made any error in offering arguments. But he may be taking a false kind of assurance from the very fact that you have continued to reason with him and that you have continued treating him as a person open to reason.
It will feel like a personal insult.
But that is all that is left for you to do in this situation. And it is the right thing to do.
In Jesus’ day, wicked men made pretend arguments, seeking a feeling of self-justification. Jesus did not go around and around with them. Jesus pointed out their logical errors and their sinful status before a holy God. Then he ended the discussion without letting the sinner’s pride begin to inflate.
We should do the same.