It can be difficult to convince people on the other side of the ideological spectrum to take you seriously. But that is part of the challenge of being a Christian. Jesus told his disciples to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Sometimes we have a tendency to limit that to just backsliding believers who we want to return to the fold. Atheists would not be worth our time because they have secularism too thoroughly ingrained in their minds. But as rational, free creatures, atheists could objectively analyze the evidence and realize the influence of their sin through the power of God’s Spirit. We can help to break down those intellectual barriers by earning a seat at their table. If you are wondering how Christian thinkers can earn a seat at the atheists’ table, know that it is not hopeless.
There are broadly two methods that should be integrated with one another. First, there is the academic approach. If you show yourself to be an intellectual to be taken seriously, you will win a seat at their table (1st Thessalonians 4:11-12). That is not always easy because there are a lot of biases and assumptions that they will hold about Christians. If you say anything that remotely sounds like fundamentalism, they will write you off. Second, there is the relational approach. If you form unconditional friendships with atheists, they will be more likely to take you seriously (1st Peter 3:16). I would like to expand on both of these methods.
Learn About The Ancient Near East
Initially, I was going to title this section Show Them Something They Have Not Heard Before. There are enough apologists who are regurgitating the same old material. If you were to write about the Kalam Cosmological Argument, you might say “Everything that begins to exist has a cause…” How original. You do not stand out by cloning the same concepts. Sure, you can write about popular topics, but you need to have some depth and insight beyond that. If you learn about Ancient Near Eastern culture, that will be a great way to initiate discussion and to bring a unique perspective. Many atheists anticipate that you will either be a young-earth creationist or a boring concordist. An ANE perspective will bring something interesting and deflect a lot of their objections to the Bible.
Probably the best example of this is the Australian YouTuber Robert Rowe. Atheists actually tune into Rowe’s Bible study sessions. You might get an atheist to tune into a debate about the existence of God, but for them to watch us discuss Ephesians 2:1-10 requires a lot of respect. He earned a seat at their table by bringing an elaborate knowledge of the Ancient Near East. If you are not sure where to start, watch Robert’s videos or read something by Dr. Michael Heiser or Dr. John Walton.
It will also provide some insight into the creation controversy. You can show that the biblical narrative is not as simplistic as some would have us believe. Many atheists were actually heavily influenced by this idea that the Bible teaches Neo-Ussherian concepts. It drove some away from the faith. If we show that the Bible is a piece of Ancient Near Eastern literature, it will highlight that there might be more that they missed. When we are talking about an ancient document like the Bible, it can be easy to take simplistic interpretation and think you know everything about it. We would be just as vulnerable to that if we were reading other ancient documents. Since the ANE is the culture in which the Bible was written, it can inform our interpretation. Atheists could respect that educated perspective.
Be Nuanced, Not Dogmatic
Part of this process will be to deconstruct the old stereotypes of Christianity. If we are everything they expect us to be, then there is nothing more for them to learn about our beliefs. There are a lot of aspects of Christian theology that can simply be put to the side. For example, if an atheist were to bring up a contradiction in Scripture, we do not have to eagerly jump down every rabbit hole. We can just wave it off and point out that Christianity would obtain even if there are contradictions. There are models of inspiration that allow for them. So it really does not matter.
Further, nuances can also illuminate that everything is not as black and white as it seems. If the atheist is attacking one view that he thinks is the Christian position, he might be surprised to learn that your model is not vulnerable to his attack. Further, they are often prodding to see how immovable your positions are. If you have too many immovable positions, then you are probably not somebody to take seriously. If everything you believe is just about staying within your tradition, then he is probably going to think that you are too close-minded to contribute anything of value.
You should use the borders of mere Christianity to discuss the issues. A mere Christian is somebody who believes in the core tenets of the Christian faith. You can discuss tertiary issues if they want to, but clarify that those issues are not very significant. You can concede them and still be a faithful Christian. On the other hand, you should not violate mere Christianity. If you just become a liberal theologian, then what you believe is essentially indistinguishable from Christianity aside from the language that you use. So you are no longer representing Christianity. Your atheist friends are more likely to write you off. Mere Christianity functions as a measurement of yourself and how you approach these discussions.
Beyond that, you should know how to use an argument. If you mount the Transcendental Argument, the atheist might respond as if you were using the Van Tilian method. If you are using a more robust version of the TAG, it might invulnerable to the atheist’s objections. This nuance could be important in representing the existence of God as a reasonable alternative. You should also know when to flip an argument from probabilism to presuppositionalism. They might have their strengths in certain areas and you will have to discern which is more effective in each situation.
Read And Apply Scholarship
When I refer to scholarship, I do not necessarily mean your favorite blogger within your tradition. I mean outside scholarly sources about a range of disciplines. If you find yourself discussing the moral argument, you might want to learn a little about epistemology. Similarly, if you are discussing science, then read some peer-reviewed literature on the relevant discipline. It will inform your perspective and give you something concrete to bring to the table. Regurgitating lines from apologists is probably not useful. They understand the depth of an issue. If you want to represent a complicated, scholarly issue, you will need latitude too.
Form Unconditional Friendships
Mormon Elders typically have a limit before their Bishop tells them to direct their attention somewhere else. This makes it clear that they are not interested in you as much as they are interested in making converts for their religion. Unfortunately, Christians can fall into the same sort of mindset. We might treat people as targets and want to invest our time wisely. But I think you can maintain a friendship even if you have little hope of conversion. Christians talk a lot about love. The way to show love is to actually care about another person for who they are.
There is a distinction between intellectual repute and moral repute. If you are of intellectual repute, the other party may still not listen to you because you do not care about them. They can hardly be blamed for that. Once you establish that you are of some moral repute, then they are going to think that you have something to say. You are not just telling them things to hurt them or to assert your superiority. You are legitimately doing it because you care. That perspective typically only emerges from the confines of an unconditional friendship.
That friendship will take a little bit of managing. If you are on opposite ends of the spectrum, you will clash about ethical and religious issues. It can be easy to forget that the other person cares for you when they are saying something that you radically and fundamentally disagree with. That will also involve some introspection on your part. You will have to think about whether you are wrong so that you are not just arguing a point for the sake of argument. Further, you should make a legitimate effort to understand the atheist. Far too many Christians just think in broad terms. The atheist merely “loves his sin” or “hates God” not knowing that there are multiple layers to his (non)beliefs.
How Christian Thinkers Can Earn A Seat At The Atheists’ Table
It really depends on the sort of ministry you are developing. If you are primarily blogging or making videos online, then you probably do not have too many opportunities to develop unconditional friendships. But if those opportunities are there, you should take them. Keep in mind that they might never convert. It is all under God’s providence. Our duty is to care for other people even if things do not turn out exactly as we would like. Further, you need to establish yourself intellectually. Even the closest friend will not be taken seriously if she is unintelligent. Read scholarly work and be nuanced. Learn something about the Ancient Near East. Present a perspective the atheist has never heard before. You can earn a seat at the atheists’ table.