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Interacting With Atheists: Five Foundational Principles

Source: John DeRosa of Catholic Answers, via catholic.com

Interacting with atheists can be draining. Not every conversation will go well, especially when you start out. But if you follow these five principles, you can drastically improve your mindset and your conversations.

Here’s the first principle: pray every day. Develop a daily prayer routine. Decide on a specific segment of time as your personal prayer baseline. It could be ten or fifteen minutes. Currently, I aim for twenty minutes, but I don’t always hit my mark. But I want to grow in my prayer life. Some spiritual masters recommend thirty minutes per day with the goal of building up to a holy hour every day. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out the importance of a prayer schedule and routine:

The choice of the time and duration of the prayer arises from a determined will, revealing the secrets of the heart. One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith (CCC 2710).

This principle drives us to develop a deeper relationship with the Lord. This will allow you to discern more effectively what a person needs to hear in conversation. Also, it will prevent you from getting burned out or discouraged when dialogue goes bad. You don’t need me to tell you that conversations about religion often get heated. Daily prayer will help us to keep our cool during such encounters. Even if the other side resorts to insults and mockery, that is not the Christian way. As a result, you will not find mockery in the pages of this book. My aim has nothing to do with making fun of the New Atheists. Rather, I want to equip you to handle skeptics charitably.

As a baptized Christian, you have the indwelling Holy Spirit. Conversing with God every day deepens this reality, allowing the Holy Spirit work through you. Daily prayer will help you know what to say and how to say it. So that’s the first tip: pray every day.

Here’s the second principle: whenever possible, start by asking questions rather than making statements. Asking questions places you in the driver’s seat of the conversation. You can steer it where you want it to go. You can make sure it stays on topic.

Questions provide an avenue to learn what the other person actually thinks, providing you with valuable information for deciding how to help your conversation partner.

Greg Koukl points to three helpful questions that can be asked in almost any context:

• “What do you mean by that?”
• “How did you come to that conclusion?”
• “Have you ever considered . . . ?”

Questions are powerful. And they’re fun! When you dialogue with an atheist, it’s much less stressful to ask questions than to try to give a detailed argument from memory.  Also, once you see the power of asking questions, you can start to develop your own questions to use in apologetic/evangelistic contexts.

Here’s the third principle: Don’t let people get away with vague, wishy-washy criticisms. Sometimes people make vague objections they think are enough to win the day. Consider the following:

• “You know the problem of evil, right? That’s why I don’t believe in God.”
• “You Catholics have that abuse scandal. Who would want to join a corrupt Church like that?”

Too often, we immediately launch into a defense. Before the skeptic elicits a response from us, we must require that he make his criticism clearer, provide more detail, and, whenever possible, give us the fullness of the argument he has in mind.

Consider the first example above. I’d respond, “Tell me more. What do you have in mind concerning the problem of evil? Can you spell it out for me?” These questions encourage the person to clarify, and they also allow you to assess how much homework he has done. Moreover, you don’t start floundering around with fancy arguments before understanding what he’s saying.

Here’s the fourth principle: apologetics is most helpful to those who are already open to the truths of faith. An angry, hostile atheist can swiftly resist philosophical argumentation. Even the most powerful arguments may fly right past him as he pulls out his list of grievances against religion.

This principle encourages realistic expectations. The most hardened, angry skeptics need our prayers. Perhaps they’ve been abused by a priest in the past, or dealt with some other terrible circumstance in life. The Holy Spirit can work on the heart and soften them for future conversations.

On the other hand, those with a sincere desire to understand can be led closer to Christ with answers from the Christian intellectual tradition. But if that’s true, should we not even bother with apologetics when talking to those who are closed to faith? Not so fast. Apologetics in that circumstance can bolster the faith of the believer making the arguments, or of other believers listening to the conversation. I find this to be exactly right.

Here’s the fifth principle: don’t neglect the soft skills of evangelism. By “soft skills” I mean the ways of conducting ourselves outside of apologetic encounters. How should we interact with others? I submit that two keys are kindness and treasure recognition. Kindness consists of showing genuine respect for others and developing an interest in understanding their point of view. As Catholic Christians, we must keep in mind the divinely revealed truth that everyone we encounter is a treasure of intrinsic value whom God commands us to love.

So don’t be a jerk. Give more compliments. Be openly Catholic by saying grace before meals, keeping prayers or pictures of saints on your desk, and include Mass in your discussion of the weekends and holidays. These soft skills do not require an advanced apologetic, and they can go a long way toward building trust and plausibility in religion.

J.P. Moreland speaks to the idea of scientism limiting our “plausibility structures”—background assumptions that give rise to a framework for what people find reasonable. A world of religion and miracles seems implausible to those who grew absorbing scientism in their schooling. But when our youth see sober-minded men and women publicly living out their Catholic faith, that can help reshape the plausibility structures they develop.

Not all evangelism requires explicit gospel-preaching. Simply by going about your normal dealings, extending kindness to others, and being openly Catholic, you show Catholicism to be a live, reasonable option.

So that’s the fifth principle. Throughout the book, I’ll call your attention to these five core principles when to comes to answering atheist slogans.

If you want to find out more, pre-order your copy of One Less God Than You today!

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