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Should Atheists Disabuse Christians of Their Beliefs?

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Everywhere one looks, Christians can be found. All sorts of Christians — Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Progressive, Liberal — with countless shades and nuances. The majority of Americans profess to believe in the Christian God. Most Americans believe that the Bible is in one way or another the word of God. Most Americans believe that Jesus is the son of God and that he died on the cross for human sin and resurrected from the dead three days later. Most Americans believe that the Christian God created the universe. It is safe to say that the United States is a Christian nation; not in the sense that people such as David Barton use the phrase “Christian nation,” but in the sense that Christianity permeates every aspect of American life. That some Christians are now saying that they are “persecuted” is laughable.

Expressions of Christianity can be found everywhere one looks. Christian churches are found in every American community. Christian congregations and pastors are subsidized by taxpayer money. Churches are exempt from paying real estate and sales tax, and their ministers’ housing is tax-exempt. Ministers are even permitted to opt out of paying Social Security tax. Donations to churches are tax exempt. No matter how opulent church facilities might be or how rich ministers might become, every dollar of church income is tax-exempt. Not only are financial and in-kind gifts tax-exempt, but donors receive tax deductions for their donations. Government agencies steer a wide berth around religion, rarely sticking their nose in its business. The Internal Revenue Service is so scared of intruding upon churches that it goes out of its way to NOT investigate clear and egregious violations of the separation of church and state.

In recent years, atheism, agnosticism, secularism, and religious indifference have numerically increased as young Americans in particular look at the religious scene and say no thanks. Christian sects are hemorrhaging members, as church leaders scramble to plug the increasingly expansive hole in the membership dike. They rightly understand that if they are unable to keep young adults in the church, they are but a generation or two away from extinction. This is particularly true for smaller churches that have lost scores of members to megachurches and larger churches. Unable to compete, smaller churches are slowly dying, the result of the corporate, entertainment mindset that now dominates the Christian landscape. That and an unwillingness on the part of churches to adapt to cultural change.  Those of us who are not Christians observe this decline from the outside, cheering on those who cannibalize their own. Surely we would all be better off without Christianity, atheists say. While it can certainly be debated whether we would actually be better off without Christianity, it is certainly clear that religious belief has caused untold damage.

I spent fifty years of my life in the Evangelical church. Twenty-five of those years were devoted to pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. I have come in contact with thousands of people who self-identified as Christians. I have intimately known countless people who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that it is a guidebook for living life. These Christians believe that the Bible tells us all we need to know about life — both now and after death. How should atheists respond to Christians who believe their particular flavor of Christianity is “truth?” How should atheists respond to those who believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God? What is our duty — if any — to those who are committed followers of Jesus? Should atheists, when presented with an opportunity to do so, disabuse Christians of their beliefs? Does it really matter what people believe?

The atheist community is certainly not of one mind on these issues. Some atheists think that religious belief should be challenged at every opportunity. Some atheists think that religious belief deserves mockery and ridicule.  Other atheists take a live-and-let-live attitude. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you, these atheists say.

The question raised in this post — should atheists disabuse Christians of their beliefs? — comes from an atheist who recently engaged in a discussion with a Christian minister about religious faith and atheism. She wondered if atheists should bother trying to engage people who are resolutely committed to Christianity, its God, and its religious text – the Bible. What follows is my answer.

I tend to take an incremental approach to engaging people of faith. This has led some atheists to label me as an accommodationist. I have often been accused of being too soft or nice to Christians, which is ironic because many Christians think I am hostile toward Christianity. I suppose that atheists and Christians alike are right. I can be hostile toward any form of Christianity that psychologically and physically harms people. I am certainly hostile toward any religious system that impedes progress and the betterment of the human race. That said, when dealing with people I think have doubts and questions about Christianity, I tend to be patient and long-suffering, hoping that I can, through reason and kindness, help them move away from the suffocating constraints of Christianity — particularly Evangelicalism. I play the game, realizing — as it did for me — that it might take years for someone to come to the conclusion that what they have believed for years is a lie. Assaulting such people with every possible atheistic weapon rarely results in deconversion. Unlike Evangelicals with their born-again experiences, the path to atheism is often a long and winding road, with many starts and stops along the way.

How should atheists respond when Christian zealots make a deliberate attempt to evangelize them or deliver them from what Christians believe are satanic, immoral beliefs? How should atheists respond when Christians make a concerted effort to challenge their beliefs — or lack thereof? Social media is often a prime hunting ground for Christians looking to assert their beliefs and sense of rightness. I’m sure most atheists at one time or another have had to interact with preachy, evangelizing Christian friends and family members on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. While most of my Facebook friends are atheists or non-Christians, I am friends with several Evangelicals. I post very little atheism-related material on my Facebook wall. I usually post these kind of things on my page. I tell my Facebook friends that if they want to read my writing about religion they should check out my page. On my personal Facebook account, I tend to post cat videos, cartoons, and things that reflect my liberal, socialistic political beliefs. The same cannot be said for my Christian Facebook friends. Virtually every day they post Christian-related stories and memes, and one friend — an out-of-work preacher — has taken to posting what I call paragraph sermons. These sermonettes are often directed towards those who are not Christian, which is strange because the overwhelming majority of his Facebook friends are Evangelical Christians. I think I can safely say that this man’s preaching is directed towards me and my family and other people he has deemed unsaved. This Baptist preacher’s wife tends to post similar material.

One day this preacher’s wife posted something that mentioned atheism. After reading it, I pondered whether I should bother to respond. I did, resulting in a family squabble of sorts. By the next day, her post was removed. I have no idea why. It certainly couldn’t have been due to anything I had written. I was polite, but forceful. This couple, while certainly Fundamentalist, likes to think that they are somehow “different” from hard-core Fundamentalists. I attempted to show that they weren’t, using a tactic I use whenever someone tries to paint themselves as a kinder, gentler, more accepting Christian. I asked if they believed non-Christians would go to Hell when they die. Their answer was an emphatic YES! I told them that the rest of their beliefs really didn’t matter. Anyone who believes that their God will not only fit unbelievers with a fireproof body but also torture them night and day for eternity is every bit as hateful and judgmental as the worst of Fundamentalists. These kind, nice, smiling Fundamentalists want to believe that they are different from their Fundamentalist forefathers, but their abhorrent belief in Hell and the eternal torture of unbelievers makes them every bit as bad.

Why did I bother to engage these Fundamentalists? Surely I knew that nothing would be gained by writing a dissenting comment on the wife’s post. The only reason I did so is because she directly mentioned atheism. I thought, this is my opportunity to put in a word for atheism. While I had hoped my comment might spark honest, thoughtful discussion about Christianity, atheism, and how the family, in general, has treated non-Christians, I also knew that it could turn out as it did. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It is up to individual atheists to determine when and where they engage the beliefs of Christians. Sometimes, there is no value in attempting to challenge those whose heads are in a bucket of cement. They are deaf and blind, unable to see and hear any other belief but their own. When dealing with such people I take the advice of the Bible — don’t cast your pearls before swine. Atheists can waste tremendous amounts of time talking to people who really have no interest in what they have the say. When I first started blogging sixteen years ago I thought that if I just explained myself to people they would appreciate and understand where I was coming from. I know, quite naïve. A few years back, this issue came up in counseling. I told my counselor that it bothered me that many Christian critics have no interest in hearing my story or allowing me to explain myself. He chuckled and then told me, Bruce, you wrongly think these people give a shit about you. They don’t. And all these years later, I know my counselor is right. Most Christians who engage me are not interested in me as a person. Their goal is to put in a good word for Jesus or to bolster their apologetical skills. Perhaps, deep down they have doubts about their beliefs, and attacking an Evangelical-pastor-turned-atheist helps shout down their doubts and fears.

I think atheists should weigh carefully what might happen if they engage Christians in some sort of dialogue. Sometimes, such engagement can have catastrophic consequences. (Please See Count the Cost Before You Say I am an Atheist.) Atheism is still considered by many to be satanic and immoral. When someone declares their allegiance to atheism, this can and does cause conflict. I have corresponded with atheists who have lost jobs and their marriages over their atheistic beliefs. Try as atheists might to explain that atheism is not a belief system, Christians often already have their minds made up. No amount of discussion about humanism — the moral and ethical framework for most atheists — will suffice. For these Christians, atheists are bad people. I generally don’t bother with such people, again saving my pearls for those who can appreciate them.

The atheist woman who asked the question that has been the subject of this post had a lengthy email discussion with her former Evangelical pastor. This man of God found that she was quite willing and capable to defend atheism and her lack of belief in the Christian God. She told me in an email that she wondered if anyone had ever challenged this pastor concerning his beliefs. Likely not, since most pastors are insulated from any outside challenges to their beliefs. Safe within the confines of their church and study, pastors rarely have to defend what they believe. And when they do, they often turn to books that purport to answer EVERY question posed by unbelievers. As most atheists who have spent significant time engaging Christians know, these books are filled with worn-out clichés, shallow defenses of Christianity, and poor arguments against atheism, secularism, and humanism — arguments that are often easily defeated. When pushed into the corner, pastors will always hold on to three things: personal experience, faith, and the Bible. Of course, such metaphysical claims are beyond rational investigation. Once faith is invoked, discussion ceases.

Over the past sixteen years, I have corresponded with countless pastors. I do my best to thoughtfully and honestly engage them. If they sincerely want my help or just want somebody to talk to, I am more than happy to oblige. When I began walking down the path of unbelief, I was glad I had someone to talk to, someone who was willing to patiently listen and gently challenge my beliefs. The goal in such discussions is not conversion as much as it is to help people move beyond where they are. All atheists agree that religious Fundamentalism is harmful and that helping people see this is vitally important. While it’s great if people embrace unbelief, many won’t. Many times, all atheists can do is become facilitators of sorts, helping people see that there are better ways to live their lives (even if that means they hang on to some sort of religious belief). I am content to leave discussions unfinished, knowing that some people will return a few years later, now ready to finish the discussions begun years before.

In some instances, there is no value in challenging religious beliefs. My wife’s parents were in their 80s when they died. They had been fundamentalist Christians their entire lives. They attended a hard-core Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church for over forty years. My wife’s father was a retired Baptist preacher. While it would have been easy for me to challenge their beliefs, I refrained from doing so. What would I have gained from challenging their lifelong beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, salvation, and life after death? There’s nothing I could have said that would ever have caused them to not believe. Eighteen years ago, their youngest daughter was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. If anything could have challenged their faith it would have been this. Alas, they remained devoted followers of Jesus to the end.

How do you interact with Christians? Do you aggressively challenge Christian beliefs on social media or at family gatherings? Are you an evangelist of sorts for atheism? Or do you take the live-and-let-live approach, ignoring the religious beliefs of others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. I am sure there are many and varied ways that atheists interact with Christians, so I hope you will share your approach in the comments. As I have made clear in the past, I don’t want anyone to follow after me. Each of us must chart his or her own course. As unbelievers, we must determine how best to engage a culture that is overwhelmingly controlled and dominated by Christianity.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    If you are in Heaven, and rejoice at sinners suffering in Hell, how are you a good Christian?
    If you are in Heaven, and watching your friends and family suffering in Hell, how are you a good Christian?
    If you admit you would suffer emotional pain watching your loved ones in Hell, why do you consider Heaven paradise?
    If you admit you would rejoice at watching your loved ones suffer in Hell, then why do you expect the rest of us to want to join you?
    I have asked these questions to believers when I was on Twitter. Every one got ignored or a block. In my experience, most Christians don’t want to be bothered to think about the hard questions. Until they do, arguing is a stressful waste of time.
    I do follow a few people on Facebook who are Christians. I follow them for the content they produce (authors, musicians, artists); they rarely mention religion, mainly at Christmas, Easter, or their important life events. It is possible to get along and be civilized, as long as both sides understand getting pushy only leads to trouble.

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      By loving their hell, they are being a “good” christian, aka a sadistic failure who has fantasies how everyone who disagrees with them deserves to be punished. Hell represents the victory of their vicious god.

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    I feel compelled on my blog to counteract, admittedly in a very small way, all the BS Christians put out there about atheism, LGBT+ people, and the emotional blackmail they direct at others – ‘believe in Jesus or go to hell.’
    Do I hope this will change their minds in any way? Yes, I hope but am realistic enough to know it probably isn’t going to. I do know, however, because they’ve told me, that my pushing back against Christian propaganda has helped people already questioning their faith to break away from it.
    In my offline real life, I have Christian friends with whom I don’t discuss religion. They have a quiet, unassuming faith that helps them through their lives. They don’t preach at me, so I don’t them. They accept I live with another man – in fact they seem to enjoy spending time with us – and I appreciate their open-mindedness.
    It’s different with a particular commenter who trolls my blog and likes to tell me and other commenters that we are demon infested. I have to respond to such crap!

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    Religious belief is still pretty widespread over here in the UK, but it’s also becoming a subject people are reluctant to discuss. We’ve reached a position where if someone tells me they attend church then, assuming I don’t know them, I am surprised, as it’s increasingly rare. Someone at my local motorcycle club once mentioned that they attend church and I automatically without thinking asked why they weren’t using their Sunday mornings productively by getting out on their bike. A friend I cycle with is Iranian and a former Muslim, yet has converted to Roman Catholicism. I regularly make fun of this.

    At the political level overt religious views are now a liability. A recent candidate to be leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party) had to withdraw because of her declared views on faith (abortion, divorce, gay rights all bad), and then complained she’d been maligned because of her faith.

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    As I age, my close friends (most were Christians) have passed away, and I am just not in the mood to make new friends. I very rarely discus Christianity with Christians, for two main reasons:
    1 – I am personally acquainted with very few Christians, even though the vast majority of people living in my small southern Virginia county are Christian.
    2 – The vast majority of Christians that I have encountered have absolutely no interest in “sharing” their faith with strangers.
    I have gone as far as emailing specific posts from my blog in an attempt to get input from Christians – nothing!
    On those very rare instances that I do find myself interacting with a Christian, either in person or via email, I never broach the subject of Christianity. If they offer any attempt to evangelize me I will be gently honest and explain my past and current mindset concerning Christianity.
    In the past few years I have had exactly one (1) Christian talk to me about Jesus. I addressed this experience in a recent blog post:

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    Neil Rickert

    “How do you interact with Christians?”

    I try to be polite and friendly. I take a “live and let live” approach.

    If they attempt to preach to me, I’ll tell them that I respect their right to believe as they choose, and I expect them to similarly respect my right to choose what I believe.

    Usually, that’s sufficient. But if they insist on continuing their preaching, I walk away.

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    Many Christians treat Christianity as a massive game of Dungeons and Dragons. It is fun to get together, pretend they are in a fantasy world in which they are beating the dragon, and then go back to the real world on Monday. If that is what they choose, I will not try to stop them.

    For me, the letdown cam on Monday, when it was all to obvious the Sunday service had nothing to do with the real world. So I found it better to walk away. Mondays go much better when one keeps his feet on solid ground every day.

    I have a passion for asking questions. For years I have been on the Christian Forums site asking questions. I try not to argue against beliefs or spend a lot of time pressing mine. Instead, I am there to ask questions and watch them try to work it out. Many have thought things through and changed their minds.

    My latest adventure led me to a place called Psience Quest. This seems to be a haven for many who gave up on Christianity, finding hope in some sort of spirit survival after death. I got pulled into the debate when somebody there had posted links to my website. ( I was surprised at the fervor that was held there, being quite close to religious fanaticism. They basically denied neuroscience, instead claiming that souls commandeer our bodies, and that these souls move on to their next adventure after death.

    So where I find the opportunity I try to respectfully engage.

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    Soon after I acknowledged and realized I no longer believed Christianity to be true (I say it that way to differentiate between the years where I didn’t really believe anymore but wasn’t ready to fully acknowledge or admit that), I would engage with certain Christians who were close to me. I soon learned that even nonevangelical liberal Christians had a really hard time with someone who doesn’t believe in any supernatural entities whatsoever. I am talking about highly educated, open-minded, politically liberal people – even they couldn’t handle the notion that I am an atheist. And the fundamentalists kept trying to point me in the direction of apologists like Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, and others. I decided that there’s no point in arguing as I am not likely to change their minds and they’re definitely not changing mine. It does bother me that fundamentalist religious people are trying to legislate their views onto others – that’s a serious problem. And I feel really sorry for the kids because I was one of those trapped in fundamentalist religion and education. I was able to get out, but not until adulthood, and even that was hard. But it helps to know it’s possible, and now people have more resources available.

    I am all for a live and let live situation. However, in USA there’s an active group of people working hard to create their American Christian Nationalist dystopia where anyone other that a straight white Christian American-born male is supposed to “know their place”. So I try to educate my fellow liberal friends to the dangers of the Christian right. A few years ago, they didn’t understand and thought I was exaggerating. They also had no idea I was raised in the cult of evangelicalism, so I had to explain that too. Fortunately, journalists have picked up the ball and written many articles on the situation.

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    Ben Berwick

    I will tend to push back against the deceitful claims that atheism is responsible for millions of deaths (the people making these claims wilfully conflate atheism with political ideology, and they know that’s what they’re doing). I tend to argue against the notion that atheists lack morality. However, I am no lover of aggressive atheism, which ceases to be atheism and becomes anti-theism. By all means, question and challenge the arguments that come your way, but (to put it bluntly) shitting on people’s beliefs is a sure-fire way of raising their hackles, and not achieving anything else. I would never even consider bursting into a Church (or any other religious building) to denounce the beliefs of the people in it, even if I wildly disagreed with them.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    I know that too many Christians try to bully. harass and shame people into believing. Most of the time, such behaviors only alienate the people whose “souls” they are trying to “win.” So I try to avoid such tactics with believers. Instead, I listen as well as I can, speak and answer honestly. Of course, if they lie or gaslight—especially when it comes to my gender identity and sexuality—I will defend myself,’and others.

    I don’t believe, however. that I have the power to disabuse someone—especially an ardent Fundamentalist—of their beliefs. At best, I can give them something to think about.

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    I do not try to have discussions with people about their beliefs unless their beliefs harm society or the environment. For example, my brother “believes” in capitalism. I tried to convince him once that capitalism did not always exist in human societies. I was going to give a long example but figured out it would take away from the base argument of my comment.

    Whether someone believes in capitalism or Christianity how it is practiced should be evaluated on how it affects others in the society and our planet. People should be allowed to have whatever views they like, the only time they should be challenged is when their practice negatively affect others.

    I studied physics in college. I have to keep myself from getting into discussions about whether god would have allowed a big bang etc.or whether the standard model explains what we need to know in physics. Actually the standard model was recently challenged by the fact that neutrinos have mass, it will have to be revised but this is much beyond my knowledge or capability.

    My problem is keeping my emotions about knowledge under control and walking away from discussions about “beliefs”.

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Bruce Gerencser