In the March 17, 2011 Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Billy deals with a question from a Christian with an atheist friend. Billy tells the Christian how to ‘help’ the unbeliever. You can read all of Billy’s answer here.
The Christian asks, “My friend claims to be an atheist, and I don’t know what to say to him. … he bombards me with questions I can’t answer and I feel stupid. He really needs Jesus because his life is kind of messed up, but I’m afraid I’m not a very good witness. What can I do?”
Billy’s first response is the least effective. Billy says that the Christian should pray for the unbeliever. Given prayer’s lack of success at bringing world peace, ending world hunger, or curing diseases, praying does not seem like the best way to change someone’s convictions.
Billy then shows his lack of understanding of atheism. Most atheists have been believers who lost their faith. Religion cannot answer the profound questions of existence such as why is there so much pain and suffering in a world created by a God who is supposed to love us? Atheists consider that question, and others, rationally. Billy says that even if the Christian answered every one of the atheist’s arguments, the atheist would probably still cling to his unbelief.
Clinging to your beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is the action of a believer, a person who believes in something without proof. Most atheists are rational and thoughtful. The questions they raise are not really arguments but observed flaws in the belief system of the theists. If all the questions could be answered, rationally and logically, most atheists would change their minds. Billy most likely recognizes that Christianity and other religions do not have the answers that satisfy a thoughtful mind; the answers given are weak and fall back on unquestioning faith.
Billy then says that God can change the mind of the atheist. If we start with the assumption that God exists and is all-powerful, it has to be true that God could change the mind of anyone. However, God has not done this. Faced with torture and death at the hands of the inquisition, thousands of Muslims, Jews, and non-Catholics did not change their minds. Given the above assumption, God could have changed their minds and saved them from the pain, but He didn’t. Why should God change the mind of our atheist friend, based on a few prayers from our Christian friend?
The only action that Billy talks about that is active is when Billy tells the Christian to be an example for your atheist friend. Billy says, “Even the strongest argument can’t stand up to the reality of a changed life.” What does that mean?
I have known many Christians who witnessed to the world. Their ‘changed life’ was generally being ‘holier than thou’. They prayed before meals in public places, judged the clothing, speech and life styles of co-workers, and, in general, acted like their do-do had no odor. There was nothing in their way of living that led me to question my choices. I did not want to be like them.
Witnessing is a way of evangelizing, but it tends to make the witness suspect. I wonder, “Why are you behaving that way and what do you want from me?”
If you have an atheist friend, the first thing to do is respect his or her choices. If you don’t have answers to the questions raised by an atheist, just say, “I know what I believe but I don’t have any proof or evidence.” If you think you have answers to the questions raised by an atheist, state them logically. Don’t try to feed us the BS about ‘God’s mysterious ways’ or ‘opening your heart to Jesus’.
Billy sums up by saying that he thinks the atheist friend may argue because he is unsure of himself. Another possibility is that the atheist reached his conclusions by logic and wants to continue to use that logic on the deep questions of life. Most of these questions do not have good answers and rational people seek more information by asking questions.
Billy’s final remark is dead wrong. Billy says, “Some of God’s greatest servants over the centuries were once atheists.” The reason Billy is wrong is that every servant, great and small, was born an atheist. They became religious because their parents and family were religious; they were raised in a culture that was strongly religious. Moreover, to advance in those societies, one needed to at least appear to be religious, as those same societies severely penalized non-believers.
Many great minds were superficially religious in times where unbelievers were shunned, exiled, imprisoned or killed. Many of these great minds did not see any alternative to bending their knees and bowing their heads. They did what they did to survive.
One has to wonder how many acted as Galileo did. He wrote that the ideas of Copernicus could be correct; that the Earth might rotate on its axis and might revolve around the sun. When told to recant his ideas and faced with the prospect of torture or death, he bent his knee, expressed belief in a stationary Earth and asked for forgiveness. It is rumored that, as he left the chambers of the inquisition, Galileo said, under his breath, “And yet it moves.”
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