How do atheists experience Christians?

In her fascinating new book, Atheists Finding God, Dr. Jana Harmon writes:

The former atheists in this study reported seeking answers from religious people or authorities for their doubts and uncertainties (50%) or unanswered questions (52%). In their view, religious discussions with Christians seemed to foster movement towards disbelief than belief. Although exposure to informed, articulate Christians prompted reconsideration for some, the overall quality of many Christian interactions left a perception of ineptness. Jacob said: “When I would ask hard questions, no one seemed to have an answer. At the same time, if I had cogent answers for things and no one had a response to them, then I would just assume that I was right.”

Only one-fourth (24%) found Christians to be ‘informed regarding the content of Christian beliefs and worldview’ and a small minority (14%) saw Christians as ‘able to substantively respond’ to their questions. More than half (56%) felt these discussions were met with an impression of the Christian’s inability to adequately respond. Overall, there was a perception of general ignorance of Christians regarding what they believed or why they believed it. Half of them thought Christians lacked knowledge and understanding of scientific evidence (52%) or were uninformed regarding content of Christian beliefs and worldview (40%). James stated, “I was amazed to find them to be quite pleasant people albeit very ignorant of facts.” Justin stated, “I didn’t know any real Christian and those who still professed Christ didn’t seem to be very confident, and I didn’t press them because embarrassing them wouldn’t have brought about much of value.”

In addition to content, Christians were also perceived to be conversationally defensive or inept when it came to discussing important questions and issues. Regarding personal interaction, Amanda stated, “Most evangelical Christians I have known in the past seemed to lack significant knowledge of science and tended to be defensive when questioned.” One-fourth of respondents negatively characterized Christians as ‘closed to and/or avoiding interactive dialogue’ (28%), ‘defensive’ (26%), ‘more prone to talk than listen’ (26%), or were unable or unaware of the need to ask good questions (48%). Some also perceived Christians as socially ‘odd’ or ‘weird.’ Dennis commented, “I did not formulate a significant view of Christians. I was uninterested in them and did not have any positive or negative views about them other than I thought they were a bit socially odd.

As I reflect on Dr. Harmon’s research, it mirrors my personal experience with Christians. Perhaps 25% of Christians take the time to be well-informed about what Christianity teaches, and even fewer, perhaps 14%, study apologetics in any sustained manner? Without wanting to be too negative about it, those numbers might even be a bit high.

It breaks my heart that so many atheists found conversations with Christians to push them more towards disbelief than belief. As much as some loud voices blame atheists, I wonder if perhaps it would be far more effective to seriously train ourselves as disciples of Jesus, and invite others to do the same? Unless we are eager to take our own faith seriously enough to know what the Bible teaches, and why it is true, and live it out ourselves, why should we expect anyone else would want to do this?

I want to ask: is your experience similar or dissimilar to what Dr. Harmon found in her research?

And what do you see as the solution?

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It’s sad but I’m not really surprised by any of this. Until a few years ago, I’d have justified my faith to others through experiential claims and the fact that the Holy Spirit convicted me of the Bible’s truth. I can think of a few conversations I’ve had in the past where I think the way I engaged was a poor reflection on the truth of Christianity. However, I’d never encountered apologetics, or seen it demonstrated or taught on in the charismatic churches I’ve attended. This, I think, is the underlying problem for Christianity (or at least charismatic Christianity) at large. I really had no basis on which to defend my faith intellectually. I hoped that when sharing my faith, the listener would be impacted by my testimony of God’s supernatural power which is often a focus of charismatic theology (again, within my experience). I really offered no intellectual substance for atheists to consider. In fact, I don’t remember having any deep conversations regarding the truth of Christianity, as I’d have been wholly unequipped for it.

Looking back, I’m so grateful to God that I have been able to explore the rationality behind Christianity. I now feel happy and ready to engage in apologetics conversations and it’s my deep desire to raise my children with that ability. I’m intentionally seeking out apologetics resources or creating my own to use at home. I think the answer is that we all need to be much more intentional about bringing these resources to our local churches and families.

Another problem that I witnessed in my role at a Christian school is that many parents are unwilling for their children to learn about other beliefs. Many don’t want their children being ‘taught deception’. Sadly, the kids leave school unready to face the challenges and contradictions out there. Again, I’m trying to be intentional in exposing my kids to other beliefs and worldviews, looking at what is good in them but continually holding them up to objective and biblical truth. My kids regularly watch me conversing with people of other beliefs. Recently, I was chatting with one person in a cult who was trying to explain their beliefs to me. My 10 year old came to me after pointing out the logical flaw in this person’s argument against the divinity of Christ. This can only have happened because my kids are being raised to look at scripture and how it can be twisted when taken out of context.

I said above that previously I never really had deep intellectual conversations about Christianity until I discovered apologetics. Interestingly, now I have them quite often. I think that having grown to rationally understand our faith, I’m seeking out opportunities to parse these concepts with people and I don’t feel scared that I’ll represent our viewpoint badly. I know that if I can’t answer something, that’s ok, but I’ve given it my best shot with what I do understand.

So in summary, I think the solution to the problem you’ve highlighted is:

  • to have apologetics taught in our churches
  • to teach it to families and young people and not be afraid of exposing our kids to other ideas
  • to teach scripture well to children so that they recognise when it’s being misused
  • to increase in confidence so that we seek out these conversations instead of shying away from them.
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No need to wonder, it is definitely true. The reason many of us do not train ourselves is because it is not considered a priority - at least, in my situation. Training need not necessarily be formal; it could also be an intentional and disciplined effort to train ourselves, which includes personal devotions also. Formal training is helpful in maintaining the discipline needed. Either way, I agree with you that we need more intentional study.

I also find that atheism and agnosticism is more common among those who are educated, especially in the so-called western kind of education (which includes myself). Such individuals look for intellectual answers and their objections are mostly in that sphere. This is also more common in the west, in my observation. In India, where I live, intellectual questions do not matter so much as existential and moral questions. When I was a medical student, a popular apologist took a seminar and answered questions from the audience. At the end of the seminar, most of my friends were quite unimpressed, not because the answers were inadequate but because they felt they were irrelevant. However that situation is changing even here and now intellectual questions and attacks are becoming more common - which means Christians need to be trained in tackling these.