Evangelistic Atheism: Leading Believers Astray by Dan Barker (January 2003)

Evangelistic Atheism:
Leading Believers Astray
By Dan Barker

This originally appeared in the January/February 1993 issue of Freethought Today, published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Freethought is worth sharing with the world. If the conditions are right, it is possible for a freethinker to successfully evangelize a believer.

“Evangelism” is a perfectly good word. The Greek word “angel” means “messenger.” Evangelism is simply “good news.”

“Atheism” is positive. Although it is constructed with the privative prefix (negative in the sense of “without,” not “against”), it should be viewed as a double negative. By comparison, “non-violence” is considered to be a positive word. Since “theism” is unreasonable and even dangerous, the message that we can be free of it is good news. Atheism is like having a large debt cancelled.

I am not suggesting that every atheist should be an evangelist. Some are better off temporarily keeping their views to themselves for job security or family harmony. Some freethinkers wisely wait until they retire, when they have little to lose, before they become vocal. In certain communities, open unbelief can be costly.

Nor am I suggesting that every evangelistic atheist will always be successful. I learned in the ministry that evangelism is like sales. You can’t sell everyone. But you can’t sell anyone if you don’t first convince them that they have a need or desire for what you are selling.

In one sense, the believers have already been “led astray.” They have been led astray from reason, where religion is concerned. Many fundamentalists have also gone astray from compassion, peace, or tolerance.

But since they view themselves as sheep in a flock of followers, they do need to be led astray from the mentality of submission to the shepherd, slaves to a dictator. It would be better for them, and for the world, if there were more independent thinkers.

When I was in Columbus, Georgia last fall, my gracious and hard-working host, Sanjay Lal, took me to a television station where he had arranged for me to be a guest on the “Rise and Shine” talkshow. After the show, one of the producers asked Sanjay, “Are you one of Dan’s followers?” Sanjay and I both laughed at the incongruity. “I’m a friend of Dan’s,” Sanjay responded.

What Is Your Purpose?

If you decide to be evangelistic, then ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. Are you trying to win an argument? To simply end an argument? To demolish the enemy? To chase bigoted theocrats from your door? If so, a combative approach might work. Ridicule might be an effective way to shut someone up, or to show them how strongly you feel.

However, ridicule is rarely effective in changing someone’s mind. No one likes to be laughed at. No one wants to be told they are a loser. How do you respond to ridicule? Combativeness creates enemies. The purpose of an evangelistic atheist should be to make a friend. To win them over to the reasonableness of freethought. You can’t browbeat a person into friendship. “Onward, Atheist Soldiers” is the opposite of freethought.

Friendship is only attained by attraction. The only way to attract someone is by being attractive. If you want to win someone to your side, then treat them like a friend. Respect who they are and where they are at this stage of their life. Show them that freethinkers are courteous and tolerant. You may not become bosom buddies, but you can look into the future and envision a respectful, freethinking friendship. Isn’t that what we ultimately want?

Imagine that you are talking to the Dan Barker of 12 years ago. See yourself as planting a seed in a curious mind–a seed that needs time to take root and grow. If you were raised with religion, then imagine you are talking to the person you were years ago.

If any of your religious friends or relatives eventually becomes a freethinker, it won’t be because they were humiliated. It won’t be because you are angry, concerned, or knowledgeable. It will be because they are thinking for themselves.

We want to enhance self image, not squash it. You can’t yank someone out of the fold. If your objective is to end up with a friend, then woo them, don’t boo them. You may not respect their current views, but you can respect their potential to learn.

Even if this positive, friendly approach ends up not working, you have at least given it a fair chance by not slamming the door shut at the outset.

How Realistic Are Your Chances?

You may have a reasonable expectation of success if you are dealing with a relative in a close family, with a peer in your field of employment or expertise, or with any other relationship that is appreciative. If there already exists a horizontal respect, then it is more likely that your views will be listened to fairly. The chances are especially good, I think, if the person approaches you first with what appear to be honest questions.

Many attempts at evangelistic atheism are a waste of time. We all have better things to do than argue with a die-hard proselytizer. Ask yourself if you really care about this person. I think some atheists get into extended arguments with believers more out of philosophical pride than human concern.

If you feel that the Christian is proselytizing you, then be respectful, give them some information, point them to the library, and then drop it. Tell them you are interested in a continuing dialogue only if it is a two-way street.

If you don’t sense an egalitarian openness, then stay away from a prolonged debate. There are many believers who seek out unbelievers as a “mission field.” They enjoy having someone to kick around, some opportunity to flex their righteous muscles. Don’t encourage this. It only makes them stronger. They can go back to their church and announce, “I did battle with the Devil today!”

Some preachers use debates to raise money, proving to their supporters how brave they are. Even though you have a reasonable argument, compassionate motive, and tons of relevant facts, they might backfire if the believer is just playing games. Often the best strategy is to use no tactics at all.

However, sometimes it is worthwhile to engage in a hopeless argument, for other reasons. Some freethinkers spar with willing Christians in order to sharpen their debating skills. Radio and television debates have the advantage of reaching a larger audience of potential freethinkers. I enjoy public, formal debates because it promotes freethought, and publicizes the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I entertain little hope of changing my opponent’s mind; but there are many in the audience who are ready to be swayed toward freethought, especially at a university.

Even if your chances are not great, if you have the time and energy, there might be little to lose by making the effort. Freethinkers can at least show the world that we are here. Who knows? Maybe the hard-core, bible-thumping image is just a mask. Maybe some of them “protest too much.” With patience, you might learn that there are plenty of potential freethinkers out there.

What Kind Of Believer Are You Dealing With?

Learning that I used to be a minister, freethinkers often ask me, “What was the one thing that caused you to change your mind?” There was no “one thing.” Even if there were, it wouldn’t help much. There is no “magic bullet” that works with all Christians.

If you are lucky, your religious background will match with theirs and you can simply ask, “What caused me to become a freethinker?” Some formerly religious freethinkers make the mistake of assuming that their thinking should impress all other Christians.

If your backgrounds are not similar, then you have to do some homework. In extreme cases, you might have to learn a new language, philosophically speaking. You might have a conversation with a believer, thinking that you have an understanding when, in fact, your words have flown right past each other. The same words can often mean totally different things.

One day during college, my girlfriend (who was from Korea) was helping me wash my car. When we finished, she said, “Dan, you are a man.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You are a real man.”

I should have left it at that, but I went ahead and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Because you did a bad job of cleaning those headlights, and look at the streak you left on the fender.”

During a debate at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, my opponent responded to one of my statements with, “That sounds like a very humanistic thing to say!”

“Yes,” I responded, “it is humanistic.” I took the intended pejorative as a compliment. The same thing can happen with other words, such as “liberal.” (“Liberal” is in the bible. “Conservative” is not. See Isaiah 32:7,8 in the KJV, for example.)

Although you might have different backgrounds, you still might identify productive themes of discourse. If you don’t, you might waste time arguing about a point that makes no difference. For example, you might go to extreme lengths to prove that the bible is contradictory only to discover that your opponent is a liberal Christian who agrees with you!

There are thousands of flavors of Christians, but generally they fall into three broad groups: fundamentalists, moderates, and liberals. The kinds of arguments that impress fundamentalists deal with the reliability of the bible, answers to prayer, faith healing, prophecy, miracles, changed lives, and the question of absolute moral standards. Moderates are impressed with some of the above, and with arguments dealing with the character of the biblical god, with the fact that unbelievers are good people, and with some social issues. Liberal Christians are impressed with refutations of apologetic arguments, with discussions of the meaning of religious language, pagan parallels to Christianity, the connection of faith to good deeds, and social issues. These are broad groupings, and in real life there is much overlap, variety, and disagreement.

Fundamentalists defend the bible at all costs, even when it produces absurdity or barbarism. Liberals tend to be embarrassed at the bible. Fundamentalists generally do not care about social injustice. Few of them are bothered by discrimination of homosexuals, women, or unbelievers. Some of them desire the intolerance. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be sensitive to unfairness. (That’s why they’re liberals.) They are likely ashamed of the history of their own religion.

There are dozens of additional areas of productive dialogue, of course. The trick is to aim at the right target. It’s like the old saying: some people make it to the top of the ladder, only to learn that it is leaning against the wrong wall.

Be Willing To Jump In With Both Feet

If the dialogue is truly full duplex, then you should be willing to read their literature. You should be at least minimally conversant with their particular theology. After all, wouldn’t we love it if they read some of our recommended books?

During a Phoenix radio debate, a local minister asked me, “Have you ever read The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer?”

“Yes, I have,” I responded, “and here is what is wrong with that book.” As I critiqued some of Schaeffer’s arguments (racking my brain to recall them on the spot), I could sense that the preacher was taken aback. He was not accustomed to informed criticism. It can be very effective when you say that you have already read one of their pet authors.

In my dealings with fundamentalists, here are some of the more common authors that have come up:

C. S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity.
Josh McDowell, especially Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter. (McDowell has a ton of books pretending to answer the skeptics’ arguments.)
Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and many others.
The list also includes Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Ellen G. White (Seventh Day Adventism), The Book of Mormon, and the bible, of course.
Liberal Christians have their own lists of books, but they tend not to push them like fundamentalists.
[NOTE: This was my 1992 list. Today (2005 and later) I would add many more religious books to this list.]

How Do You Approach A Fundamentalist?

Let me tell you what would have impressed me, 12 years ago. This will apply to most fundamentalists, but not to all Christians. First, informed bible criticism. If you would have opened my bible and pointed to relevant verses, I may not have instantly converted to atheism, but I would have been impressed with your grasp of what I considered important. It would have hit the nail right on the head. Although they praise the bible as the greatest book ever written, few fundamentalists know much about it. I recently did a Nashville radio show with a leading Reconstructionist theologian. He wants to return America to Old Testament laws, including stoning blasphemers and homosexuals to death. (No kidding.) When I listed examples of the inferior morality of Jesus, he interrupted with, “Where does Jesus say that slaves should be beaten?”

“You don’t know your own bible?” I responded, looking up the verse.

“It’s in Luke 12:47. Why don’t you read it yourself, John, over the air?”

He was quiet for a few seconds, then he mumbled something about “out of context.” After a few more seconds he said he wouldn’t read it over the air!

“You’re afraid!” I said. The host of the show managed to get him to read the verse. It was obviously disconcerting for this bible-thumper to be dealing with someone who actually knew something about the bible. Most fundamentalists think that if we atheists would only read their book, we would convert on the spot.

Do yourself a favor and memorize a few short bible verses. Whenever they quote Psalm 14:1 (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God”), respond with Matthew 5:22: “Whoever saith, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” [Jesus speaking].

Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones,” showing biblical cruelty to children.

Isaiah 45:7: “I make peace and create evil” [God speaking]. This verse solves the “problem of evil” that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. God created it.

The bible is their weapon; you are not supposed to be quoting it back at them.

Be ready with a rebuttal when they recite a common verse. The favorite fundagelical* verse is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In other words, the only way God could restrain himself from torturing us was to vent his anger by killing his natural son, and whosoever accepts that perverse notion of justice gets to move in with the guy, forever.

With all their talk about the need for absolute moral standards, few Christians can quote all Ten Commandments. Memorize them, and then see if the believer can recite them: 1) no other gods, 2) graven images, 3) Lord’s name in vain, 4) Sabbath, 5) honor parents, 6) killing, 7) adultery, 8) stealing, 9) false witness, 10) coveting.

Learn a few bible contradictions. The contradictory genealogies of Jesus (Matthew vs. Luke) are a glaring example. There are thousands of biblical discrepancies. My book, Losing Faith In Faith, details more than 50 non-trivial examples.

Second, I would have been impressed with the fact that unbelievers can be moral, happy, productive people. If you are active in charity, social causes, or volunteer work, then let them know this–not to boast, but to counter the “good Christian” fable. Technically, ad hominem arguments are not appropriate in a rational debate, but since fundamentalists claim that their faith makes a difference in character, the topic is not out of bounds.

Third, be positive. Counter the stereotype that atheists are merely destroying things. Emphasize that we all want the same things: truth, values, honesty, beauty, meaning. “We both want what is good,” you can say.

Agree with them as much as possible. For example, when they bring up inner religious experience, tell them that you know those feelings are very strong. It happens in all religions. Gently suggest that psychological phenomena (like dreams or hallucinations), as real as they are, do not necessarily point to anything outside the mind. You can use this tactic with many arguments: faith healing, the need for absolutes, etc. Rather than pooh-poohing what they think is important, take their lead. Agree that such-and-such is a pervasive human desire or a common human interpretation, and then carefully work the idea through to a naturalistic explanation.

Obviously, freethought often involves direct and strong criticism of religion, and many believers will take it personally, accusing us of being abusive or hateful. Remind the person that you are not attacking them. Tell them that you think most Christians today are good people in spite of the bible. They are smarter than Jesus. They are nicer than God. Many of them have risen above the brutalities of Christianity to become good, caring people because they (like you) possess a respect for human values.

Offer Them The Bait

What do we have to offer that can possibly take the place of religion? If you are going to entice someone out of the corral of sheep, what is your carrot? Why should they give up comfortable traditions, hope of eternal life, and the security of absolute truth? The only possible bait we have is the freedom of thinking for yourself.

If this idea is not attractive to the person, then you do not have a potential freethinker on the line. All of us formerly religious freethinkers agree that “free thinking” is what drew us out of the fold. Thinking for yourself can be an immensely appealing seduction, comparable to the pull felt by teenagers who are ready to move away from home, to live independently, to be adult and free. Don’t use knowledge as a weapon. Use it as a lure.

If you don’t express excitement about learning, then how do you expect them to join you? The lust for learning can be infectious. Don’t make them mad–make them envious!

My journey out of religion started with a tiny taste of the forbidden fruit. Gradually I got hooked. The sheer joy of learning something new kept me coming back for more. Eventually, my heart could not embrace what my mind rejected.

Knowledge brings a power that is stronger than loyalty. Knowledge is stronger than faith. It is more powerful than emotion, tradition, or love. Yes, it is stronger than love: you can’t love what you don’t know.

Do I have proof that evangelistic atheism can work? A few years after my announcement of deconversion, both of my fundamentalist parents became outspoken freethinkers. Although they deserve the credit for their own thinking, my defection was a catalyst, prompting their own reevaluation. We are a close family, and we kept the doors of dialogue open.

Annie Laurie and I have a daughter, Sabrina, who is three and a half [in 1993]. We are noticing that we appear to be raising a little independent thinker [** see note below]. (How could that have happened?) We think it is wonderful to observe how, if kept from the pressures of indoctrination, children in the natural state of unbelief feel confident in their thinking abilities, eager to learn, happy to challenge authority, willing and able to accept rational explanations, and capable of grasping right and wrong.

The fact that indoctrination can be eliminated … The fact that there is no universal dictator, no sin, no cosmic guilt, and no hell … The fact that human beings possess the potential for good … The fact that love can be truly shared between self-respecting peers with both feet on the ground … The fact that human reason is capable … The fact that intellectual integrity brings the only honest peace of mind … The fact that there is no God … All of this is truly Good News.

Dan Barker is a former fundamentalist minister, now a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation . This article is based on his speech at the 15th annual Foundation Convention, December 5, 1992 in San Antonio, Texas.

Dan is the author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist, and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book For Children, published by the Foundation.

*NOTE: “Fundagelical” was coined by Foundation member Delos McKown, Ph.D., author and head of the Philosophy Department at Auburn University, Alabama.

**NOTE: In June, 1995, I asked 5-year-old Sabrina how to tell if something is real or pretend. She answered: “Things that are pretend can do things that you can’t do.” (That was her way of saying “things that can’t be done.”) The little rationalist knows already! The impossible is impossible.

Freedom From Religion Foundation