“Wait, you’re a Christian? Uh … nevermind.”
Sound familiar? I regularly hear from Christians that one of the biggest barriers they encounter in trying to reach out to non-Christians is that they’re frequently written off. As a result, many Christians — particularly those who identify as evangelical — have a difficult time accessing people beyond the walls of their own community, and our communities remain insular and segregated.
I can sympathize. As an atheist and an interfaith activist, I encounter my share of stereotypes — that atheists are immoral, angry and unwilling to listen — and know how it feels to be dismissed not only because of my atheism, but also because of my sexual orientation, and even my tattoos and piercings. (That’s right: a queer, tattooed atheist gets written off by some people. I’ll give you a moment to recover from your shock.) But more directly, as a former evangelical Christian, I recall feeling misunderstood by society at the time.
Surveying the United States today, it’s clear Christianity is at a crossroads: Christian communities are undergoing some radical shifts, and the number of nonreligious people is growing rapidly as Millennials leave organized religion en masse. (Nearly one-in-three people under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated today, and the majority of them say they’re not looking for a church or religious community.) Simultaneously, conversations about social issues like gay marriage and abortion are advancing in new ways.
As someone who lives in the tension of my evangelical past and atheist present, and as someone who maintains abiding and mutually inspiring relationships with Christians, I understand that many of my Christian friends are trying to discern how to navigate these swiftly changing times. And I definitely empathize with their frustrations over the less productive exchanges that often occur between Christians and non-Christians.
I’d like to humbly suggest six ways Christians might have more constructive conversations with non-Christians. Of course, not all of these suggestions will apply to every Christian, and many of them could apply to any group of people (including atheists — something I regularly acknowledge and confront in my own community, and discuss at length in my recent book “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious“). But perhaps some of this will resonate with you.
Since I am no longer a Christian, I offer these ideas with several grains of salt. I acknowledge their shortcomings as generalizations, their incomprehensiveness and my status as an outside observer of Christianity. There are as many expressions of Christianity as there are Christians, and this is a short and simple list. A great many Christian friends enrich my life, and I hope none of them — and none of you — will be offended by anything I suggest below. Instead, I hope for, and welcome, a discussion about them.
1. Drop the stereotypes.
If you want people to see you as more than just your label, you’re going to have to do the same for them. Not just when it’s easy — when people seem to be similar to you — but in every case. Just as there are Christians who promote hateful ideas, there are atheists who treat religious believers with closed-minded prejudice, hate and who make dialogue difficult. But many atheists also view religion with more nuance, and have a deep moral commitment to pluralism and equality. You probably know some personally, whether you realize it or not.
In each religious or nonreligious category, many different kinds of people exist. But because we live in a society that associates religious differences with conflict — very often mean-spirited or violent conflict, at that — it’s important to be patient and compassionate whenever possible, and to allow people to speak for and define themselves. This is perhaps especially true when trying to navigate seemingly irreconcilable differences. After I became an atheist, I struggled to talk with Christians in a constructive manner. But once I was able to drop some of my assumptions and stereotypes, I found these discussions got easier.
2. Don’t try to “win” the argument.
This is a tough one for those of us who love a spirited argument. (I grew up with three siblings close in age, so I was trained to treat it as a sport.) But a little intellectual humility can go a long way — particularly when trying to discuss difficult issues. Debates often descend into shouting matches where neither side is listening or trying to understand, but is instead attempting to defend a position. Whenever possible, try to see things from the other person’s point of view and empathize with their perspective, even if you don’t think it’s legitimate. Ground discussions in the interpersonal instead of merely in the theoretical. Share personal stories that relate to your beliefs, and communicate in a way that shows you’re not trying to compete, but to relate and learn. Make space in the conversation for two distinct people with two distinct points of view. Show up not to lecture and argue, but to learn and actually listen to and respond to what the other side has to say.
In “Faitheist” I tell a story about the time my friend Amber, who is a born-again Christian, first expressed her desire to see me come back to the church. I know her faith is an important part of her life, and she knows I derive a sense of meaning from being an atheist. Because we have a trusting, close relationship, we are able to discuss these differences honestly, openly and without getting defensive.
3. Speak for yourself.
One of the pervasive stereotypes about Christians, and evangelicals in particular, is that they’re insincere. This may seem to contradict the idea that many people see Christians as generous and charitable. That may be true, but many people also see Christians as having — at least on occasion — a hidden agenda.
In some cases, this is conversion (see #6). But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes, Christians are seen as more interested in being an ambassador for Christianity than simply being a person interacting with another person.
I don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t be honest about the centrality of your faith in your worldview, or that you should divorce yourself from your beliefs. Honesty and integrity are important in interfaith conversations. But a more robust conversation can unfold when you seek to find the intersections between your beliefs and experiences and another person’s, and when you speak for yourself instead of on behalf of all Christians.
4. Highlight the diversity among Christians.
Fair or not, many non-Christians’ primary exposure to Christianity comes by way of a conflict-driven media that would rather highlight the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at a military funeral than a church that operates a nightly soup kitchen. Unfortunately, the loudest voices tend to overshadow more nuanced ones. I find this in my own community with prominent atheists like PZ Myers, who said in a public discussion with me that religious people “have something profoundly wrong with their brains.” Just as PZ Myers doesn’t represent me, the hate-filled WBC doesn’t represent the Christians I know.
Because of the media’s focus on conflict, in the eyes of many — particularly among young people — Christianity is often seen as equivalent with exclusionary politics and policies. I was raised in a Democrat household, and I remember feeling like I couldn’t talk about my political leanings once I became an evangelical Christian. Creating more space for various expressions of Christianity, and demonstrating that Christian communities can be a welcoming place for people with alternate viewpoints, will go a long way toward deconstructing (the obviously unfair) conceptions of Christianity as one-note.
5. Acknowledge privilege and don’t try to force others to live by a certain moral code.
Though the number of people who do not affiliate with any religion is growing rapidly, Christianity is still the norm. Even as the United States grows more pluralistic, it remains a highly religious society, and the number of atheists among the nonreligious is still quite small. Atheists are regularly ranked among the least trusted and least liked groups in the United States. Theonormativity, or the normative assumption that people believe in the Christian God, pervades our society. Appeals to God proliferate political discourse; even our currency states “One Nation Under God.” (For a recent example of this, check out the Center for Inquiry’s new report on religious fundamentalism in the U.S. military.)
I remember, as a Christian, feeling like I was in a persecuted minority — but, in fact, Christian influence on culture is, in many parts of the United States, inescapable. Try to imagine, if you can, what it would feel like if Christianity were truly in the minority like atheism is. Imagine how you would feel if, instead of hearing President Obama make references to God and Jesus in speeches, he spoke about how what unites us as Americans is that we don’t believe in God. Christianity and belief in God are normative in the United States and in many parts of the world, and people who deviate from the norm are often marginalized or the target of explicit discrimination. In addition to recognizing the benefits you receive by being a Christian, embrace secularism, which does not mean the absence of religion from society, but that government doesn’t favor certain religious beliefs over other (religious or nonreligious) beliefs. Freedom of religion is the backbone of a civil society. You are free to disagree with others’ choices, and to say so, but all citizens should be granted equal rights.
6. Talk — and listen — to people about more than just their salvation status.
I understand this is a tricky issue, especially if evangelizing is a cornerstone of your faith. I have evangelical Christian friends engaged in interfaith dialogue, and they have told me that, to them, such work is still evangelizing: but instead of proclaiming the word and leaving it at that, they are modeling God’s love for all people.
Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?
He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith — and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.
The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. As an atheist, I’m dedicated to bridging that divide — to working with other atheists, Christians and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. I’m excited by the growth of the interfaith movement — but still, in many ways, we have our work cut out for us. My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging and loving conversations across lines of difference.
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