Advice for Christians who discuss their faith with atheists… from an atheist

I spotted this post by Jeffery Jay Lowder on The Secular Outpost, and I think it’s good advice.

There are times where two people speak the same language, use the same words, and mean very different things by the same words. In conversations between Christians and atheists, “faith” is one such word. For many atheists, the word “faith” means, by default, belief without evidence or even belief against the evidence. In contrast, I doubt many Christians would accept that definition. For example, according to the NIV translation, Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Victor Reppert, at Dangerous Idea, writes this about the word “faith.”

Every time you use the word “faith” in a discussion with an atheist, they are going to declare victory. They will presume that you are believing for no reason, and that you are are admitting that the evidence is against you.

I think he is probably right. If Christians want to dialogue with atheists, I think Christians would be well served to speak the ‘language’ of atheists. The word “faith” simply has too much baggage associated with it; inserting that word into the conversation is likely to become a distraction from whatever point the Christian was probably trying to make. So if you’re a Christian talking with atheists, my advice is to temporarily delete the word “faith” from your vocabulary. Find some other way to make your point.

A better word to use is “trust”, and here’s Christian apologist Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason to make the same point:

Christian apologist Jonathan Morrow had a similar post on Think Christianly. (Mark well the part he put in bold)

Excerpt:

In today’s post I want to share a conversation I had with some of the sharp young men during lunch. It had to do with how we talk about Christianity with our friends, family, and coworkers. Most of the time, well meaning Christians talk about Christianity in the context of religion…not reality. Is that a problem? Yes, and here’s why. Religion is understood as a personal and private feeling that is not accessible by everyone else. You can’t question, challenge, or investigate it; you must simply be tolerant of it (and by tolerant, I am using the modern misunderstanding of tolerance which believes that all religious views are equally valid simply because a person sincerely believes them). That’s why having a conversation about Christianity as a religion is a dead end. It’s a non-starter.

That’s why I encouraged these students to talk about Christianity in the context of reality where terms like truth, knowledge, reason, and evidence apply. Any claim about reality is either true or false (it can’t be both). If Christianity is not the kind of thing that can be true or false…the battle has already been lost and the Gospel cannot be seriously considered. We need to talk about Christianity in the same way we talk about having a prescription filled at the pharmacy or receiving instruction from a Doctor.

In today’s society, religion is a fuzzy (i.e., socially constructed or psychologically projected) category that makes little difference in everyday life. But if Christianity is true, then it speaks to ALL of life. It makes a comprehensive claim on reality. Jesus didn’t intend to merely address two hours of our week. As Christians we need to have more conversations about reality and less about religion.

I’ve even written a post about the concept of faith that is presented in the Bible and the word faith has nothing to do with blind belief in the Bible – it’s always based on evidence, so that people can know for certain what the truth is. I highly recommend it for anyone who disagrees with Jeffery,Greg or Jonathan. When you’re talking about Christianity, you’re talking about what you know. You’re talking about the way the world is, for everyone. When you talk about your belief in God, you should say “trust”. You should not say “faith”.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

10 thoughts on “Advice for Christians who discuss their faith with atheists… from an atheist”

  1. The best analogy that I ever heard was this one:

    You need a major life-threatening surgery. You research all of the surgeon specialists around the country and finally narrow it down to 3. You interview all 3 and select the one that you believe is the best, based on the evidence provided – number of similar surgeries performed, objective outcome metrics, short and long term, etc. You schedule the surgery with your chosen doctor.

    On the morning of the surgery, you sign the papers authorizing the surgery. It is at that point that you have placed your trust (faith) in the surgeon. You didn’t just show up at the hospital without an appointment and have them pick a random surgeon for you – any discipline will do – that is blind faith, more or less. You put the hard work into examining the evidence and then finally making yourself vulnerable to the Surgeon (by signing those documents). In Christianity, the Surgeon is Jesus.

    It might not be a perfect Molinist fit, but I’m sure it could be improved on. It’s not a good Calvinist fit, probably, because under that view, you might not even know you need the Surgeon, and because you have chosen the Surgeon and not the other way around.

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      1. Thanks! It needs more refinement to make sure it fits into the Molinist framework, but I think it can be done. Someone smarter than me can do it though.

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  2. Lowder is, without a question, one of the best atheist/agnostic bloggers out there (I don’t exactly know which one he is). And he’s right. Unfortunately, faith is incorrectly thought to be “belief without evidence.” Of course, that doesn’t represent anything close to what most Christians would define as faith. I think the critique of “belief without evidence” is best directed at the preachers who use charisma and feelings. Rather than saying “Jesus is risen for these reasons,” they often say “Jesus is risen because I know it in my heart.”

    I’m on a bit of a tangent here (apologies, WK). Back to faith to close out. I was not raised a Christian. I was raised in a very secular, nominally Jewish household. My father is a deist, and my mother is indifferent at best. I’m a historian by training. I found the evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be compelling. That’s why I became a Christian. Not because of “feelings” or anything like that. As an aside, this is why I dislike WLC’s position about the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Overall, though, I think it’s very telling that atheists have to define faith as “belief without evidence.” That definition of faith, better known as fideism, is actually condemned by my Christian denomination (Roman Catholicism).

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    1. I am right with you on WLC’s view of faith. I cringe when he talks about it. I want him to stop talking about religious experience in debates, in fact. I don’t know if he understands how this is perceived by people on the other side, or how much hay they make of it. I’m sure what he is saying makes sense philosophically, but I just would prefer he not bring it up in debates or even in his apologetics books. The man obviously is a billion times smarter than I am, I am just giving my response at an emotional level to when he does that.

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      1. I’m not even sure that the religious experience argument makes sense philosophically. To be honest, I’m convinced that some religious experience is delusory. Obviously, there are cases in which I’m convinced something actually happened. I’m actually considering a PhD in New Testament, and as you well know, it’s pretty unanimously believed that the apostles had experiences of the risen Jesus. Of course, that raises some really awkward questions. I’m not an expert on the passion narratives, but what Ehrman, Crossan, and a few others have done is claim that Jesus was never buried in the tomb. Of course, that doesn’t really fit in with the early evidence we have (1 Corinthians 15), but it’s really the best way to avoid the implications of an empty tomb and resurrection appearances.

        Anyway, I believe you have Moreland’s Debating Christian Theism. I think Kai Nielson’s argument for the Holy Spirit not being a reliable source of information is a fairly good one. I think WLC’s argument from religious experience comes painfully close to the “religion is based on feelings, not on evidence” canard that so many atheists like to throw out. The Kalam I don’t like, but it’s evidential, at least. Same is true with the teleological argument; it’s a better argument than the Kalam, in my opinion. The moral argument is good, though I’d probably phrase it a little differently (it seems presuppositionalist to me, and WLC doesn’t always do the best job defending it).

        I really would love to see a debate between WLC and another Christian on religious experience or the witness of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I’m a biased Catholic, but I think WLC would have a tough time with a guy like Peter Kreeft.

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      2. I don’t believe that WLC is using it as a stand-alone, but as one piece of a rather large pie. He is saying that he has all of this objective secular data that points to his Deity AND he also has the subjective internal witness of the Holy Spirit – an evidential witness that validates the external secular data. He is NOT saying “well, there is a ton of science and philosophy and logic out there, but the Holy Spirit tells me it is all wrong and I am going with Him.” I find it quite reasonable, and the fact that many religions have some aspect of this is not warrant for its falsehood in the case of Christianity. But, of course, it should never be used as a stand-alone, as Mormons do with the Book of Mormon.

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  3. I take a different approach and contrast what the Bible defines as faith: Hebrews 11:1

    11 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    against man’s definition of faith: Merriam Webster

    See 2B: b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

    which is what Atheists, I presume, are referring to.

    As you can read, two different definitions.

    I do agree with “There are times where two people speak the same language, use the same words, and mean very different things by the same words. “, as it’s always helpful to identify definitions.

    However I wouldn’t abandon the Bible to defend the Bible, that is bad advice.

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  4. What I find interesting is that the writer of Hebrews, when describing the “faith” uses a word in Greek that mean “that which can be confirmed”. Further, the verse presents a contrast between everything that has been fulfilled in Christ, namely through his death, burial, and resurrection, which was immediately accessible to them, and what had been promised.

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    1. Sometimes, people try to insert a lazy, self-serving interpretation into one verse while neglecting all the other verses that clarify that verse, as well as the example of Jesus doing miracles and the resurrection in order for skeptics to believe him. And I mean lazy people in the church who don’t want to make their defense for the trust they have in Christ.

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