Loving Your Atheist Neighbor, Part 1 (Urbana preview)

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As preparation for Urbana, we’ll be sharing encouragement from speakers who are giving seminars, and possibly others involved in Urbana as well. Today Rick Mattson, InterVarsity staff and author of How Faith Is Like Skydiving: And Other Memorable Images for Dialogue with Seekers and Skeptics (InterVarsity Press, 2014), kicks off with an excellent series. Because Urbana is a place to engage with our vocations as Christians and missional academics, we’ll sometimes share these on Mondays, alternating with Scholar’s Call. Interested in doing a series on Urbana or an interview with an Urbana speaker? Email us here.


At the upcoming Urbana Mission Convention, I will be presenting a seminar called “Love Your Atheist Neighbor.”

But who is my atheist neighbor? you ask.

I have three suggestions for you. He/she is . . .

1. A Friend You Serve: Like the Good Samaritan who rescued a man in crisis, you “take in” the atheist. You bandage, cook, rake (leaves), plow (snow), read (their books and articles), attend (their lectures), taxi, pray, ask (about their family), visit (in the hospital), invite (to Happy Hour).

Why? Because you care. But if you’re very honest with yourself and actually don’t feel that kind of care in your heart, go ahead and practice caring anyway. Sometimes our hearts need time to catch up with our actions.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins2. An Author You Read: My slow, thorough read through Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion a few years ago didn’t feel much like a pleasure cruise. More like a slog through a Minnesota blizzard. We Christians are quick to protect our minds from the “untruths” of our day, with good reason. But I think we also need to be aware of what’s being written by those who oppose Christianity, so that we can respond intelligently.

God and Morality: Four ViewsScience and Religion: Are They Compatible?If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest dialogue-format books because you get both atheist and Christian perspectives. Two good ones I read recently are Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? by Plantinga and Dennett. And God and Morality: Four Views, ed. Keith Loftin.

3. An Enemy You Love. Sadly, some atheists in the academy are extremely hostile toward Christians. Often their main weapons against the faith are not thoughtful arguments you’d expect in scholarly circles, but sarcasm and ridicule. They believe Christianity is not only irrational but pernicious — harmful to society. So they come at you with guns blazing.

But your calling and mine is to respond to curses with blessings, to sarcasm with sincerity, to insults with respect. Notice I didn’t say we’re supposed to be wimpy or feeble. 

Try saying something like this to your combative atheist friend: “What you just said sounds more like a put-down or an insult than a well-reasoned argument. I’d love to hear a good argument from a quality academic such as yourself.”

Never allow yourself to be drawn into a shouting match or battle of sarcastic jabs. We’re supposed to be different than atheists. If we’re not, why should they change?

Finally, think through your circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and ask yourself: Who is my atheist neighbor?

Image courtesy of werner22brigitte at Pixabay.com

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Rick Mattson

Rick Mattson is a national evangelist and apologist for InterVarsity, speaking at over fifty campuses the past few years. He lives in St. Paul, MN with his family. As part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Rick Mattson's call is to strengthen and encourage Christian students and faculty in their faith, and invite seekers and skeptics to consider Christ for their lives. He studied at Bethel Seminary of St. Paul, MN, where he received his masters in the philosophy of religion. Rick's committed to compassion, reason, and respect in his interactions with both "friend and foe" on campus. He's also highly committed to InterVarsity's value of multiethnicity. Rick loves talking with students and faculty about the great questions of life! What could be more fun??? At home, Rick's a committed family man, serious golfer, and plays e-guitar in the band at his church. . . . And of course he spends a lot of time reading theology and philosophy :)

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3 Comments

  • jsire@prodigy.net'
    Jim Sire commented on October 5, 2015 Reply

    Good start, Rick. Good insight, good advice.–Jim Sire

  • Gerry Rau commented on October 5, 2015 Reply

    Good ideas. One I think particularly lacking is your #2 – taking the time to take their arguments seriously. I have seen far too many Christians displaying their ignorance by criticizing atheist thought without ever having read it carefully (of course, many atheists do the same with Christian writings, but that is not our problem, except in how we respond to it – your #3).

    • rickmattson100 commented on November 4, 2015 Reply

      Gerry, Yes, it’s too easy to just shoot down the other side — atheist or Christian — without really knowing what they’re saying.

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