How should Christians approach conversations about faith with atheists? At the Urbana Student Missions Conference, Rick Mattson examined common atheist arguments and argued for a holistic Christian response that includes intellect, care-giving, and friendship.
From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by May Yuan and Nina Thomas.
Rick Mattson (Twitter) is a traveling apologist and evangelist who has served InterVarsity/USA for over thirty years. He attended Southwest Minnesota State University, and has been on short-term missions to Mexico, Russia, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Mattson currently holds a M. Div. in Philosophy of Religion at Bethel Seminary. He is the author of the book, Faith is Like Skydiving, a collection of dozens of easy-to-use images to explain Christianity. In addition, he is currently an InterVarsity staff worker at Macalester College and St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and has traveled to over 50 different campuses as a speaker.
Loving Your Atheist Neighbor Requires Two Things: Truth and Love
Many years ago, Mattson befriended a man named Tom Conlin, who grew up in the church, but later had doubts about Christianity. After attending the University of Notre Dame and studying philosophy, Tom became an even stronger atheist. Tom later attended law school, where he met and married Mattson’s friend Kathy, and both of them were hired by very prestigious law firms. During this time, Mattson constantly reached out to Tom, meeting up with him to play golf and inviting him to talks in an attempt to share the gospel with him. When Tom finally set foot in the church, he was amazed by the quality of the people. He also saw a mural at the church of Jesus asking, “Who do you say I am?” and felt the conviction to answer this question himself. Tom later shared with Mattson that he began praying everyday and that he was now a believer. Mattson shares with the audience that he believes it was a combination of the mural, friendships, and logical arguments were the reason his friend accepted Christ “We are creating context in which the arguments begin to have plausibility,” he states.
Mattson explains to the audience that apologetics is not just about the arguments, or just about the love- rather, “it’s both truth and love.” Mattson’s thesis derives from a well-known passage in Scripture, Ephesians 4:15. As he says, “We need both truth and love as we extend ourselves to our atheist friends.”
Modern vs. Postmodern atheists
Mattson explains that atheism falls into two general categories: Modern and postmodern atheism. Modern atheism derives from the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, which draws from philosophers such as David Hume, Auguste Compte, and William Clifford, who emphasized reason rather than tradition. Mattson compares modern atheism to a “brick” – having strong foundations, and believing in one truth. Mattson explains that this emphasis on naturalism and science narrows the field of acceptable knowledge, because modern atheists refuse to engage with tradition, “defining it out of the equation.” He admits that the lack of flexibility of modern atheists can be hard for Christians to share the gospel with them, especially as many of them take the dismissive attitude: (e.g. “you’re not even worth engaging or talking to.”)
Postmodern atheism derives its roots from the likes of Immanuel Kant, Fredrick Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Unlike modern atheists, the “postmodern atheist” believes that truth is related to a person’s perspective as a result of their personal narrative. Postmodern atheists – according to Mattson – are more like a “pillow”: softer, more receptive, and harder to define. For them, truth is relative to “what colored glasses you have on,” or a collection of stories, none of which encompasses the ultimate reality. Postmodern atheists are more accepting of other people’s realities, and will generally listen to your story and assume your perception is valid.
Some people, says Mattson, are more like a “brick in a pillowcase” — appearing postmodern on the outside, but is actually modern on the inside.
Outreach to Modern Atheists – “Present a Cumulative Case”
Some examples of modern atheists include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitches, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennet, says Mattson. Most modern atheists believe Christianity is dangerous and that science is opposed to religion. “Two of my atheist friends who are former Christians believe the teachings of the bible are downright unethical” he continues.
Anthony Flew, a philosopher who takes the perspective of naturalism, said that atheism is always your starting point. If you want to add God, he argues, you must prove that God exists. Mattson explains, “Atheists assume God doesn’t exist until you can prove otherwise” acting under a presumption of atheism rather than a neutral starting point. Our job is to call them to see different worldviews.
Mattson argues that Christians should be advocates of faith and science, showing how these ways of seeing “are friends and they speak to one reality. Everything in science is true because he makes it true.” Many people share with Mattson that they can’t find God in science. Mattson compares this to trying to find an elephant with a mousetrap, “In the same way if science is your only tool… by itself you won’t see God directly under the microscope.”
Mattson suggests that Christians should build a cumulative case for faith, much like a lawyer would do. “For Christians making a case for God, start with creation design then historical Jesus.” As well as ethics, classic proof and personal testimony together make a convincing, case. Mattson suggests asking friends take a neutral standpoint and ask themselves which philosophy can best explain humanity, “I would say Christian theism wins hands down.” He also describes how God shares clues in very indirect ways. “Jesus is represented by the manger, the donkey and the cross,” he continues, arguing that God doesn’t use stadium lights but instead a candle.
Outreach to Postmodern Atheists – “Tell Stories”
Many postmodernists are committed to justice, and to them, “the justice card trumps everything else.” He challenges the audience to share the story of Jesus with postmodernists because he is a radical and a revolutionary. Mattson took one of his postmodern atheists friends to a museum. His friend and him looked at paintings and tried to understand what the painter wanted to express.
Mattson concludes that the work and fruit of the Holy Spirit cannot be argued against and serves as the best evidence. “Ask questions, attend their lectures/presentations, use your two ears, watch to see what God is doing…Never get into a shouting match…Never lose your cool.” He shares his book Faith is Like Skydiving, as a tool that can be used as a concrete way to begin conversations with atheists.
Q: How does the concept of faith play a role in apologetics?
A: Well faith is like skydiving. You wouldn’t do it blindly, or in an uninformed way. But eventually, you need to make the jump. Faith is also like a wedding: at some point, you just need to commit yourself, and exercise truth in the system. Faith and intellect go together.
Q: How would you engage with the secular humanist, who might have gone to church when they were younger but turned away?
A: Generally speaking they lean towards the atheists sign. Next I would see if they are modern or postmodern. I was in the track for non-Christians. He was called to go up. An hour later a man came to faith, and this was an accelerated conversion. For someone who hasn’t encountered God, give them a space to encounter God. Engage in the love of community.
Q: How do I continue to show love without being forceful?
A: Your instincts are right. Don’t be forceful – just take what the Spirit gives you. Our job is to be detectives – try to detect what He is doing in other people’s lives. Determine whether someone is willing to listen or if they are closed off. If they are not willing, move on to the next person. Listen to what God is telling us. Remember, these people are projects, because we care about these people.
Q: How do you deal with the response, “Why do you want me to change? Can’t you love me the way I am?’
A: Respond to them, saying “I do love you, but I want the best for you. If you never change I will still love you but I want to share that life changing… with you.
Q: What if you talk with someone who likes to debate?
A: I have rule about that and the rule is there is no rules. If God is leading me to have that debate, I’ll have it. Here’s what atheists do, they throw sand in the air. We need to ask them to specify rather than generalize.
May is a senior psychology major and counseling minor interested in pursuing graduate studies in clinical psychology. She has experience working in several research labs related to psychology and neuroscience, and is currently a research assistant at the RAAD Lab under Professor Jennifer Stewart, where she studies the neural and behavioral mechanisms for anxiety, addiction, and depression. Her research interests include cross-cultural psychology, Christian apologetics, mental illness, and the relationship between faith and science, and is fascinated by all aspects of the human mind and its complexity.