Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is It Real?

I've been in dialogue with an atheist this past week. He came from a Christian family and was a Christian himself until about ten years ago. He is very polite and honest but militantly against Christianity. He believes that no deity could possibly be more tyrannical than the biblical God, and he's convinced that all religion is brainwashing. Furthermore, Christians are guilty of cognitive dissonance.

During the course of the conversation, he told me that nobody in his family has seemed very concerned about his soul in the past few years, and although that didn't bother him, it was proof that it wasn't real to them. But he admired Christians like myself on the strength of our convictions. I asked him why, if he thought Christianity was brainwashing, he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. I reminded him that to him Christianity was not just a perspective he disagreed with but "a huge brainwashing operation." So presumably the less we internalize it, the better, right? Did I detect some "cognitive dissonance"?

My husband Rick questioned the wisdom of taking a compliment and using it against someone to win an argument, which got me thinking about whether theological debate ever wins any converts at all. Does any unbeliever ever say, "That's an excellent point. Thank you so much for pointing out the flaws in my reasoning. I believe now"? There's usually so much ego in those discussions that it seems virtually impossible to persuade.

Then it occurred to me that all my encounters with atheists in the past year had one common denominator: Even though they had rejected Christianity, they all had a very sensitive radar for whether it was real to someone who professed it. In fact, some of them were very honest about that, and when they determined that it was real, they actually asked questions.

That makes sense to me. When it comes right down to it, only a few questions really matter to them in those discussions: Does the biblical God exist? Is he good? And does he have the power to save souls in a way that is noticeable to the world? The most compelling evidence for God is his love in a human heart because it answers all those questions affirmatively, at least as a starting point. But when the discussion turns into debate, people immediately classify it as two egos wrangling over words, and it's over. Few things are more human, and less divine, than that.

I think that when this man talked about the "strength of my convictions," he really meant that my faith looked real to him. That would have been a good time to leave it alone and declare a small victory, instead of proving to him with my arguments that I was no different from anyone else.

I should have taken the words of 2 Timothy 2:23-25 more seriously: "But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition."

It is so easy to take the words of life and use them as a dagger, doing more harm than good. All we have to do is look at the Inquisition and other less-than-glorious moments of church history to see that this is one of Satan's most powerful weapons.

We may think we're immune to that, but those words turn into a weapon whenever the ego takes over. One of the pastors at our church said that the opposite of love is not hate but Self, and I think he's right. The ego is always a barrier to God's love working through us. And every human soul bears the imprint of its Creator and therefore recognizes his love.

What a difference it would make if we always remembered that.


Sarah Sundin said...

Wonderful, Anette! I really enjoyed this. I recently heard an evangelist say that no one had ever been converted by way of argument - although I think using "never" and "always" is dangersous :). To tell the truth, that took a great burden off my chest. Tbose arguments make me nervous, aren't fruitful, and often damage relationships. I don't know the solution, but I do know every atheist carries hurts so deep they can't see the Healer for those hurts. All we can do is love them and pray for them and show them a better Way.

Anette Acker said...

Thank you, Sarah!

I agree with what you said about theological arguments being unfruitful. But to me they're kind of a guilty pleasure (and I do feel guilty afterwards). Hopefully now that I know why, I'll more successfully resist in the future!

3 Blessings said...

Our pastor recently taught in his Sunday school class that there should never be a time when we as Christians fall into the debate about God with nonbelievers. He said that God is not to be debated (period). The only think that can bring others to God is the holy spirit within them and we can aid it by praying for that person and praying that we have an opportunity to openly answer questions from a nonbeliever from their curiosity. I know that my human nature gets in the way too many times and I want to "show" someone what God can do. It is so hard not to want to debate others on the truth that is God.

Blessings friend,

Anette Acker said...

Thank you for that comment, Amy. I really needed to hear what your pastor said about God not being debated. That would explain why I feel so awful afterwards when I debate him with either Christians or non-Christians.

But come to think of it, the Bible is pretty clear about that, not just in the passage I quoted but others as well.

Dean said...

Great post!

In college I was invited to attend the campus Atheist club. I'd argue until I was blue in the face and spiting mad. My ego drove the show. Then I reread Romans and realized there are no "true" atheists (Rom. 1:19). I realized everyone at those meetings had, at one time, understood there is a God who created the world. Yet, they repressed that insight and stuffed it deep down until the experience soon was forgotten (Rom. 1:20-21).

My interactions turned from arguing over the church to pointing to a merciful, accountable and loving God. One who has reached out through Christ. One who has introduced Himself through creation. One who has already spoke with the person before us. They already know. It's a matter of lovingly bringing that experience back to the surface.

I completely agree that ego gets in the way of making our point. For me, it's taken a long time to learn.

Dean Hampton

P.S. We and I had a great time with you and your family on Sunday. Thank you.

Anette Acker said...

Thank you, Dean. Yes, we had a great time, too!

This particular man actually used to be a Christian. He never calls himself an atheist, just an ex-Christian. I think he knows that God exists, but he's furious with him. He says he will never worship a God who "kills babies," and he's now a self-described "stubborn, hardened old man."

It was in many ways a good conversation (with much of what you're describing and little in the way of debate) but that's where it ended. It's very tragic to see someone shut out from God's light, but I'm still praying.

Still, I'm realizing that the Bible says that "the harvest is plentiful." Even though this sad episode is front and center right now, there are many people who are actually seeking. said...

Several months ago, an atheist on a blog accused me of making a comment solely for the purpose of "winning a point for your side." I told him that I would gladly lose 'debate points' and be humiliated in the process if in the long run, it led toward his salvation.


Anette Acker said...

That's definitely the right attitude, Craig. Debate seems to have the effect of hardening someone's will further, because both sides are looking to reinforce their position.

I just started reading Atheist Central (sometimes it's frustrating because of the mudslinging), but I'll look for your comments!