Why Some Christians Focus on Atheists and Agnostics

I posted this over at Writers on the Loose. I decided to cross-post it here to see what some of my friends think about my theories.

On a previous column, Zjabs left me the following comment:

Ingvi- Quite often you and I are on the same side of the issue. I find nothing in your column to disagree with. What I do find interesting is that your belief in the “wrong” thing (in the eyes of the Christians) is okay. No one has tried to convert you or tried to open your eyes to Christ, etc. But when I post a column about my lack of belief, I’ve been given the third degree. Which begs the question- have the people on this site mellowed, or is it more understandable to have one believe in something, even if it doesn’t match our own beliefs, then to have someone proclaim they don’t believe at all? Now there’s a column idea for you!

I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to respond to his question. However, before I can do that, I think it important to examine the full context of the situations he’s referring to.

I think that first, it’s important to keep in mind that Zjab’s column about his lack of belief was in response to another column by Jen. In Jen’s column, she specifically asked people why others weren’t Christian. It only seems that Jen and others would respond to Zjab’s own response with further dialogue. In contrast, my columns have been mostly independent — or respond to other people’s columns in an almost tangential way. So there’s not quite the same flow of dialogue. In effect, I haven’t left quite the same opening for such “conversion attempts” (though to be honest, I think that labeling the comments left for Zjabs as such might be a bit of a stretch). So in essence, we’re probably comparing apples and oranges here.

However, if we step beyond these two scenarios involving Zjabs, myself, and the other members of WOTL, I am inclined to agree that the way many Christians approach people who don’t believe in any religion often differs from the way they approach those who follow a different religion. In fact, while there are small groups and individuals within Christianity that are focused on “reaching out” to people of other religions (one example of this in regards to the Pagan religions is Exwitch Ministries), it seems to me that most Christians are focused on convincing the atheists and the agnostics that they should become Christian. And I think that there are a number of closely related reasons for this.

I think that the most central reason for this is that in our country’s history, Christianity has had the luxury of being the only religion (or at least the only noticeable one) around. As such, Christians got used to thinking they’re the “only game in town,” the only religion, if you will. (And in fairness, I’ve run into several agnostics and atheists who seem to hold a similar view on some level.) Even the Jewish religion was seen as not being all that different, and trying to evangelize Jews just focused around convincing them that Jesus really was the Messiah. As such, Christian apologetics has only had to focus on convincing the unbeliever or skeptic of the validity of Christian doctrine. And to this day, the average Christian has access to plenty of material designed to woo the atheist, the agnostic, and any other kind of “unbeliever.”

However, now that Christians are finding themselves once again living in a pluralistic society, they are discovering that they are not as prepared to respond to someone who doesn’t just disbelieve, but actually believes something else. The same arguments that woo an atheist or agnostic are not as effective — assuming they’re effective at all — on a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Pagan. And I think that because of this, a lot of Christians choose to focus on evangelizing those they already have the “tools” to evangelize.

As an aside, I will note that many who do try and convert people who follow a different religion tend to try to do so in a sort of “two-phase” process. In this process, they start by trying to demonstrate why the individual’s religion is wrong, doesn’t make sense, or is otherwise inferior. Once this first “phase” is done, they then resort to the same material they would use to evangelize someone who was an agnostic. To be honest, I haven’t found this approach all that impressive, and I suspect it’s only effective with “tentative believers” in other religions, anyway.

Another result of this history of Christianity being “the only game in town” for so long is that a natural friction or rivalry between the Christians and the atheists and agnostics has developed over time. I have watched several discussions between these two groups, and it has been the rare case where the discussion didn’t devolve into both sides trying to prove themselves to be right and other to be wrong. It also seems to me that far too many people on “both sides of the fence” prefer this conflict, and take efforts to keep the trend alive. The end result is that both Christians and atheists and agnostics seem to be conditioned to expect this rivalry to pop up, prepare for it, and as a result, generate a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. In the rare cases where the old rivalry doesn’t rear its ugly head, I’ve noted that it’s usually due to the fact that key people on both sides of the discussion make concerted efforts to avoid it.

And finally, I do think that Zjabs is right in that people find any belief to be more comprehensible than a complete lack of beliefs. Christians may disagree with my polytheistic and magical views, but at least they can intellectually understand it. Trying to understand how someone can not believe in anything. To be perfectly honest, I have a bit of trouble in grasping that, myself. I can certainly understand not believing in any specific religion because of the lack of a compelling (to them, at least) reason to believe in them. I can even understand someone not believing in God or not being skeptical about the nature of such a God if God exists. But I do have trouble grasping the more hardcore atheists who are absolutely convinced there is no God.

3 thoughts on “Why Some Christians Focus on Atheists and Agnostics”

  1. Some interesting comments and especially from originating from comments from other sources that are related to and stemming from even more sources and a generalized view of them consolidated to a single point of information. Thanks for the overview for my benefit of not having read those other sources.

    Based on that, and given your comments, I have several comments that I would like to bullet:

    As I understand a main focus and thrust here is about Christians and their engagement and discussion of ?converting? those that have generic or a non-belief of a deity. As a Christian, I think that your conclusions are pretty good, but not necessarily stereotypical. Possibly in your sphere of influence or region/location, this may be the case, but I do not think it is a majority.

    I will say that in the recent past in Christianity, late in the 20th century, I believe that your comments would be very accurate. However, we are seeing a paradigm change in Christianity that actually addresses this very issue. More and more Christian denominations are not only seeing that they are not ?the only? church, but they are also realizing that there are other ?religions? out there, and are discipleing and teaching their congregations how to deal with this.

    On a more personal note, there are some of us that not only are keenly aware of these other beliefs, but we endeavor to study them and know them. The reason (at least for me), isn?t necessarily to discover fault as a primary (your 1st phase comment). Many of us look for similarities for discussion points.

    I may be giving away my ?way?, but I believe you are aware of the way I deal with people on this topic. Now, don?t get me wrong, as a Christian, I believe there is only one way of restored relationship with God, and that through Jesus, the Christ. I will not use that as a hammer, though. Wishy-washy? I don?t? think so, since I don?t believe there is any watering down or ?compromise? of what I believe. I just prefer to bring it in slowly and as necessary.

    Part of the challenge I have to deal with is that the Internet is Anonymous. Even if people use their real names, there is still a paradigm of anonymity. With that, there are many people that will refuse to admit change in their belief based on internet communication, simply because they don?t have to. Personally, then, I don?t tend to believe 100% of what people say when it comes to their ?religion? (or lack thereof). Their ?avatar? has a certain reputation, as example and they don?t want to have to deal with that kind of ramification. This, then will lead them in a continuing non-change.

  2. I’m not sure I have much “use” for these links, as I have no intention of becoming Christian. But I’ll probably check them out just to see what their amusement-to-annoyance ratio might be.

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