So Greg Stier says I’m a liar.
He’s never met me. But according to him I’m a liar. To myself. To him. And most importantly, to God.
Mr. Stier recently wrote an article entitled “How to Share the Gospel with an Atheist,” found here on Pastors.com. Mr. Stier starts out by relating a personal encounter with an atheist named ‘James’ on a recent flight. ‘James’ is such a caricature of how an atheist interacts with other people, especially someone who attempts to proselytise, that there is speculation on whether the encounter actually occurred. Note that in contrast to Mr. Stier, I am not actually accusing him of lying in this particular instance, merely pointing out that there is speculation on the authenticity of his account. ‘James’ is polite, well-mannered, and instantly interested in religious conversation Stier foists upon him. He believes that Jesus is ‘an enlightened soul.’ At the climax, when Stier shares the personal love story of Jesus with ‘James,’ the atheist is blown away by the new perspective on Christianity that the wonderful Mr. Stier has given him.
Angels dance in heaven over the sharing of the Good News as atheists around the world roll their eyes.
I cannot think of one encounter I’ve had with a Christian where I hear about their religion and eagerly inquire to know more. Nor do I conveniently lead up to the perfect moment for them to share the Truth of the Gospel. And neither has any atheist I’ve ever known. We are, for the most part, smarter than that. If we want to engage someone in a religious debate, we’ll defend our own stance just as fiercely. If, as in most cases, we don’t care to be prostelytised to, we simply nod politely and tune it out.
After recounting his dramatic encounter with ‘James,’ Mr. Stier goes on to list five important things to remember when sharing the Gospel with atheists. And it’s these that have so many atheists angered and offended at the blatant way we are diminished and patronised in Mr. Stier’s effort to portray himself as the ‘right type of Christian missionary.’
1. Don’t be shocked and do ask tons of questions.
This is probably the least offensive of Mr. Stier’s points and actually decent advice. It’s good to ask questions of atheists – provided that you are prepared to listen. Which, as we’ll come to see, Mr. Stier is absolutely not prepared to do.
Of course, it also begs the question as to why anyone would be shocked upon meeting an atheist. I wonder if he expects people to be shocked when they find out someone is a Jew, a Hindu, a Wiccan, or a Muslim. This does nothing but reinforce the belief that atheism is somehow worse than any other belief. Because it’s not so much that we don’t believe what Christians do. It’s that they can’t comprehend how we don’t believe in anything supernatural.
Stier also specifies that Christians should find out whether the person is agnostic or atheist, completely oblivious to the fact that one can be both. Like me, for example. I reject every man-made concept of spirituality because it lacks compelling evidence and does great damage to the world. But I do not know what other powers and reality is in existence, and I have no way of knowing. I’m an agnostic atheist. An atheist who does not know. Not an atheist who says ‘There is nothing else out there.’ Hopefully that clears things up for Mr. Stier, if he were to ever stumble across this.
2. Listen deeply for the real “why.”
And this is where the article went downhill. Down into a black abyss of self-righteous smug satisfaction. Because if an atheist tells you that he doesn’t believe in God because he observed the evidence and came to the opposite conclusion, he is clearly not telling the truth. He’s lying to you, and it’s up to YOU to psychoanalyse him to discern the true reason. In Stier’s own words:
“Often atheists have a reason (other than “reason“) for becoming atheists. Listen for it. Sometimes it’s anger over losing a loved one. Other times it’s that they were hurt by the church in some way. But often there’s a “why” behind the lie they are embracing.”
I’m going to gloss over the ridiculous irony of the ‘lie they are embracing’ line because it would definitely sidetrack the article. But listen to Mr. Stier’s words again. Note the intellectual superiority he ascribes to himself. That no matter what an atheist might tell you, he’s hiding something, and it’s up to his Christian guide to figure out the ‘real’ reason behind his personal beliefs and reveal it at the proper time.
Can you imagine if I took the same tactic with Stier? Imagine if I listened to everything Mr. Stier said about how he’s a Christian because he finds the Bible accurate and compelling and Jesus has had a personal effect on his life. And then said, ‘I know what you said, Mr. Stier, but the true reason for your Christianity is that you enjoy talking down to people who think differently than you. Also you want an excuse to keep your wife subordinate to your whims, gay people in the closet, and donations flowing into your church.’ I don’t imagine that Mr. Stier would be any more thrilled with my analysis of himself than I was with his own.
Now I’m very open about my own journey into atheism. Anger had a lot to do with it. So did hurt. But these things were the catalyst that put me on my journey towards godlessness, not the reason for my atheism today. If in the course of educating myself I encountered compelling evidence towards a deity, I would have had to adapt and figure out how my anger and hurt towards one aspect of spirituality would have to be molded to this new evidence.
I did not. Hence the reason I am an atheist. Reason, not catalyst. Learn the difference, Mr. Stier, or don’t bother engaging us in the future.
3. Connect relationally.
“Atheists are real people with real feelings. They laugh, cry, talk and connect like anyone else. I think that too many times Christians treat atheists as objects and not people.”
Yes. Obviously. It is a sad commentary on the state of Christianity that Stier has to issue a reminder to his brothers and sisters in Christ that atheists are real people with genuine emotions. Other than that I have no other objections to this point, other than to feel disgust at the way Mr. Stier disregards it in his very next point.
4. Assume that, down deep inside, they do believe in God.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who genuinely rejects the existence of God. Sure, I’ve met many who have claimed God’s existence to be a lie but I’m convinced that, down deep inside, they really do believe there’s a God.
Yes, he’s entirely serious. What happened to ‘atheists are real people with real feelings?’ That was over quickly.
“Why do I believe that? Because Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists.”
Anyone with any amount of human empathy should understand why this is so insulting, so demeaning, and so counter-productive to Stein’s own purpose of dialoguing with atheists. By self-righteously asserting that he knows better what we believe than we do ourselves, he disregards the validity of our opinions and the experiences that formed them. In fact, he reduces us to something less than human by claiming that ‘we do not exist.’
According to Stier, I am not a person with personal convictions or opinions. Instead I am a poor, sad little man who is hiding from Stier’s own personal Truth and his god. And I am a liar. Since I claim to be an atheist, and there is obviously no such thing, I must be either not intelligent enough to realise the truth about my own convictions or outright lying to Stier about my beliefs. Clearly, either of them would make him feel better than acknowledging that some people simply don’t believe in his god. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty.
And from there it goes to intellectual cowardice. Stier claims that if a Christian assumes that an atheist believes in God deep down, he is free to share the good news of Jesus instead of focusing on inconvenient arguments about Yahweh’s very existence. This is a cop-out, a safe-guard, a method for Stier to feel like he has the upper hand in a conversation without addressing points that he is clearly unqualified to even refute.
It’s this point that currently has several dozen atheists on Pastors.com up in arms. As of posting, Stier has responded to exactly none of them, for all his points about dialoguing with atheists.
“When you assume that an atheist does really believe in the existence of God it gives you the freedom not to have to prove God’s existence but to share God’s story. You can be sure that down deep inside, the gospel is churning in the soul of the atheist.”
There’s definitely something churning deep down inside me after reading that, but it certainly isn’t the Gospel.
5. Frame the gospel as a love story (that just happens to be true).
This is the point in which Stier claims the Gospel should be used as a crowbar to pry open closed minds. That’s right. The man who just claimed that millions of atheists are lying to him about his beliefs to avoid addressing their opinions is talking about how we’re closed-minded.
Personally, I would love to hear how Stier frames the Gospel as a love story. Learning about how I need to stop lying and start thinking exactly like Greg Stier in order to avoid roasting over a pit of fire for all eternity is definitely a challenging premise to start from. Learning about how the enslavement of millions, butchery of thousands, and rape of hundreds was a mechanism for fulfilling the Gospel prophecies is also a delight. I bet that if Stier just assumes that I believe it deep down, I’ll realise that my morals of loving other people, caring for them, and fighting for reconciliation without the promise of an eternal reward is entirely misguided. And then I’ll bow to his preferred idol.
Because it’s a love story.
So what’s the point?
It’s hard to remember the last time I read a Christian article so laced in irony. Because I don’t think I could think of someone I would want to converse with about my personal beliefs less than someone who is so arrogant, so condescending, and so self-righteous as to insist from the get go that I am lying about my atheism.
I do not believe in God. The Christian god or any of the other 3,000 currently worshipped in human society. I have my reasons. They stem from a childhood in a country ripped apart by religious wars and Christian terrorists, high school years in a bigoted and backwards Christian high school, and most importantly from my decision to educate myself in both science and theology and come up with my own personal informed opinion.
To say that I am not real, that my beliefs are not real, that I am merely suppressing something you know and embrace and love is not only an insult to my intelligence and worth as a person, but a disregard for every life experience that led me to a life without religion.
You are doing nothing to enhance the cause of Christianity, Mr. Stier. In fact, you are doing the opposite. Your self-indulgent pat on the back is reminding us why we are so glad we don’t have to associate with such incredible arrogance or intellectual cowardice.
Go out and speak to some real atheists other than ‘James.’ And then come back and try again. You’ll improve. You have to, because you certainly couldn’t do any worse.