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Evangelizing Atheists: Part 1

Ten years ago, I converted to Catholicism from atheism. I’m often frustrated that most Catholic apologetics materials are geared toward evangelizing Protestant Christians. But what about the person who doesn’t believe in God and certainly doesn’t accept the Bible as inspired? How do we bring our atheistic brothers and sisters home, too?

For people who have never really struggled to believe in God, especially cradle Catholics, atheism can seem inscrutable: “Why would a person not believe in a loving God?” But the experiences and perspective of an atheist is so different from that of a lifelong believer—whatever the religion—that some background is important before going on to the practical side of evangelizing atheists.

It’s helpful to understand that most atheists fall into one of two categories:

1. People ardently against belief in a higher power, who consider it their personal mission in life to dismantle organized religion (particularly Christianity); and

2. People who want to believe, have tried to believe, and may even have believed in God at one time in their lives…but who now cannot grasp faith outside of an intellectual concept.

Most of us have met people in the first group and the interaction has been a wholly unpleasant one if we stumbled onto the subject of faith. Vitriolic atheists are rarely willing to even entertain the idea that God exists, much less that Catholicism contains the fullness of truth. They have spent years or even decades refuting God’s existence and most are unwilling to pursue a truth that threatens their carefully constructed self-image as an enlightened and pragmatic person. (And I say that with all charity.)Atheism is not part of their identity, it IS their identity. Which is why they react so violently when you try to take it away from them.

If you encounter such an atheist (and you’ll know quickly), don’t try to discuss faith. Instead, pray for him. Fast for her. Only grace, not logic, can conquer an intractably rebellious heart.

The second group is what I call “closet theists” and they are much more receptive to discussing faith. I know this kind of atheist intimately because I used to be one. Most of these people yearn for faith, but mistakenly assume faith is something you will, instead of a freely-given gift from God. But there is still an unmistakable openness in the soul of these atheists…I used to tell my Jewish and Christian friends that the main difference between us was that they hoped I was wrong and I hoped they were right. These atheists will often express the desire for faith, but will conclude with, “But I just can’t believe.” Faith is a good thing, a great thing, even—for everyone else.

What I discovered about both groups of non-believers is that despite all their talk about “evidence” and “logic,” most harbor at the core of their disbelief an emotional reason for being an atheist. Her mother died of cancer when she was 12. His older brother was murdered. Her baby was born with a severe disability. These atheists are often profoundly angry at God, which comes out in the rage they exhibit when they discuss God or religion with believers.

If some atheists can’t embrace God because they blame him, just as many (if not more) can’t embrace Him because they blame themselves. She had an abortion. He cheated on his wife. She was a stripper. He was an alcoholic. They may have once tenuously believed in God…until their serious sin made belief intolerable. They carry a deep shame for the “unforgivable” behavior that rendered them unlovable to God. These people usually struggle to believe that anyone—divine or human—could truly love them as a person. A quote from the movie What Dreams May Come beautifully expresses the heart of those who tragically separate themselves from God due to shame: “Good people go to Hell because they can’t forgive themselves.”

Behind their seemingly magnanimous tolerance of faith is an intense fear that God actually exists. Because if He exists, then they will face judgment. It’s not uncommon to find that these atheists were raised in religious households where God was presented not as a loving and merciful Father, but as a demanding and punitive authoritarian.

Both kinds of atheists think that denying God’s existence will make their traumas easier to live with, so they build up walls around their hearts and minds to keep Him out. But the pain is still there.

Not every atheist fits neatly into these two categories, of course. Some were raised as children by staunchly atheistic parents (who were almost certainly in category 1 or 2) and learned that faith is only for the emotionally and intellectually weak. Others were raised in joyless households by religious, legalistic parents who taught them that faith and happiness are mutually exclusive. When believing in God makes you stupid or miserable, it’s easy to understand why a person would choose atheism.

Such are the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters, who go through life denying the existence of God, and denying themselves the spiritual joys of embracing the faith. Let this understanding serve as the foundation of our practical efforts to bring them home.

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: What Will—and Won’t—Move an Atheist’s Heart

  • Adrienne - Truly insightful. I love that quote, “Good people go to Hell because they can’t forgive themselves.” That must be the most profound thing I’ve heard in a while.September 22, 2011 – 9:04 amReplyCancel

  • Hannah - I’m very grateful for this series already Misty! Many people close to me have declared themselves atheists. This line:

    “They carry a deep shame for the “unforgivable” behavior that rendered them unlovable to God”

    Really struck a chord with me and made me realise that I must love them. Exactly as they are if I ever hope to be part of their return to the Church.

    Thank you!September 22, 2011 – 10:50 amReplyCancel

  • Brittany - I really enjoyed this post Misty! You really help the reader place themselves in the shoes of another. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!September 22, 2011 – 1:17 pmReplyCancel

  • robbie - Looking forward to part II. Also, I wonder if sometime you would share the story of your “spiritual journey through investigations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Judaism, and Christianity.” Specifically, I’d like to understand why Christianity came out the winner. Help me understand why all beliefs are not created equal. If you take reader requests, that is. : )September 22, 2011 – 1:58 pmReplyCancel

  • Birgit - Excellent post, Misty. Thank you for giving me insight into a world I have never encountered. With your explanation, I feel more capable of meeting an atheist on ‘neutral ground’ by beginning with prayer and not belief-based arguments.September 22, 2011 – 7:25 pmReplyCancel

  • Michelle - Thank you for this Misty! It is so insightful. I look forward to reading your next posts. I’ve thankfully never been on this side of the coin and often wonder what has made a person have these beliefs. Thank you for helping me understand!September 22, 2011 – 11:13 pmReplyCancel

  • Mari - Thank you for sharing Misty. My brother in law is an atheist and was reared in a religious home. It pains our hearts that he’s so staunchly atheistic. We do pray for him every night, but your comments made me think about doing more like fasting or praying at the hour of great Mercy specifically for him. God bless you and your journey! I, too, am looking forward to the rest of your series.September 30, 2011 – 10:46 amReplyCancel

  • Erika - Thank you Misty for an eye-opening post!October 5, 2011 – 8:49 amReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth Fleckenstein - This series is quite enlightening. It also gives me great ideas for the class I teach. Thanks for sharing it.March 29, 2015 – 11:31 amReplyCancel

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