In my first post on atheists, I described why most people resort to atheism over belief in God. With that foundation, we can better explore how to most effectively evangelize these separated brothers and sisters of ours. It may help, however, to first address the most common mistakes Catholics make when trying to bring these folks home.
Mistake #1: Assuming the atheist wants to believe in God.
Of all the Gospel parables, the one that compares heaven to a hidden treasure in a field has always resonated strongly with me as a former atheist. Jesus said that the man who found the treasure hid it again and then “sells all he has and buys that field.” As a convert, I had to “sell” the secular world’s opinion of me as an intelligent person to become a practicing Catholic.
To believe, an atheist must forfeit his positive self-image and the secular world’s good opinion. Or you’re proposing they open themselves up to moral judgment for behavior that made believing in God intolerable in the first place. This is naturally perceived as a rather raw deal to the person who has not yet grasped the immeasurable treasure of Jesus Christ. Remember this and you won’t take their hostility personally.
Mistake #2: Assuming the atheist accepts the veracity of the Bible.
This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard countless believers citing Scripture to atheists. Which is pointless, since even the most magnanimous atheists see the Bible as no more than a nice book of stories.
Quoting the Bible isn’t just futile, it can be disastrous because it opens you up to criticism about the Bible’s more complex parts. The Old Testament especially can be a major stumbling block to those who lack the proper theological and historical perspective. Your “loving and benevolent” God seems to endorse sexism, discrimination, and plain old murder of non-Jews who get in the way of His Chosen People.
Most atheists know just enough about the Bible to have a distorted view of it. So unless you have six hours to explain how the Bible was authenticated historically; how its passages must be interpreted through the lenses of literary, theological, and historical criticism; and how the Word of God is only one source of authority in the Catholic’s life…avoid Scripture passages when talking to an atheist.
Mistake #3: Asking the atheist to walk before he can crawl.
I became Catholic by degrees: first I believed in God, then I believed in Jesus, then I believed in the divine authority of the Church. But most evangelizing Catholics start off trying to convert atheists to Catholicism. It’s an easy mistake to make, because we want our loved ones to enjoy all the Catholic blessings and graces that we do. But it’s overwhelming and premature to ask a person to accept the teachings of Catholicism when they haven’t yet accepted that God even exists…or that he’s benevolent.
And don’t fall for the atheist who tries to engage you in a discussion about Catholic doctrine—especially if he is a former Catholic. Recognize this for what it is: a convenient way for him to put you on the defensive and sidestep his lack of belief in God.
Mistake #4: Neglecting the apologetics of love.
The most compelling reason you will ever give an atheist to become Catholic is not logical, historical, or evidentiary—it’s love. St. Paul said it beautifully when he said, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong.” Rational arguments do have their place in evangelizing atheists, but it is primarily your love—manifested through respect, kindness, and prayers—that will thaw the icy fortress that surrounds their wounded hearts.
So don’t evangelize to “win.” Evangelize because you love the person and keep that reason before you even and especially if your efforts are met with condescension, personal attacks, or accusations. Remember that no matter how personal or vitriolic the exchange becomes, their anger is really directed at God, not you. Expect them to kill the messenger (you), but don’t let them kill the charity in your heart by baiting you into a prideful, self-centered, emotional reaction to their resistance.
Instead of being offended, stay calm and secretly rejoice when you get an intensely emotional reaction from an atheist! It means that somewhere, deep in his soul, your words and witness are hitting their mark.
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: (Finally!) The Best Evidence and Arguments for Evangelizing Atheists