“Hey James. I have a general question for you, if you don’t mind. I’ve recently stumbled upon a YouTube atheist by the name of darkmatter2525 who posts regular videos about atheism. I’ve also visited a Facebook group called Life After God, which I think focuses more on humanism. How do you defend your faith against these types of people?”
The atheists you just referred to, Tsang, I’d tend not to engage on their home turf. Even though a popular atheist YouTuber, for example, might promote strawman caricatures or fallacious reasoning, I still wouldn’t resort to challenging him on his own YouTube channel or Facebook page. This despite sometimes the urge to do so.
I used to think that this was an effective method for spreading my own views. However, experience teaches the teachable, and after some years of engaging critics similar to the one you present here, I would like to believe that I have gained some insight. For instance, engaging “darkmatter2525” at his channel has a sense of pointlessness about it (though not always, more on this in a moment). Atheists like him are already fixed in their beliefs, and more often than not have no intention of actually familiarizing themselves with opposing viewpoints. Rather they resort to ridicule and mockery while also dismantling straw men caricatures. This is why the term “village atheist” is so appropriate in capturing such atheists. This is of course not limited to atheists, theists and Christians are quite capable of this faulty methodology too. Nonetheless, it remains easy to mock the beliefs of others, but it is not so easy to be patient in attempting to understand them. The former suggests intellectual immaturity.
Also note that there are other incentives as to why an atheist might stay fast to his atheism. For instance, the atheist can often make a living from his website or YouTube channel from the ad revenue he generates. That would be a lot to give up. Further, his entire audience has developed a certain expectation of him, and he hopes to meet that desire as to remain credible in their eyes lest he loses them. Thus, naturally, it would have take something big to get an atheist like this to ever change his core views let alone convert to an entirely different worldview. So, the theist’s arguing on the atheist’s turf would often not prove to be very fruitful.
But, to be charitable, it would be unwarranted to generalize all atheists in this way. I’ve seen atheist writers who are far fairer, more reasonable, and who at least attempt to understand the views and beliefs they dismiss as irrational and superstitious. However, I think these atheists still present weak arguments (obviously… if I thought that they were strong or compelling arguments I would be an atheist). However, by saying that I perceive their arguments to be weak is not the same as saying one shouldn’t consider the arguments. For instance, I don’t think the probabilistic problem of evil somehow undermines God’s existence, or proves atheism (as opposed to say agnosticism or some other worldview), but I don’t think we should just sweep it under the carpet. Some arguments presented by skeptics do require theists to think and ponder deeply.
Now, an unfortunate feature of internet atheism is that often where atheists gather online they can come across as a sort of hate group (see the comment sections of YouTube videos, or on sites like Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science & Reason, if you don’t believe me). Even in their public gatherings (at the Reason Rally or on Blasphemy Day) similar sentiments can be easily observed. These are usually spaces where atheists gather to do little more than mock and offend.
However, this is not to say that religious beliefs should be exempt from scrutiny and criticism. We should invite criticism but we should similarly maintain a boundary that ought not to be transgressed if we hope to have a cordial dialogue. I also believe that atheists, like everyone else, have the right to gather, be in community, and represent their beliefs. No-one should dispute that, or attempt to remove that freedom and right. Despite these inconveniences, this is not to say that atheists are by their very nature hateful human beings. Certainly not.
However, should the brave Christian engage atheists on their home turf then he shouldn’t be shocked at the vitriolic and hateful response he will likely receive. And in many cases this renders the discussion pointless, and little more than mudslinging. However, to the contrary, there have been cases in which this approach has succeeded in leading atheists to theism. In one popular example, Richard Morgan, an atheist and fan of Richard Dawkins, witnessed how atheists on Dawkins’ personal site repeatedly insulted and berated a Christian visitor who only ever remained polite and humble in his responses. Morgan was repulsed at how some of the online atheists actually wished for this Christian to die. That led Morgan to Christianity, “I’m not condemning all atheists. I’m talking about anonymous atheists on internet discussion boards and the messages they express which are extremely negative, puerile, [and] full of hate…” (1). Other atheists have similar stories to share in how hate has led them to reject atheism and embrace other worldviews (Judith Babarsky and Peter Byrom for example).
So, it is not impossible that one could engage atheists on their home turf and actually win converts. At the same time, however, I wouldn’t say that it is the most effective way to have a fruitful discussion on important topics. It is also not a method that everyone would employ in their evangelical efforts. However, others would no doubt disagree and argue that winning one soul over for Jesus/God is certainly worth the effort, even in the face of contempt. Thus, the Christian should then discern for him or herself if such engagement is worthwhile, and if he is willing to put him or herself in that position.
Moreover, believers needn’t stress too much over atheists like the one we’ve described above. Just because an atheist might have a sizeable online following doesn’t somehow render his arguments compelling or his worldview coherent. Christians and theists ought to accept that village atheists exist, and that they have the right to exist. Christians also need to be bigger than them and their often silly and deliberate misrepresentations and strawman caricatures of our beliefs.
Yet, “How,” as you ask, “do you defend your faith against these types of people?”
I find the best recourse is to engage in writing about these related issues, and then sharing my work so that others can access my thoughts. In the process I simply hope that I can be a positive guide for my readers. I also hope to provide valuable information intended to build up fellow theists and Christians. And though I don’t think I always succeed in this goal, it is my goal nonetheless. That’s usually how I’d defend my faith against these types of people.
1. Sun E. 2011. Former Dawkins Atheist Richard Morgan Continues to Praise God. Available.