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Handling Aggressive Atheists

sxc.hu/svilen001 question
Published: 9 June 2013 (GMT+10)

When sharing one’s faith, it can be difficult to respond to atheists who mock the message of salvation. CMI’s Keaton Halley gives some advice to a questioner. N.W., Australia, writes:

As a Christian I find sharing the gospel very difficult. Not in that I don’t know how but in how do you respond to atheists who angrily attack Christianity? I’m finding no one can have a normal discussion. Maybe you can touch on this or point me to an article that address this.

Hello N.W.,

Thank you for contacting CMI. I’m glad you are trying to reach people with the Gospel and thinking strategically about your approach.

There is no simple formula for dealing with a hostile atheist, but in such encounters we should exercise wisdom and follow biblical principles, such as:

  1. Consider yourself blessed and rejoice that you are enduring hardship (even if it is as minor as being mocked) for Christ’s sake (1 Pet. 4:13–14). Your reward is in heaven (Matt. 5:11–12).
  2. Don’t respond in kind, since we are not to return evil for evil (1 Pet. 3:9) but to keep a clear conscience (1 Pet. 3:16). We should not answer a foolish person by adopting his bad behavior or wrong way of thinking (Prov. 26:4, and see Don’t Answer—Do Answer). Though directness and strong words are sometimes called for, remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).
  3. If you can tell that you are wasting your breath on somebody only interested in mocking rather than pursuing truth, move on (Matt. 7:6). You might explain to your critic that there is no point in continuing the discussion unless he is willing to dial back the emotions, really listen when it is your turn to speak, etc.
  4. Be prepared to gently and respectfully defend your Christian convictions (1 Pet. 3:15). This means you have to know your Bible and be ready with answers to common objections. We have lots of free material on our website that can help you to do this! Read The Creation Answers Book if you haven’t yet.
  5. Remember that your job isn’t to convert atheists; only the Holy Spirit can do that. Rather, your job is to be faithful in sharing your faith. And if you are sharing the true Gospel, you are guaranteed to have some people reject and mock the message.

Beyond this, my advice is that you challenge the skeptic to defend his positions too. Don’t just let him control the conversation and make you come up with evidence for your views. If he makes an assertion without giving a reason, ask him, “why do you believe that?”

Finally, you can learn from the examples of others. In the Bible, you can see how Jesus and the apostles dealt with hostile critics. You can also dig through our feedback archive and find replies to many angry emails, like this one.

Hope that helps. Best wishes in your evangelistic efforts.

Keaton Halley

Helpful Resources

Does God exist?
by Drs Don Batten, Jonathan Sarfati
US $0.75
Soft Cover
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Dakota M.
We definitely all need to be ready to give a response to hostile atheism. For instance, I recently got into a debate with someone on an artwork website; someone had made a Christian stamp affirming creation, and this guy attacked the person with his evolutionary views, so I stepped in. It ended with him just shutting up and running away, which is easy to do in an over-the-internet conversation. This is a good article. :)
James T.
At Eugene,i can understand that.In fact alot of Christians get off of youtube because they can get frustrated by the amount of hate emails they get from atheists.Even if you make a video explaining how jesus was a real person they still hate on your video and talk about how he never existed.
John H.
Be respectful of their beliefs. Be prepared to acknowledge that Christians have, do, and will screw up. We don't claim to be perfect, only forgiven. But be respectful. They have serious concerns and only love will ease those. Being an atheist is not an unforgivable sin. In fact, several former atheists have become great Christian apologists (C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell). If your friend is open to reading, suggest these authors to him/her. Pray for your friend. Through it all, remain a friend, a friend without judgments. We are only called to testify to the hope *we* have, not to a faith someone else *should* have. Sometimes acknowledge the comments with kind humor. And again, if the resentment is because of the behavior of Christians, do not shy away from acknowledging Christians have and will make mistakes. Learn your Bible as well as how we got it. Often atheists will proudly tell me about variant readings, as if I didn't know about them or they weren't taught at the seminary. Guess what? I know about them and acknowledge them and thank them for sharing with me. Now they know that I know the content and structure and these anomolies--yet I still treasure the message of the Bible!
Arthur G.
I sympathise with N.W. and I agree with everything CMI has said in this article. We should not return evil for evil, in this case mocking for mocking.

The mocking and its vitriolic nature can be quite vicious in character. The reason for this is fear. They are afraid. The anger and the mocking are emotional responses to their fear, to avoid getting involved in a rational discussion, and to shut it down if possible.

For a long time I was aware that this behaviour struck a chord with me. I had seen I before in another context. Eventually I made the connection; in my early life I was a soldier and soldiers frequently have reason to be afraid. They commonly alleviate their fears by using a harsh, mocking humour, belittling the situation and maintaining their own morale. This enables them to carry on as soldiers, in spite of their fears.

There is a clear parallel, in my opinion, with the fear expressed by atheists, when confronted with the Word of God. They mock and they scoff and laugh us to scorn, in order to maintain their own morale. They know their arguments are very weak and so the emotional response is closely akin to a solder facing action: fear expressed as angry, harsh, mocking humour, belittling the situation and maintaining their own superiority.

We don't need to be doormats, however, and we can turn the tables by polite questions, such as:
"Why are you so angry?"
"Why don't you respect other peoples' opinions?"
"What evidence have you in support of your position?"
"What is it that is making you so afraid?"

This last one can produce fireworks, demonstrating that they really are afraid.

We need to pray for such people and remember that they are limited by their own master, who keeps them in bondage to the big lie. Let us pray for their release.
Andrew R.
Good advice, Keaton, especially in the suggestion to ask the question, “why do you believe that?”
I have found that asking a person to explain their belief, with gentleness and respect, is less likely to result in a hostile response than would promoting my beliefs. Also, it is a tool bring a person to a place of doubting what they believe, where they begin to ask questions. Answering questions is unlikely to be seen as pushing points of view. (pushing points of view often results in a hostile response)

I can testify, N.W. that Keaton's advice is sound. It might sound odd, but many of my adversaries, though they remain as such, have become good friends.
However, sometimes, no matter what approach is adopted, coming under attack is almost to be expected. Some people wilfully decide that there is no God and dogmatically hold to their unfounded belief. Such people are highly prone to hostility and when their options run out, will make their attack personal. In such cases, I like to recall the wise words of Margaret Thatcher:
“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single...argument left.”
Jonathan G.
A five-step plan! And a very good one at that. I like the biblical response in this article.

I like your advice about challenging the other side to defend their position. It's often easier for me if I can hold the discussion to a single issue and drill into the details of that issue. Truth is usually buried in those details. So maybe pick one issue such as radio dating or beneficial mutations, and drive deeply into it. Sometimes then, both sides need to step back and do some research, and the discussion extends over several days.

FWIW, the issue I like to begin with is that atheism is a faith-based position. We decide to rely upon God's revealed word as our starting point. Atheists decide to rely upon naturalism. That initial choice of worldview is a faith-based choice. Many who believe in evolution do not realize as much.

Thanks for your good article. I really enjoyed this one. Reading it has been a good start to my day.
Michael T.
Thank you for a Biblically-based and well thought through article. Well done.
Gordon S.
I fully agree with what the writer of the article says. However, if the atheist will not listen to what Scripture says one can point out what is seen in nature as Paul did (1 Corinthians 11:14 and 15:35 onwards). Also consider Job 12:7-9. Satan's object in evolutionism is an attempt to discredit the testimony of nature as well as that of the Bible.
Hans G.
Obviously atheists are not believing in creation, so they are evolutionists as well.
My approach: So, you believe in evolution and big bang about 15 B years ago. All this time was needed to have you here now, all those Millions and Billions of years are now behind you and you have not many years left being here.
In my case, I just started my future as a child of the creator and have all the time ahead of me, also called eternity. Think about it...........
Eugene Y.
I was reading about the 'this one' article and I want to say what a good way of answering a sceptic given that I have no courage to encounter such people although he made a lot of claim without evidences. Sometimes I am in fear that any statements that I made has no convincing power in it and it is better for me to keep this statement myself to avoid being ridiculed. I never really dare to watch any videos in Youtube about Richard Dawkins about why he doesn't want to debate a creationist and videos about 'apostates' ( like those who converted to Islam and any other religions) fearing that what they say is true and Christianity is wrong and that's why they left Christianity. I really want to have courage to defend the faith but I have no courage. Although I have the understanding that the Law of Logic can only account from a biblical foundation and not a naturalistic worldview (atheism)' which has only one Law that is to survive in the Battlefield of Nature. I have no confidence in myself because I believe I have no power to convince people.
Keaton Halley
Hi Eugene. It's good to know your limits and to keep your mouth closed if you don't have anything worthwhile to say (Prov. 29:20). But I also hope you will try to develop the abilities God gave you so you can learn how to talk with skeptics. Learning and experience can build confidence!
M. H.
Great article. Asking a 'Why' question in Australian culture can come across accusative. I have found it can make a big difference to rephrase 'Why' questions in different areas of communication, for example in the example you have given, what are your reasons for believing that? or, can you please explain your beliefs about that?
Keep up the good work Keaton, your article encourages me that we can make a difference with God's help.
Robert S.
If people are not interested in the Gospel message, then we should simply move on for the sake of the many that have not yet heard and understood it, and who might actually be interested in it.

The ‘harvest’ is huge but there are only a few labourers in the field (Matthew 9:37), so there is no time to waste on time-wasters. We just move on to an unharvested part of the field.

“And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement than for that city.” Matthew 10:14-15
Chandrasekaran M.
I find the question ‘why do you believe that?’ is very important in any conversation of any relationship because it handles the issue instead of the person which leads to weakening and destroying the relationship.

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