Last week I gave a talk about atheism, and in the Q&A afterward there were a lot of questions about how to share our faith with atheists. I emphasized that the most important thing is simply to pray and work on becoming a saint yourself, so that you can show people Christ rather than just talking about him, but people with atheist friends, family members and coworkers wanted to know more. In the case where you’re chatting with a nonbeliever who is open to hearing your perspective and specifically asks for information about what you believe, how should you proceed?
Obviously there’s no one right answer, but I thought I’d list out some Catholic beliefs that might be good places to start. Though atheists typically see all belief in the supernatural as unreasonable, some doctrines, like the ones below, strike them as less crazy than others. (As I was not able to conduct a worldwide survey of every person who self-identifies as a nonbeliever, I am basing this on personal experience as well as conversations with atheists I know.)
Growing up as both an atheist and a nerd in a particularly status-conscious section of the Bible Belt, I was occasionally on the receiving end of unkindness from Christians. When these same people also announced that they were going directly to heaven when they died because they’d accepted Jesus, it didn’t make any sense to me. I knew enough to know that heaven was supposed to be a place of perfect love and peace, so it seemed illogical to say that people could act like jerks until their dying breaths and then walk right on through the pearly gates. On the other hand, being a jerk sometimes isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it also didn’t make sense to say that a loving God would have people spend an eternity in hell for a few slip-ups. When I heard about the concept of Purgatory when I was exploring religion years later, it made sense to me because it explained how heaven can be a place of perfect love, and God can still be merciful to people who had some work to do in that department when they died.
2. The Communion of Saints
The idea of deceased friends and family members being aware of what goes on here on earth is nearly universal. When I studied anthropology in college, I found it fascinating that so many cultures that were separated by time and geography had this same idea about the afterlife—it seemed like we’re wired to believe this. So when I was in the process of converting to Catholicism, I didn’t struggle with this doctrine at all—it struck me as an articulation of a spiritual truth known to the human heart from time immemorial.
3. Veneration of Mary
This may not be the case for atheists who had a Protestant upbringing, but most of the atheist-to-Catholic converts I know who had no religious background didn’t struggle with the Church’s emphasis on Mary—and many say that it always kind of made sense to them. To me, overlooking Mary was an example of intellectual inconsistency within Christianity: If you believe that there is a great Creator who, in his unfathomable power, brought forth the universe out of nothing ... and you believe that he chose his own mom ... why on earth would you not freak out about this woman? How unbelievably special would she have to be to be fit for God himself to call her “Mommy”? So when I heard that Catholics place a huge emphasis on the Mother of God, my reaction was basically to shrug and say, “Yeah. Of course.”
4. Salvation for Non-Catholics and Non-Christians
Another thing that always struck me as intellectually inconsistent about Christianity was the idea that people who hadn’t heard about Jesus through no fault of their own would spend eternity in hell, or that God would bar people from heaven who sincerely sought him but worshiped the “wrong” way. It didn’t see how people could believe this and also believe that their God was good and loving, since the punishment of innocents is inherently unloving. It struck me as fair and consistent when I came across this in the Catholic Catechism:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.
5. Apostolic Authority
One of the biggest atheist pet peeves I encounter—and one that I shared when I was an atheist—is the way much of modern Christianity interprets the Bible. It was baffling to see Christians go back and forth about how to interpret some section of the Bible, each person convinced that his own interpretation was the correct one, despite the fact that there were as many other different interpretations as there were people in the group. It fed into the stereotype that religion is a tool that people use to manipulate others when I’d see Christians come up with their own personal spin on what the Bible said, then tell everyone else that they had to conform that that view. Years later, when I was beginning to explore Christianity, I almost gave up on the religion altogether because I couldn’t even figure out what its doctrines were. I couldn’t fathom which church I should go to when there were thousands of different denominations, each claiming to be based on the Bible. Then someone told me that Jesus founded a Church that he guides to this day, and that this one God-guided Church has final authority on matters of doctrine. Finally, I saw a system that made sense.
I hope this list offers some good conversation starters, though don’t expect that talking about these teachings will convert anyone on the spot. Conversion is a long process that must involve an openness of heart in addition to intellectual understanding—and much more than our nonbelieving friends and family members need our explanations, they need our prayers.