My email inbox is flooded with notes from people who have sons, daughters, parents, coworkers, or even spouses who are atheists. One of the most common questions I receive from these folks is: Which books should I buy to give to my atheist loved-one?
This is a great line of thinking, since education often plays a key role in conversions, especially conversions from atheism. Once nonbelievers see the deep philosophical roots behind the Catholic worldview, not to mention the great intellectual tradition of the Church, it often goes a long way toward helping them open their minds to the possibility of God and his Son.
However, it's critical to remember that a book cannot do anything unless a person is open to hearing what it has to say. If we push reading material on our loved ones before they're ready to receive it, it will likely backfire. To use a silly analogy, imagine if someone were to walk up to you right now and give you a diet book which said that your current way of eating is dead wrong, and went on to denounce most of your favorite foods. Unless you had already begun to question your eating habits, or had otherwise developed some openness to the subject, you probably wouldn't be disposed to give the book a fair hearing. If you read it at all, you'd likely approach it with an eye toward picking it apart (or maybe that's me projecting my own ornery personality onto others).
Anyway, if it is true that we must have a certain emotional openness to receiving new information about mundane matters like food, how much more true must it be in the case of new information about Jesus Christ -- who, if we believe in him, demands that we surrender our entire lives?
It's a tricky path to walk, and there are no hard-and-fast rules for the proper role of books in evangelization, but here are a few tips (many of which I've learned the hard way) for discerning which books to recommend to nonbelieving loved ones, and when to recommend them.
→ Learn more about their spiritual journeys first. A wise Christian once told me that one of the most powerful things we can do when attempting to share the Faith with others is simply to ask questions. Be a good listener. When they say something you disagree with, instead of telling them why they're wrong, ask them to tell you more about how they came to that conclusion. The better you understand how and why your loved ones have arrived at their current beliefs, the better equipped you'll be to know which books would be most helpful to them.
→ Find authors who speak their "language." An atheist who is a molecular biology researcher is going to have a different way of seeing the world than an atheist who is a makeup artist on the Paris runways. Especially when it comes to matters of faith, I've noticed that people's temperaments play a large role in the way they assimilate and communicate information. Ask around for recommendations for solid Catholic writers who speak a similar "language" to that of your fallen-away acquaintance.
→ Encourage them to get the book themselves. We all have busy lives, and gift books -- especially gift books where the giver is anxious for you to read it -- can make us feel like we now have one more thing on our already-full to-do lists. Also, there's an age-old rule of marketing that states that people value an item more when they've had to make some kind of sacrifice to get it. So when possible, I recommend encouraging your friend or family member to get the title you recommend himself, either by purchasing it or borrowing it from the library, whenever he is ready. Who knows, he may even end up getting additional, similar titles that he discovers in the process! That said, I don't suggest that we should never give out books as part of our evangelization efforts; only that, if the option is there, it's ideal for people to acquire them on their own.
→ Wait until the time is right. Very often, the moment that we most want to shove a book into someone's hand is exactly the wrong moment to do it. More than once I've ended up in a fun but heated discussion with an atheist friend, and I was overcome with the urge to go buy a copy of a book by Fr. Robert Spitzer or Professor J. Budziszewski, just so I could toss it at her while shouting, "Here! READ THIS AND SEE HOW WRONG YOU ARE!" Needless to say, my motivation in those cases was pride, rather than a subtle prompting from the Holy Spirit. Pray for the patience to move according to God's timelines, not your own.
→ Value prayer most of all. When you care about someone enough to want to share your faith with them, it can be tempting to feel like it's all up to you, to forget that conversion is the Holy Spirit's work. I know that when I've found myself in evangelization situations, I sometimes neglect prayer for more concrete activities like scouring Amazon to find the perfect book. No matter what ways we share our faith -- whether it's through recommending books, telling our testimonies, or simply trying to mirror Christ in our daily lives -- it should always begin and end with prayer.