The Catholic's Guide to Atheists

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One of the most common question I get through my blog is: “How can I talk to my atheist friend / family member / coworker about the Faith?” First of all, you must remember that atheists are just like you and me, except that they eat small children for breakfast. (Kidding, kidding. They prefer them for lunch.) It also helps if you understand the average atheist’s mentality.

Below are the five most common misconceptions I encounter when I talk to cradle Catholics about this issue. Obviously, these are generalizations, so each one may not apply to every person who describes himself as an atheist. But as someone who grew up atheist and hung out in atheistic social circles for much of my life, I can say with confidence that they are widely true.

Five Common Misconceptions About Atheists

1. They feel like something’s missing

“Don’t you feel like something’s missing in your life?” Christians would often ask me when I was an atheist. I really didn’t. And neither did any of the other atheists I know. I didn’t feel incomplete, and I didn’t secretly yearn for a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

However, looking back, I actually did have a pervasive sense of incompleteness, but I simply didn’t know how to recognize it. I do believe that each of us has a God-shaped hole in our hearts, that only God alone can heal. Maybe it’s because I was a “cradle atheist,” but since I never knew any other way of being, I didn’t feel like anything was wrong. If you had asked me when I was 25 if I felt perfectly complete and at peace, I would have admitted that the answer was no—but quickly added that it wasn’t a problem because I knew what the solution was: I simply needed to advance in my career, lose 10 pounds, travel to a few more places, get a cooler condo, and then I’d have all that inner peace stuff everyone talks about. It was just a matter of time.

Instead of asking me if I felt like something was missing, it might have been compelling if my Christian acquaintances had approached it from a different angle, gently encouraging me to pursue that line of thinking, and ask myself if I honestly believed that travel and money and a number on the scale would really do what I hoped they would do.

2. They find the Bible persuasive

When I see online debates between Christians and atheists, I’m surprised at how often Christians reference the Bible to make a point. It’s one thing to give examples of its historical accuracy or explain how well the texts have been preserved over the millennia, but keep in mind that the Bible does not carry any special weight with most atheists, so quoting John 3:16 or Romans 5:8 is not going to have much impact. It’s easy to forget if you were raised in a house with a deep reverence for Sacred Scripture, but most atheists think that large parts of the Bible simply aren’t true, and many see the entire thing as a work of fiction.

3. They are well-versed in Catholic doctrine

The vast majority of atheists I talk to do not have accurate knowledge about Catholic doctrine—even those who were raised nominally Catholic. Very often, nonbelievers lump Catholics in with other Christian denominations in terms of beliefs, and important distinctions are lost. For example, atheists I talk to often assume that, as a Catholic, I believe that all people who never heard the name of Jesus through no fault of their own automatically went to hell forever, that all Catholic couples must specifically aim to have as many children as possible, or that a person who “got saved” in his youth but ended up being an unrepentant serial killer would go directly to heaven when he died. I find that when misconceptions like this are cleared up, my atheist friends are pleasantly surprised at how fair and reasonable Catholic doctrine is.

4. They can be convinced by arguments alone

This one is tricky because I do think that making a reasonable case for faith and the truth of Catholic doctrine is critical, especially when conversing with atheists with a scientific mindset. They would never believe something that is fundamentally unreasonable, so it’s important that they understand that a person does not need to check his rational mind at the door to become Catholic—that, in fact, the Catholic worldview is the most reasonable of all.

That said, God is love, therefore to know God is to know love—and you can’t reason your way into love. Love can and should be based on reason, of course, but at some point you have to have an openness in your heart as well as your mind. This is why we should always focus more on showing Christ to our atheist friends rather than just offering data about him.

5. They are immune to the power of prayer

The other day a lady asked me for suggestions about how to approach her militant atheist son-in-law about faith. When I suggested that she spend a long time doing nothing but praying for him, she rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, but I’m going to need something more than that. This guy is a tough case!”

I can relate to that. I’m an action-oriented person, and sometimes it’s hard for me to rely on the power of prayer in a concrete way. In fact, sometimes I unintentionally slip into thinking that some people I know have gone so far down a path away from God that my prayers would be pointless. But we have to be on the lookout for this line of thinking and reject it as soon as it arises, because what people without faith need more than anything—more than our arguments and facts and books—is simply our prayers.

What are your tips for talking to atheist friends and family members about the Faith?