The Christian Guide to Atheists: Atheists are Uninformed

The Christian Guide to Atheists


Myth: Atheists are uninformed about Christianity

The quickest way to annoy me when discussing my husband’s deconversion is start making suggestions about what books he should read to bring him back to the faith. It’s usually the standard fare. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (not awful) or Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ (not great).  Sometimes they’ll suggest a trip out to the Creation Museum (absolutely terrible).

There are a few reasons this tactic bothers me. First, it shows me that the person making the suggestion has spent absolutely no time getting to know my husband. He was a Bible college student and is a voracious reader so to assume that he’s unfamiliar with these works says to me that they have no interest in my husband as a person, but only as a soul to be saved. As someone who actually likes the guy, that does not sit well with me.

But also, it shows a lack of understanding for a large number of atheists, not just my husband.

Many of the atheists that I have met have come from a religious background, and here in America, that background is often Christian. So at the very least, a number of atheists already have some kind of religious background of their own. For those who do not have any religious background, they almost certainly have some close relative or friend who is a Christian. To be an atheist who is completely isolated from Christianity would be nearly impossible.

And yet Christians often assume that the only thing that is stopping atheists from becoming a Christian is lack of knowledge about the basic tenets of the faith.

In 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study of what people knew about various world religions, including their own. This study of more than 3400 people showed that overall, atheists and agnostics had a better grasp of world religions than any other religious group. And while Evangelicals knew more about Christianity than atheists, the gap was significantly closer than one might expect.

In the 2008 documentary Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, there was a mock “Family Feud” game show about various faith issues, and the atheist team cleaned up time and again against the various Christian teams. Over and over they had a better understanding of the Christian worldview than even the Christians did.

The truth is, a number of atheists point to their study of faith in general and Christianity specifically as part of their deconversion process. 

If you’re tempted to assume that what an atheist needs is more information about Christianity to find it attractive, I encourage you to actually get to know the person. Find out what their history is. Find out what they’ve already studied. Find out why they deconverted.

These conversations may open up an opportunity for you to share about your faith journey, and that can be a beautiful thing. But regardless of whether that happens or not, if you’re listening, you’re in the beginning part of forming a relationship. And that is already part of sharing the good news

Next week: It takes more faith not to believe


Alise’s Disclaimer:

  • I’m one Christian and my pool of atheist friends is not vast. If you want to know about what an atheist believes, ask them. Daniel at The Barking Atheist will be co-blogging with me for this series and he is as committed as I am to having a good conversation between Christians and atheists. Stop by his place for additional thoughts on each of these topics!

Guidelines for Commenting:

  • Assume the best of the other commenters. Someone might say something that isn’t worded well. Rather than assuming that they meant it to be hurtful, please assume that they just didn’t know better.
  • Questions are good. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, ask for clarification. As much as I say this is a guide, what I really want to do is to open up a discussion.
  • No proselytizing. We’re here to talk. Not to make people think the same way that we think.
  • Full comment policy available here.
  • Dani Kelley

    I love this. Thank you. Every atheist I know was once a Christian – and usually once a STRONG Christian.

  • Michael Mock

    “If you’re tempted to assume that what an atheist needs is more
    information about Christianity to find it attractive, I encourage you to
    actually get to know the person. Find out what their history is. Find
    out what they’ve already studied. Find out why they deconverted.”

    Forget the “if you’re tempted to assume,” part, actually. If you’re interested in interacting with an atheist at all, I encourage you to actually get to know the person. Nobody likes to be treated like a project – and in my experience, almost any sort of explicit proselytizing does exactly that.

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    The thing that bothers me first, before the thing that bothers you first, is that people only see your husband as a set of problems to be solved, not a human with a complex set of traits, ideas and experiences. When we do that, we underestimate humanity and our role in relationships.

    Also, all of the atheists I know are very bright and well-read. They can defend their position easily and calmly and with multiple sources. Would that more Christians could defend their faith as well.

  • Clay Morgan

    “And yet Christians often assume that the only thing that is stopping atheists from becoming a Christian is lack of knowledge about the basic tenets of the faith.”

    I used to think that way too but it discounts how much we lean on positive experiences in our own faith for one. And while there are some professing atheists/agnostics who clearly don’t want to get educated, the overall objection is often not intellectual at all but emotional, just as many professing Christians have a faith based on an emotional experience even though they haven’t put enough real thought into why they believe what they believe.

    Best takeaway here is to care about people, not simply knowledge or conversion rates. Good stuff Alise.

  • HeatherB

    My husband is also an atheist, after studying Christianity extensively, and other world religions. I am Christian. It is insulting the way some people treat him. We are raising our kids Christian, because he doesn’t have any objections to the basic morality lessons, but we’ve both agreed that our kids need to follow their own faith path.

  • Les-T

    As a former Independent Baptist, now an Atheist, I find the claim that I am uninformed highly amusing. Particularly when debating with Christians and I run rings around them with my knowledge of the Bible, which all too often is superior to most Christians. That is just one reason why I am an atheist.

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  • Tim2063

    My deconversion came from studying my own faith, not from any evidence that was imposed from outside it. I also used to be one of those people and I remember in graduate school telling someone who had issues with theodicy that C.S. Lewis had answered all his objections in The Problem with Pain. The professor (state university) pointed out that Lewis found his own answers lacking when his wife died and he wrote A Grief Observed. To this day, I have never heard anyone in evangelical circles cite A Grief Observed in any way. I don’t know the professor’s religious outlook at the time, but he knocked one self assured Christian back a peg; two or three pegs by the time I finished reading his book recommendation.

    BTW: I assume the link I am seeing at the bottom of this post to Find and Meet Gay Men is poorly targeted advertising imposed on your blog?

    • Alessia

      C.S. Lewis had one of the most interesting and personal journeys of faith I’ve ever seen but to take his essays as end-of-all arguments is pretty risky. I say it as Christian and as possibly obsessed fan of Lewis. But I’m very bad at evangelisation, I never really attempt at removing doubts or converting anyone with words…

  • Pseudonym

    This myth, unlike many of the others, does have a grain of truth to it: the vast majority of atheists are uninformed about Christianity, just like the vast majority of Christians.

    People see their upbringing as normal. If you grew up in a Christian environment, then the local brand of Christianity is “Christianity” as far as you’re concerned. Other brands are foreign.

    I was brought up in a fairly liberal Christian church. For me, church is high culture. If the music isn’t the best music ever written, or if the gravitas is lacking, then it isn’t “church”. Hillsong-type megachurches aren’t even close to being “church”.

    When I was growing up, I knew that young-Earth creationists existed, but I never actually met one until late high school. (You will be pleased to know that he has since recanted his creationist heresy. He is now a Lutheran pastor. He is also tone deaf, so I’m not sure how he actually copes with chanting.)

    Oh, I knew that in the United States there was a bunch of really bizarre stuff like inerrantists and televangelists and the religious right. The 80s was the time when a lot of them were being exposed as charlatans and frauds, and that made international news. Some part of me figured they were like those fringe cult leaders you occasionally see: they had a small and devoted following, but their eventual fate would be to be busted by the authorities and exposed. It’s not like it was Christianity, after all.

    Hell, I didn’t even realise that there were churches which still didn’t allow women to be clergy until I was in high school.

    So I’ve been a Christian all my life, and I’ve always known a lot about the Bible and the history of the text. I knew a lot about church history. I knew a huge amount about church music.

    But you could definitely argue that I was uninformed about Christianity. I know a lot more now, but I still have to suspend my disbelief sometimes.

    The reason why I mention all this is that many ex-Christian atheists seem to think that “Christianity” is whatever they were brought up with. Sometimes we get into a discussion about what I believe (and don’t believe), and I get strange looks followed by the question which I must have been asked several dozen times: “So if you don’t believe X, why are you still a Christian?”

    The very question reveals ignorance about Christianity. But it’s okay; I can totally relate to that.

    • Michael Mock

      Heh. And then, if you happen to visit a different sort of church unprepared, you wind up with a serious case of culture shock.

    • johnny B

      I agree, I think most people are lacking information but I also agree that most Christians underestimate how much the average atheist knows.
      Ultimately I think we should present the beauty of the church first and let them enjoy the goodness of it before going straight into the arguments.

      • Pseudonym

        Yes, and this reminded me of something else: The “atheists are uninformed” fallacy can actually go one step further into meta-ignorance. I’ve actually seen conversations where some speech like this takes place:

        Oh, you grew up as X type of Christian? Well no wonder you’re not a Christian any more. See, you never heard about my brand of Christianity, which is the superior and more authentic Y type!

        So far, none of these fallacies are anything I’ve personally held to my recollection. I’ve always known that atheists exist. My childhood impression was that they were like different ethnic groups: they just did different stuff on Sundays, just like how Chinese people ate different food.

  • Tim Chastain

    I have just discovered your blog and read several ‘Atheists’ posts. I like your approach and I look forward to future posts.

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  • Ghanima

    IMHO, “These conversations may open up an opportunity for you to share about your faith journey, and that can be a beautiful thing.” is a terrible idea. I’d guess that pretty much all atheists, especially those of us who came out of a religious community, are well aware that “testifying” is a key part of proselytizing. At best, it grates on my nerves. At worst. the conversion attempt makes me end the conversation immediately.

    • Alise Wright

      If someone asks me to share about my experience as a person of faith, how is that proselytizing? I don’t think it should be offered, but if it’s requested, how is responding to a request a negative thing? To me, that’s part of sharing ourselves with one another.

      I don’t think that should be something that we do out of the gate or as an attempt to convert, but if it’s part of a relationship? I don’t see how it can be avoided, and I don’t think that it necessarily should be avoided.

  • John Backman

    Alise, I so appreciate your approach to this topic. As with anything related to atheism, it calls to mind an atheist friend and sometimes adversary who likes few things better than to mock anything that sniffs of religion. At one point, though, someone asked him what he held dear as an atheist. He responded by talking about the importance of a moral code, a high regard for humanity, a sense of awe at the wonder of the universe…all the things I hold dear as a Christian. Ever since then I’ve been acutely aware that–at least from my perspective–we’re not nearly as far apart as a first glance might indicate. That’s the basis for a great conversation right there.