Ask Richard: Atheist Couple Invited to Christian Discussion Group March 10, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Couple Invited to Christian Discussion Group

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.


My wife and I are atheists. Some of our close friends are non-denominational Christians, and are very involved in their church and have active spiritual lives. I’m writing because they (our friends) hold regular discussion/bible study groups in their home, and we have been invited as ambassadors of the faithless. Exciting!

We (I think I speak for both of us here) welcome the discourse, and our friends have described a respectful conversation about ideas, as opposed to a witch-hunt, or a proselytizing free-for-all. I think we’re going to do it.

My question is: How do we express our beliefs and convictions without disrespecting our friends, without making them feel like we think we’re smarter than them, and with an intact friendship at the end of the meeting?

Thanks for your help!

Dear Ray,

This sounds like an interesting gathering. I’d love to do something like this, if the invitation was sincere and not something like what Admiral Ackbar experienced.

I’m going to offer several suggestions, probably much more than you’ll need, but other people will find themselves in similar situations, and some of what is unnecessary for you might be useful for them.

The first thing is to make sure that you and your wife both feel comfortable about doing this, and that you are more or less on the same page regarding the kind of questions you’re likely to be asked, such as questions about morality, sex, death, abortion, GLBT issues, science, evolution, and education for children. You and she don’t need to have identical opinions, but it’s better if you know beforehand what your different takes on such things are.

I think the best way to keep your friendships with your Christian hosts intact is to explicitly state that that is your desire right at the start. Thank the group their open-hearted attitude, saying that it’s not what non-believers usually face. Say that you have seen or heard of friendships and even families that have been shattered by differences in religious views. These remarks will subtly impart a challenge to them to actually be open-hearted.

Also make it overtly clear that you want to have a discussion, not a debate. The evening should be about understanding each other, rather than trying to convince each other to adopt the other’s foundation beliefs. Agreement is not important, only mutual understanding is.

Despite all the nodding heads, there will likely be someone who wants to be contentious and tries to start a debate anyway. As soon as you recognize that’s where it’s going, don’t be afraid to politely interrupt the process and re-state that you want to stick to dialogue for understanding each other, not “defeating” an opponent.

Expect them to ask many questions. Assuming that you’re in the U.S., it is basically a given that they know far less about atheism than you know about Christianity. There’s the content, or subject of a question, and then there’s the nature of the question itself. Learn to recognize the four basic types of questions, and feel free to label them as such when people ask them. They are:

1. Information-seeking questions, such as “Were you always an atheist,” “Where do you get your moral guidelines,” or “How do you find meaning in your life?” Answer them as best as you can, but don’t require yourself to be an eloquent expert. It’s okay to not have all the answers. Enjoy the process of exchanging understanding.

2. Rhetorical questions are really statements disguised as questions, as if someone is playing Jeopardy. They usually start with “Isn’t it true that…” or “Don’t you…” and then there’s a rather long speech about what the other person’s opinion is. It’s not from a desire to learn, but a desire to express. Technically they’re yes-or-no questions, so after all that you could answer with an unembellished “No,” but that would probably confuse and irritate the questioner. Better to politely say you think that was a rhetorical question, state that you’ve understood their opinion, and ask if there are any information-seeking questions. If you really don’t mind responding to a rhetorical question, then patiently clarify whatever misconception is probably behind the person’s disguised statement. There almost always is.

3. Challenge questions are asking what qualifications you have to be sitting there talking about this topic. They’re about your credibility or veracity. They sometimes come in rhetorical form. Don’t get defensive. Say that you’re here at their invitation, that you have only your own opinions and views, and you’re here to work with them to hopefully clear away misconceptions that believers and non-believers have about each other.

4. Loaded questions are usually built around a false dichotomy or an unacceptable choice, like the classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Keep your cool, don’t answer it, and politely explain why it’s a loaded question. Then move on.

Hopefully you’ll get mostly sincere information-seeking questions. If you reinforce that behavior in the group by not getting sucked in by the other kinds, they’ll probably quickly learn to ask that type. Have some sincere information-seeking questions of your own handy just to keep it mutual, in case you get a turn.

To express your beliefs and convictions without disrespecting your friends, keep respect for beliefs and respectful treatment of persons from getting mixed up. If their beliefs are absurd to you, you won’t be able to respect them, but you can still treat the persons respectfully. Some clever person might try to strike a pose that their beliefs are one and the same as their selves. Don’t fall for that. That’s just a ploy to try to make their beliefs unassailable by pulling them under the umbrella of decent treatment of them. You can treat them respectfully, even as you patiently explain why you’re not convinced of what they believe and why you don’t buy that tactic.

Don’t worry too much about appearing to think that you’re smarter than them. That perception is usually based on something that seems unfriendly rather than smart. You might be smarter than them about something, and they might be smarter than you about something else. If you are genuinely warm and receptive, then you won’t come across as being condescending or conceited. Speak to be clear, not to impress.

Keep in mind that most of the typical animosity that Christians have against atheists seems to be rooted in fear rather than anger, even if it looks like anger. Remembering that can help you to relax and reduce the tension in the room. Just be yourself and enjoy the talk. You don’t have to represent atheism perfectly; that can’t be done to any consensus anyway.

Basically, if neither conceit nor disrespect for them are in your heart, they won’t be in your mouth. If someone really, really wants to feel offended by you, as we’ve seen over and over, no amount of good manners is going to prevent that. Oh well. If you simply manage to get a few to think “Gee, maybe atheists aren’t ogres after all,” then you’ve done us all a great service.

I hope that everyone has a pleasant time. Write a comment here to tell us how it went, or if it’s not soon write to me again and I’ll publish a follow-up post.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m currently the token atheist in a local Alpha course at a non-denominational evangelical church. It’s been interesting so far. I actually didn’t know anybody in the group before coming in. They seem mostly receptive to my questions (even if I find their answers silly), and surprisingly I haven’t been asked many myself. The key is to keep it friendly and judge the atmosphere of the conversation. If things start getting uncomfortable and people start raising their voices, you might not find yourself welcomed back.

    In any case, it’s a great opportunity to dispel some myths about atheists that they may have been taught and to give your friends an insight into the way your thinking works. If your friends are as open-minded as you hope they are, it should all work in your favor to strengthen your friendship.

  • TRex

    Good luck. I don’t think I could attend something like that because after about 10 minutes of listening to their preachings and/or “evidence” I would have to leave before my head exploded. I’ve run out of tolerance for religion thanks to all the bat shit crazy stuff that is happening in our country today, mostly thanks to religious nutters pushing their dogma down everyone’s throats.

  • Kristi

    All I can say is… good luck to you. Take Richards advice… you have so much more patience than I do.

  • Ibis

    Even after all this time on the internet, this seems so alien to me: “the evening should be about understanding each other”? What’s to understand? Some people have come to the conclusion that religion is nonsense and there are no gods (or, more technically, there is no evidence to support the existence of the gods that have been worshipped in human history). Other people believe in one (or more) of those gods, usually due to childhood indoctrination reinforced by social pressure and/or personal gratification. If you don’t want to discuss the merits of each of those positions, what’s the point? We already do understand each other.

  • Ray,

    Your “job” becomes quite easy if you remember one simple fact. An atheist is merely someone who doesn’t believe in God. You don’t need to justify non-belief. Almost any question they present can be addressed by saying that you don’t believe in their implied supernatural causality. For example, if they ask where morals come from if there is no God, you can simply say that all you know for sure is that you have morals without believing in God. If they press for an answer for the ultimate origin of morals, you can say that there are many theories but you feel that the “God origin” is a bit of a cop-out.

    For the purposes of the conversation, treat the discussion like people discussing and comparing their favorite color. If red is your favorite color, you don’t really need to justify it. You simply state it. You can kind-of treat atheism the same way. You can point out, though, that you wouldn’t want laws passed specifying that people have to have a favorite color within any particular color family. For example, it would be inappropriate for the currency to say “blue is our favorite color”.

  • Steven

    Terrific advice as usual Richard. I was put in the hot seat recently but it wasn’t a group of Christians – it was my 8-year old daughter. She asked “Daddy, do you believe in God?”. I said the first thing that came to mind which was “No honey, I don’t”. She asked me why and I simply said “Lack of evidence”. She nodded wisely and said “Right, ’cause nobody’s ever seen him but Santa Claus is real, right?”
    Here’s where I turn in my rational parent card because I said “Sure honey, look at all the evidence – presents, stockings, half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses.”
    Still, I was in trouble as she shrewdly hypothesized that parents could do all of those things. In a last-ditch effort I recounted how, as a child, my stocking always ended up at the foot of my bed on Christmas morning and how could parents do that without waking me up?
    I think she bought it but it is only a matter of time (her little sister is even more skeptical). First God, then Santa, I fear that the tooth fairy is next.

  • Freemage

    Ibis: Don’t be so fast to assume “understanding” is a given. While you’ve summed up the most common reasons for being atheists and theists very nicely, the first half of that equation is often unknown to theists. That’s why they default to stereotypes like the “Angry At God” Atheist (who is seen as a petulant adolescent, spiritually, one who just needs to understand that God loves him even if God DID give his father cancer), or the Narnian Dwarf Atheist (who is incapable of actually evaluating solid evidence of God).

    Eliminating these stereotypes is key to getting a more honest understanding of atheists. And in my experience, non-denominational Christians are usually among the easiest to approach (they’re often more “philosophical Christians” as opposed to “dogmatic Christians”–the whole point behind a non-denominational faith is that you’re trying to ditch dogma and evaluate the world through your faith in a more direct fashion). So this group sounds like a good place to strike a blow for real understanding.

    Best of luck, Ray!

  • Luther

    I would also suggest that after answering a question, you consider asking others to share their own views on a topic.

    So, if they ask where your values come from, be interested and ask them where theirs come from.

    If they ask your views of Science, ask theirs.

    Even better, make sure to ask questions you genuinely have about them. For instance, are they still in the same denomination as their parents, if not, how did they choose? If any couples are mixed, from different denominations, how did they choose? How are they raising their children?

    What do they tell their children about atheists? Muslims? Protestants? Catholics? Jewish?

    What do they think about separation of Church and State. What should be the limits?

    What about Christian vs. freethought billboards?

  • Paul

    Debates are not always inappropriate. They can be conducted in a civil manner. In fact, as other comments have said, it’s not worth that much to merely “understand” each other. It’s only when a belief (theist or atheist) is respectfully challenged and really put to the test that we truly learn something.

    If you don’t have a sense that the other side could accept a challenge to their beliefs in a debate, as well as offer appropriate challenges to your beliefs, then you probably shouldn’t be going even for mere ‘understanding.”

    I just finished organizing a panel discussion between three atheists and three theists at my university (one student each, one professor each, and one community member each, including a pastor) that about 130 people attended. Ideas were strongly challenged, but everyone on the panel agreed it was civil.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    I don’t understand how this could be done.

    How there is room for any ‘discussion’ that isn’t a debate. I believe in reality, if it’s real I want to believe it and to learn more about it is good, if it’s false, to teach it as real is harmful as is acting on or deriving proper actions from falsehoods. Am I ignorant of some realities, sure. Do I think some things are real that aren’t? Could be, so new and or conflicting information is needed and needs to be argued for merit. That’s how science works, it’s investigation and debate with reality winning. All super naturalism is ruled out from the beginning.

  • ScarletA

    I just joined a god/beer meetup! It stated that all are welcome, and mentioned atheists. I can talk to anyone, and am a very mellow person, so I can’t wait to go to the first event. I think that beer and communication will flow nicely. In discussions with Xtian friends/schoolmates I am always respectful and absolutely expect the same in return, or I terminate the conversations promptly.

  • Annie

    I look forward to reading how it went!

  • The first thing is to make sure that you and your wife both feel comfortable about doing this, and that you are more or less on the same page regarding the kind of questions you’re likely to be asked, such as questions about morality, sex, death, abortion, GLBT issues, science, evolution, and education for children. You and she don’t need to have identical opinions, but it’s better if you know beforehand what your different takes on such things are.

    True, and it might also be worth mentioning that atheists are not a monolithic group. There is no atheist “position” on anything but the existence of deities. It’s perfectly acceptable for atheists to have different opinions on political and social issues, just like theists do. If these are non-denominational Christians, they may feel that they follow the only “true” form of Christianity. It might be good to reinforce the point that there are other Christians out there who accept evolution, who are pro-choice, and who support same-sex marriage. Contrary to what they may believe, those stances are not the result of a non-supernatural worldview.


    And in my experience, non-denominational Christians are usually among the easiest to approach (they’re often more “philosophical Christians” as opposed to “dogmatic Christians”–the whole point behind a non-denominational faith is that you’re trying to ditch dogma and evaluate the world through your faith in a more direct fashion). So this group sounds like a good place to strike a blow for real understanding.

    Really? I feel like I’ve had the exact opposite experience. It seems to me that “non-denominational Christian” is often code for biblical literalist. I’m sure there are probably exceptions, but most of these churches that I’m familiar with are extremely conservative. They may not be affiliated with any denomination, but if they identify as evangelical, they tend to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and encourage a literal reading of its contents. They seem highly dogmatic to me. I would say that mainline Protestants and Catholics are much more likely to have a “philosophical” kind of Christianity.

  • The Captain

    In the famous words of the great Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

    Seriously though I think it would be prudent to first find out from your friends what the attitudes of their church friends are going into this first.

  • The Big Bang Theory Its a trap! 😉

  • JulietEcho

    I’m with Anna on the “non-denominational Christian” experience. I grew up in a ND church, and there it was code for “Evangelical Conservative Christianity” where members might quibble about the specifics of performing baptisms, for example, but everyone was on the same (wrong) page regarding things like gay marriage, the existence of hell for those who aren’t “born again,” the evils of premarital sex, etc.

    I’ve never encountered a self-labeled “non-denominational” church that was remotely liberal or open-minded in its mission and doctrine.

  • Dan W

    Good advice Richard. I don’t think I’d have the patience for this sort of thing, but hopefully it goes well for Ray and his wife. I’d like to hear from them how this discussion goes. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if Admiral Ackbar’s words are correct in this case. I don’t really know what makes non-denominational Christians different from other Christian groups. From what I can find on Wikipedia, some may be fundies and others likely aren’t.

  • i’m skeptical. xtians like to trap people and are often coy about their real opinions until they have figured out what you want to hear. these sorts of discussions can be fun, but they also turn dull real fast if the believers only know about their own faith. i suppose it all depends on the personalities of the folks at the discussion. good luck Ray and mrs Ray. i hope you have fun.

  • CanadianNihilist

    Get ready to be converted! (or at least loose some friends)
    I would bet that they’re planning to “save” you.

  • I think it’s really valuable just to interact with hardcore Christians and give them a flesh-and-blood example of what an atheist is. As silly as it is, I do think many sheltered people picture atheists as some breed that only lives in NYC, who sit around in black turtlenecks reading Nietzsche. It is a good shock to the system for them to chat with an atheist who has kids, worries about paying the bills, goes to the grocery store, etc. Seeing the common humanity of an atheist is a huge first step toward accepting us as members of society.

    You probably won’t convert them, which I’m sure is no surprise. But you can nurture some tolerance, which is a big deal.

  • Drew M.


    That was adorable. I’ll be smiling for a while over it. 🙂

  • Andrew D

    If you accept that humans are social creatures and that we live (here in the US as well as many other places) in a society comprised of people with many disparate beliefs, than “understanding” is indeed of paramount importance and utility. Debate has it’s place (indeed I thoroughly enjoy engaging in it) but it is an intellectual exercise focused primarily on the self. Sometimes you change opinions, but in the end one will never, and one would never want to, change everyone’s opinion. Who would want to live in a world where we all thought the same thing? How is that an environment for continual investigation of our world and refinement of our perceptions of reality? And furthermore, there is so much more to life and human interaction than the particulars of the personal philosophy that we follow. Hence the major concern of the letter writers’ question to Richard, namely how can they help ensure they do no harm to their friendships.

    Attempting to understand another’s view point is synonymous with respecting them as a fellow human. As Richard often points out, there is a difference between respecting a person, and respecting their beliefs. For those of you posters who think there is no point to “mere” understanding, I wish you luck in your hermitage or other walled compound where you appear to wish to spend the rest of your days either isolated from, or in constant battle with, your fellow humans who do not share your views. I prefer to continuously work on my humility and to persuade through example. And most importantly I prefer to live my life to the fullest with the least amount of conflict with those I share my community with without sacrificing my intellectual integrity. My favorite quote of late: “Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager confession of ignorance.” – Leonard Rubenstein

  • Ibrahimali2277


    I am a messenger of God in accordance with
    Holy Quranic verses 17:16

    and 28:59 and accordingly , it’s my boundenduties to

    safeguard all the public in the world from all kinds of act of God .I

    have launched a website under the name and style of which is
    containing of messeges of God to
    avoid all kinds of act of God and the same may be

    followed by all the communities in the world .

    We conducted a survey and research that why Christians and Muslims are not
    cooperating with each other in the world?  We found the following

    1. Christians are well educated and research scholars to research each
    and every issue brought to them, but unfortunately Satan occupying not
    to apply their mind to analyse that how Jesus was killed and crucified
    when God has given him five favours and one out of it is he brought
    forth dead.

    2. Jews are not accepting our prophet Jesus that they tried to kill
    Jesus, but Christians are following Jews and depend upon their advice.

    3. Christians fail to realise Matthew 14:23 and Quranic verse 5:14 and
    9:31 that and when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a
    mountain apart to pray. If Jesus is God or a part of God then why did
    he pray?

    4. Christians are not interpreting Matthew 27:11-14 to mean that Jesus
    wanted to die on the cross for the redemption of mankind and for the
    forgiveness of their sins. If so, then why did he ask to turn away
    that cup from him? Why did hr cry out while on the cross?

    5. Muslims are accepting Jesus as prophet and his mother Mary, but
    Jews disbelief and uttering against Mary, a grave false charge (that
    she had committed illegal sexual intercourse).

    6. Muslims believe that Jesus was not killed and crucified by the Jews
    as revealed in the holy Quran verse 4:157 and 158.

    7. Most of Muslims in the world are not educated and innocent. Some
    leaders and organisations are misleading young Muslims to fight with
    other communities as Jihad which is not recognised in the Quranic
    verses 5:32, 22:40, 45:14 and they are termed as perverts in
    accordance with Quranic verse 2:99.

    8.Christians failed to interpret Quranic verse 4:157
    57:27 and 28 and 61:6 read with John 14:15-16,15:26-27,16:5-8,read
    with Matthew 10:16.


    Iam a follower of
    Christian and islam according to quranic verse 57:28.God invite all my
    Christians brotherhood in the world to follow Christian and islam.Kindly read
    Quranic verse 57:27and 28 which are available in Quranic English Translation
    website.All are requested to follow me in the interest of world peace solutions
    and unity in the world among all of you as iam a messenger of God in according
    to quranic verse 28:59.

    9. In the above said submissions, it is humbly submitted that our

    Christian pastors, fathers, monks, apostles, priests and ministers may

    be pleased to analyse the issues in the interest of unity and peace in

    the world to avoid all kind of natural disasters in the world as per

    the Quranic verses 17:16 and 28:59.

    Please visit the website

    Please see the Quranic Verse 13:43 as follows for the detailed answer
    to your reply

    And those who have disbelieved say, “You are not a messenger.” Say,
    Muhammad], “Sufficient is Allah as Witness between me and you, and
    [the witness of] whoever has knowledge of the Scripture.”

    The Bible in Ephesians 2:5 says “We
    are saved by grace through faith and not by works,” and it is the promise
    of a relationship that lasts forever. This relationship grows as we learn more
    about God’s character and nature. God shows Himself to us through the Bible and
    we can talk to Him through prayer

    Your Sucess
    U.ibrahim ali

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