Evangelistic Atheism: Leading Believers Astray
By Dan Barker
Freethought is worth sharing with the world. If the conditions are
right, it is possible for a freethinker to successfully evangelize a
"Evangelism" is a perfectly good word. The Greek word "angel" means
"messenger." Evangelism is simply "good news."
"Atheism" is positive. Although it is constructed with the privative
prefix (negative in the sense of "without," not "against"), it should
be viewed as a double negative. By comparison, "non-violence" is
considered to be a positive word. Since "theism" is unreasonable and
even dangerous, the message that we can be free of it is good news.
Atheism is like having a large debt cancelled.
I am not suggesting that every atheist should be an evangelist. Some
are better off temporarily keeping their views to themselves for job
security or family harmony. Some freethinkers wisely wait until they
retire, when they have little to lose, before they become vocal. In
certain communities, open unbelief can be costly.
Nor am I suggesting that every evangelistic atheist will always be
successful. I learned in the ministry that evangelism is like sales.
You can't sell everyone. But you can't sell anyone if you don't first
convince them that they have a need or desire for what you are
In one sense, the believers have already been "led astray." They have
been led astray from reason, where religion is concerned. Many
fundamentalists have also gone astray from compassion, peace, or
But since they view themselves as sheep in a flock of followers, they
do need to be led astray from the mentality of submission to the
shepherd, slaves to a dictator. It would be better for them, and for
the world, if there were more independent thinkers.
When I was in Columbus, Georgia last fall, my gracious and hard-working
host, Sanjay Lal, took me to a television station where he had arranged
for me to be a guest on the "Rise and Shine" talkshow. After the show,
one of the producers asked Sanjay, "Are you one of Dan's followers?"
Sanjay and I both laughed at the incongruity.
"I'm a *friend* of Dan's," Sanjay responded.
-- What Is Your Purpose? --
If you decide to be evangelistic, then ask yourself what you hope to
accomplish. Are you trying to win an argument? To simply end an
argument? To demolish the enemy? To chase bigoted theocrats from your
door? If so, a combative approach might work. Ridicule might be an
effective way to shut someone up, or to show them how strongly you
However, ridicule is rarely effective in changing someone's mind. No
one likes to be laughed at. No one wants to be told they are a loser.
How do you respond to ridicule? Combativeness creates enemies.
The purpose of an evangelistic atheist should be to make a friend. To
win them over to the reasonableness of freethought. You can't browbeat
a person into friendship. "Onward, Atheist Soldiers" is the opposite of
Friendship is only attained by attraction. The only way to attract
someone is by being attractive. If you want to win someone to your
side, then treat them like a friend. Respect who they are and where
they are at this stage of their life. Show them that freethinkers are
courteous and tolerant. You may not become bosom buddies, but you can
look into the future and envision a respectful, freethinking
friendship. Isn't that what we ultimately want?
Imagine that you are talking to the Dan Barker of 12 years ago. See
yourself as planting a seed in a curious mind--a seed that needs time
to take root and grow. If you were raised with religion, then imagine
you are talking to the person you were years ago.
If any of your religious friends or relatives eventually becomes a
freethinker, it won't be because they were humiliated. It won't be
because you are angry, concerned, or knowledgeable. It will be because
they are thinking for themselves.
We want to enhance self image, not squash it. You can't yank someone
out of the fold. If your objective is to end up with a friend, then woo
them, don't boo them. You may not respect their current views, but you
can respect their potential to learn.
Even if this positive, friendly approach ends up not working, you have
at least given it a fair chance by not slamming the door shut at the
-- How Realistic Are Your Chances? --
You may have a reasonable expectation of success if you are dealing
with a relative in a close family, with a peer in your field of
employment or expertise, or with any other relationship that is
appreciative. If there already exists a horizontal respect, then it is
more likely that your views will be listened to fairly. The chances are
especially good, I think, if the person approaches you first with what
appear to be honest questions.
Many attempts at evangelistic atheism are a waste of time. We all have
better things to do than argue with a die-hard proselytizer.
Ask yourself if you really care about this person. I think some
atheists get into extended arguments with believers more out of
philosophical pride than human concern.
If you feel that the Christian is proselytizing you, then be
respectful, give them some information, point them to the library, and
then drop it. Tell them you are interested in a continuing dialogue
only if it is a two-way street.
If you don't sense an egalitarian openness, then stay away from a
prolonged debate. There are many believers who seek out unbelievers as
a "mission field." They enjoy having someone to kick around, some
opportunity to flex their righteous muscles. Don't encourage this. It
only makes them stronger. They can go back to their church and
announce, "I did battle with the Devil today!"
Some preachers use debates to raise money, proving to their supporters
how brave they are. Even though you have a reasonable argument,
compassionate motive, and tons of relevant facts, they might backfire
if the believer is just playing games. Often the best strategy is to
use no tactics at all.
However, sometimes it is worthwhile to engage in a hopeless argument,
for other reasons. Some freethinkers spar with willing Christians in
order to sharpen their debating skills. Radio and television debates
have the advantage of reaching a larger audience of potential
freethinkers. I enjoy public, formal debates because it promotes
freethought, and publicizes the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I
entertain little hope of changing my opponent's mind; but there are
many in the audience who are ready to be swayed toward freethought,
especially at a university.
Even if your chances are not great, if you have the time and energy,
there might be little to lose by making the effort. Freethinkers can at
least show the world that we are here. Who knows? Maybe the hard-core,
bible-thumping image is just a mask. Maybe some of them "protest too
much." With patience, you might learn that there are plenty of
potential freethinkers out there.
-- What Kind Of Believer Are You Dealing With? --
Learning that I used to be a minister, freethinkers often ask me, "What
was the one thing that caused you to change your mind?" There was no
"one thing." Even if there were, it wouldn't help much. There is no
"magic bullet" that works with all Christians.
If you are lucky, your religious background will match with theirs and
you can simply ask, "What caused me to become a freethinker?" Some
formerly religious freethinkers make the mistake of assuming that their
thinking should impress all other Christians.
If your backgrounds are not similar, then you have to do some homework.
In extreme cases, you might have to learn a new language,
philosophically speaking. You might have a conversation with a
believer, thinking that you have an understanding when, in fact, your
words have flown right past each other. The same words can often mean
totally different things.
One day during college, my girlfriend (who was from Korea) was helping
me wash my car. When we finished, she said, "Dan, you are a man."
"Do you really think so?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "You are a real man."
I should have left it at that, but I went ahead and asked, "What do you
"Because you did a bad job of cleaning those headlights, and look at
the streak you left on the fender."
During a debate at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire, my opponent
responded to one of my statements with, "That sounds like a very
humanistic thing to say!"
"Yes," I responded, "it is humanistic." I took the intended pejorative
as a compliment. The same thing can happen with other words, such as
"liberal." ("Liberal" is in the bible. "Conservative" is not. See
Isaiah 32:7,8, for example.)
Although you might have different backgrounds, you still might identify
productive themes of discourse. If you don't, you might waste time
arguing about a point that makes no difference. For example, you might
go to extreme lengths to prove that the bible is contradictory only to
discover that your opponent is a liberal Christian who agrees with you!
There are thousands of flavors of Christians, but generally they fall
into three broad groups: fundamentalists, moderates, and liberals.
The kinds of arguments that impress fundamentalists deal with the
reliability of the bible, answers to prayer, faith healing, prophecy,
miracles, changed lives, and the question of absolute moral standards.
Moderates are impressed with some of the above, and with arguments
dealing with the character of the biblical god, with the fact that
unbelievers are good people, and with some social issues. Liberal
Christians are impressed with refutations of apologetic arguments, with
discussions of the meaning of religious language, pagan parallels to
Christianity, the connection of faith to good deeds, and social issues.
These are broad groupings, and in real life there is much overlap,
variety, and disagreement.
Fundamentalists defend the bible at all costs, even when it produces
absurdity or barbarism. Liberals tend to be embarrassed at the bible.
Fundamentalists generally do not care about social injustice. Few of
them are bothered by discrimination of homosexuals, women, or
unbelievers. Some of them desire the intolerance. Liberals, on the
other hand, tend to be sensitive to unfairness. (That's why they're
liberals.) They are likely ashamed of the history of their own
There are dozens of additional areas of productive dialogue, of course.
The trick is to aim at the right target. It's like the old saying: some
people make it to the top of the ladder, only to learn that it is
leaning against the wrong wall.
-- Be Willing To Jump In With Both Feet --
If the dialogue is truly full duplex, then you should be willing to
read their literature. You should be at least minimally conversant with
their particular theology. After all, wouldn't we love it if they read
some of our recommended books?
During a Phoenix radio debate, a local minister asked me, "Have you
ever read The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer?"
"Yes, I have," I responded, "and here is what is wrong with that book."
As I critiqued some of Schaeffer's arguments (racking my brain to
recall them on the spot), I could sense that the preacher was taken
aback. He was not accustomed to informed criticism. It can be very
effective when you say that you have already read one of their pet
In my dealings with fundamentalists, here are some of the more common
authors that have come up:
C. S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity. Josh McDowell, especially
Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter. (McDowell
has a ton of books pretending to answer the skeptics' arguments.)
Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and many
others. The list also includes Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science),
Ellen G. White (Seventh Day Adventism), The Book of Mormon, and the
bible, of course.
Liberal Christians have their own lists of books, but they tend not to
push them like fundamentalists.
-- How Do You Approach A Fundamentalist? --
Let me tell you what would have impressed me, 12 years ago. This will
apply to most fundamentalists, but not to all Christians.
First, informed bible criticism. If you would have opened my bible and
pointed to relevant verses, I may not have instantly converted to
atheism, but I would have been impressed with your grasp of what I
considered important. It would have hit the nail right on the head.
Although they praise the bible as the greatest book ever written, few
fundamentalists know much about it. I recently did a Nashville radio
show with a leading Reconstructionist theologian. He wants to "return"
America to Old Testament laws, including stoning blasphemers and
homosexuals to death. (No kidding.) When I listed examples of the
inferior morality of Jesus, he interrupted with, "Where does Jesus say
that slaves should be beaten?"
"You don't know your own bible?" I responded, looking up the verse.
"It's in Luke 12:47. Why don't you read it yourself, John, over the
He was quiet for a few seconds, then he mumbled something about "out of
context." After a few more seconds he said he wouldn't read it over the
"You're afraid!" I said. The host of the show managed to get him to
read the verse. It was obviously disconcerting for this bible-thumper
to be dealing with someone who actually knew something about the bible.
Most fundamentalists think that if we atheists would only read their
book, we would convert on the spot.
Do yourself a favor and memorize a few short bible verses. Whenever
they quote Psalm 14:1 ("The fool hath said in his heart, There is no
God"), respond with Matthew 5:22: "Whoever saith, Thou fool, shall be
in danger of hell fire" [Jesus speaking].
Psalm 137:9: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones," showing biblical cruelty to children.
Isaiah 45:7: "I make peace and create evil" [God speaking]. This verse
solves the "problem of evil" that theologians have wrestled with for
centuries. God created it.
The bible is their weapon; you are not supposed to be quoting it back
Be ready with a rebuttal when they recite a common verse. The favorite
fundagelical* verse is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he
gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not
perish, but have everlasting life." In other words, the only way God
could restrain himself from torturing us was to vent his anger by
killing his natural son, and whosoever accepts that perverse notion of
justice gets to move in with the guy, forever.
With all their talk about the need for absolute moral standards, few
Christians can quote all Ten Commandments. Memorize them, and then see
if the believer can recite them: 1) no other gods, 2) graven images, 3)
Lord's name in vain, 4) Sabbath, 5) honor parents, 6) killing, 7)
adultery, 8) stealing, 9) false witness, 10) coveting.
Learn a few bible contradictions. The contradictory genealogies of
Jesus (Matthew vs. Luke) are a glaring example. There are thousands of
biblical discrepancies. My book, Losing Faith In Faith, details more
than 50 non-trivial examples.
Second, I would have been impressed with the fact that unbelievers can
be moral, happy, productive people. If you are active in charity,
social causes, or volunteer work, then let them know this--not to
boast, but to counter the "good Christian" fable. Technically, ad
hominem arguments are not appropriate in a rational debate, but since
fundamentalists claim that their faith makes a difference in character,
the topic is not out of bounds.
Third, be positive. Counter the stereotype that atheists are merely
destroying things. Emphasize that we all want the same things: truth,
values, honesty, beauty, meaning. "We both want what is good," you can
Agree with them as much as possible. For example, when they bring up
inner religious experience, tell them that you know those feelings are
very strong. It happens in all religions. Gently suggest that
psychological phenomena (like dreams or hallucinations), as real as
they are, do not necessarily point to anything outside the mind. You
can use this tactic with many arguments: faith healing, the need for
absolutes, etc. Rather than pooh-poohing what they think is important,
take their lead. Agree that such-and-such is a pervasive human desire
or a common human interpretation, and then carefully work the idea
through to a naturalistic explanation.
Obviously, freethought often involves direct and strong criticism of
religion, and many believers will take it personally, accusing us of
being abusive or hateful. Remind the person that you are not attacking
them. Tell them that you think most Christians today are good people in
spite of the bible. They are smarter than Jesus. They are nicer than
God. Many of them have risen above the brutalities of Christianity to
become good, caring people because they (like you) possess a respect
for human values.
-- Offer Them The Bait --
What do we have to offer that can possibly take the place of religion?
If you are going to entice someone out of the corral of sheep, what is
your carrot? Why should they give up comfortable traditions, hope of
eternal life, and the security of absolute truth?
The only possible bait we have is the freedom of thinking for
If this idea is not attractive to the person, then you do not have a
potential freethinker on the line. All of us formerly religious
freethinkers agree that "free thinking" is what drew us out of the
fold. Thinking for yourself can be an immensely appealing seduction,
comparable to the pull felt by teenagers who are ready to move away
from home, to live independently, to be adult and free.
Don't use knowledge as a weapon. Use it as a lure.
If you don't express excitement about learning, then how do you expect
them to join you? The lust for learning can be infectious. Don't make
them mad--make them envious!
My journey out of religion started with a tiny taste of the forbidden
fruit. Gradually I got hooked. The sheer joy of learning something new
kept me coming back for more. Eventually, my heart could not embrace
what my mind rejected.
Knowledge brings a power that is stronger than loyalty. Knowledge is
stronger than faith. It is more powerful than emotion, tradition, or
love. Yes, it is stronger than love: you can't love what you don't
Do I have proof that evangelistic atheism can work? A few years after
my announcement of deconversion, both of my fundamentalist parents
became outspoken freethinkers. Although they deserve the credit for
their own thinking, my defection was a catalyst, prompting their own
reevaluation. We are a close family, and we kept the doors of dialogue
Annie Laurie and I have a daughter, Sabrina, who is three and a half.
We are noticing that we appear to be raising a little independent
thinker. (How could that have happened?) We think it is wonderful to
observe how, if kept from the pressures of indoctrination, children in
the natural state of unbelief feel confident in their thinking
abilities, eager to learn, happy to challenge authority, willing and
able to accept rational explanations, and capable of grasping right and
The fact that indoctrination can be eliminated ... The fact that there
is no universal dictator, no sin, no cosmic guilt, and no hell ... The
fact that human beings possess the potential for good ... The fact that
love can be truly shared between self-respecting peers with both feet
on the ground ... The fact that human reason is capable ... The fact
that intellectual integrity brings the only honest peace of mind ...
The fact that there is no God ...
All of this is truly Good News.
[Dan Barker is a former fundamentalist minister, now a staff member of
the Freedom From Religion Foundation. This article is based on his
speech at the 15th annual Foundation Convention, December 5, 1992 in
San Antonio, Texas.]
[Dan is the author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist,
and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book For Children, published by the
*"Fundagelical" was coined by Foundation member Delos McKown, Ph.D.,
author and head of the Philosophy Department at Auburn University,
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the January/February
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P. O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701
USA (608) 256-8900