Summary: is it possible for Christians and atheists to have meaningful conversations?

It was billed as “A Discussion between Science and Religion about Origins,” but it was nothing of the sort. The scientist refrained from attacking the biblical account, but he kept stating that science demonstrated the earth to be billions of years old and that settled it. The pastor, defending the religious side of the discussion, would have none of it. He claimed that the Bible declared the earth to be about 6,000 years old, and that settled it. The two sides weren’t discussing anything. They weren’t talking to each other. They were talking past each other.

This, unfortunately, is characteristic of many—and probably most—discussions between Christians and atheists. It would be easy for religionists to blame atheists for the disconnect, but as the preceding example illustrates, both sides are to blame. On the religion side a study by the University of British Columbia found that religious people distrust atheists to roughly the same degree as they distrust rapists. Lead researcher Will Gervais said that “where there are religious majorities—that is, in most of the world—atheists are among the least trusted people.”

On the other hand, speaking about the July 2011 Japanese tsunami, best-selling author and atheist Sam Harris said, “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary.” Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, calls the God of the Old Testament “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” and a “capriciously malevolent bully.” And the late Christopher Hitchens devoted a whole book to the proposition that God is not great and that religion poisons everything.

So the question arises, is it possible for Christians and atheists to have meaningful conversations? I will begin by pointing out that this article is not about how public debaters can have meaningful conversations. These are usually a competition between contestants to see which one can be more persuasive with an audience. The purpose of this article is to discuss how individual Christians and atheists, or even small groups of Christians and atheists, can have meaningful conversations.

Realistically, in a polarized climate, engaging in these conversations can be risky. It will take some effort to make meaningful conversations possible. Following are some mistakes to avoid and some positive steps we can take that can help to make conversations between Christians and atheists meaningful.

Dialogue versus debate

The title of this article is “Christian-Atheist Dialogue.” The word dialogue is critical here. Dialogue suggests a respectful conversation, the purpose of which is to exchange ideas, inform each other, and clarify issues. Debate, on the other hand, is a competition, with each side trying to defeat the other, especially in the eyes of the onlookers.

So the first requirement for honest discussion is for each side to listen, really listen, to what the other person is saying. Truly listening can often help us quickly determine whether the other party really wants a conversation, whether they’re attempting to engage in debate, or whether they just want to mock and ridicule. Those three things are quite different, and the latter two are, regrettably, too often indulged in by parties on both sides of the question. As mentioned earlier, there are those who aren’t interested in engaging in a meaningful dialogue but want simply to defeat or demean the opposition. They don’t intend to listen or respond except to score debating points and/or to engage in mockery. Conversation is impossible in such cases.

Debates have their place, but a debate is not a conversation. In a conversation, two individuals build a relationship based on understanding; a debate is about persuading an audience. Most of us are not skilled debaters, nor do we wish to really engage in debate. Building a relationship based on understanding requires building trust by respectfully exploring the ideas we share and those on which we differ.

Understand first, then respond

Only by listening can we discover what the other person is thinking. Everyone wants to be heard. When we feel that we haven’t been heard, we become frustrated, and that can easily lead to resentment and the breakdown of a relationship.

Too often, instead of listening, we’re composing our reply in our heads while the other person is still talking. In so doing, we react rather than respond, going into debate mode without realizing it, getting ready to counter their statement rather than really understanding it. This often results in miscommunication because we’re responding to what we think the other person was saying instead of what he or she really said. One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

An effective way to discover whether we’ve really heard what the other person said is to repeat back to them our understanding of what they said to us—but in our own words. For example, “What I hear you saying is such and such. Is that correct?” If we simply parrot back verbatim what the other person said, there’s a chance we may be attaching different meanings to the same words. By rephrasing it in our own words, we demonstrate whether we truly understood the other person’s meaning. And until that happens, no progress can be made.

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