7.18.2011

How To Reach Atheist Teenagers: An Evangelical's 'Rules of Engagement'

Greg Stier of Dare 2 Share Ministries
Over at the Christian Post, Greg Stier (president of Dare 2 Share Ministries) has a post called How To Reach Atheist Teenagers.

Dare 2 Share Ministries' mission statement reads: "Mobilizing teenagers to relationally and relentlessly reach their generation for Christ," so I can't really fault him for doing what he has the right to do. He's an evangelical, and that's what evangelicals do. But his Christian Post piece left a bad taste in my mouth, for more than a few reasons.

From Stier's playbook:
1. Mock religion as early as you can in the conversation
In other words, right off the bat, approach your mark and misrepresent yourself and your agenda. It's the old 'gotcha' trick employed by snake-oil salesmen, pickup artists, politicians, and predators. It's cynical, dishonest, and misguided. It's easy to see where Stier is going with this:
Gain this common ground as soon as possible with atheist teenagers. When they see you sickened by the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies religion, the emotional barriers that often keep them from taking a second look at Christianity can begin to fall down.
He continues:
2. Focus on Jesus. 
Jesus was a radical, rebel and revolutionary. This same “vibe” often appeals to atheist teenagers, many of whom consider themselves the same.

Show them stories in the Bible where Jesus healed lepers, hung out with “sinners” and bucked the religious system. Paint the picture of Jesus as a hero of the downtrodden (because he was) and his death as the ultimate injustice (because it was!) When they begin to see Jesus’ willingness to suffer injustice so that they could be justified the code of unbelief can be cracked in their souls.
In other words, if you can show teens that Jesus was rad like you, hung out with societal rejects, and gave it to The Man on occasion, then they will be able to accept that he was the son of God, was born of a virgin, was able to suspend the laws of the cosmos at will, died and came back from the dead, and rose up to this place called Heaven, body and all.

Then Stier comes in with the  old 'if you say it enough times, it becomes true' ploy:
3. Speak of God as if he exists.

Instead of assuming they are true atheists, speak of God as a reality.

He then applies the tired old 'no atheists in foxholes' trope:
At the end of the day there are no true atheists. In the deepest parts of their soul every atheist, according to Romans 1, truly believes in the existence of God but doesn’t want to give glorify him or give him thanks.
So, there are no true atheists because a guy said so in a book that has no supernatural significance to atheists. Would you also say that there are no true Muslims, Greg? No true Jews? Keynesians? Pacifists? Vegetarians?

And, because, at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do, Stier finishes off with:
4. Pray, love, repeat.
I've been trying to put a finger on what exactly bugs me so much about Stier's piece. (There are a lot of things to dislike.) Beyond all the creepy, stealthy, dishonest stuff, I think it's the reminder that the faith community still doesn't understand atheism.

Atheism comprises a broad spectrum of individuals, with varying philosophies. The only uniting characteristic is an absence of a belief in a deity.  The 'atheist' moniker could be applied to agnostics, secular humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, nihilists, anarchists, or any number of life stances that do not require a belief in a deity.

Stiers seems to perceive atheists as simply people who are anti-religion, or who have had bad experiences with the church and organized religion. Are there atheists who fit this description? Sure. But this description would only fit a small subset of atheists.

It's easy to see the pointless nature of Stier's approach when we substitute the atheist with a vegan and the Christian with an omnivore.  Let's take Stier's own words and see how silly it becomes:
1. Mock meat-eating as early as you can in the conversation.

Gain this common ground as soon as possible with vegan teenagers. When they see you sickened by the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies the commoditization of animals, the emotional barriers that often keep them from taking a second look at meat-eating can begin to fall down.

Veganism, like atheism, is not a condition that develops due to a misunderstanding the opposing stance. (Most vegans have a very good understanding of what meat-eating is all about -- often they are more educated than the omnivores.) It is most often a life stance that has resulted from a great deal of research, self-reflection, and critical thinking. By showing a vegan that meat-eaters can be good people, generally free of hypocrisy, you have done nothing to eradicate the ethical dilemma that is at the core of their veganism. No matter how many rad omnivores exist, or how convincingly a covert omnivore pretends to also despise animal products, the central philosophical viewpoints remain.

Even if Stier's ploy made sense, how incredibly weird would it be if some person came up to you (a vegan) and pretended to also be a vegan, befriended you and gained your trust, when in fact they weren't vegan at all, and only wanted to convert you?

I have had believers approach me with the same angle as Stier's approach. The assumption is often that I am not a Christian because I was turned off by the church's stances on social issues, or perhaps by the hypocrisy that often accompanies religious figures and religious politicians. Or maybe something bad happened at church. Maybe I was molested by a priest. Who knows?

Sure, I do get upset when religion is used to justify inequality, greed, and exceptionalism. Sure, I get angry when authority figures in the church abuse their power and prey on children. But if all these things suddenly were eradicated from the church, it would not change the fact that I simply cannot accept the tenets of Christianity.  My inability to believe is as real as anything else about me. It is as real as my preference for certain melodies or works of art. It is as real as my aversion to violence, or my attraction to certain physical characteristics. My disbelief is very real to me, even though I grew up in a wonderful church full of wonderful people, many of which I am still very close to today.

It's not that I choose not to believe in the fantastical claims made in scripture, it's that my brain will not allow me to suspend disbelief in order to accept those claims.

Stier might want to reconsider his stealth plan to bring atheists into the fold. I would first suggest he differentiate between teens that don't like church and teens that do not accept the supernatural claims of religion.  There is a difference between teens that haven't made up their mind about religion and teens who have come to the conclusion that they can't accept the existence of a supernatural being based on the evidence that they have examined through critical thinking.

If he doesn't understand the difference, then he is probably wasting his time.

5 comments:

  1. lol? Good luck reaching anyone with a brain with that bullshit.

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  2. That's a good plan, befriend someone on false pretenses just so you can try to convert them. This kind of shit makes me sick & is exactly why I identify myself as not just an atheist, but an anti-theist.

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  3. for suposed truth you sure do a lot of manipulating and deceiving to get people to listen to your fiction........not surprises it is the Christian way

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  4. I'm surprised that you did not tear into "I have found that the more you speak of God as a reality the sooner the atheist teen will say something like, “Well, if God is so good then why….” It’s at this moment they are admitting that they actually do believe in God but they don’t want to acknowledge it for whatever reason."

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  5. The day I meet an atheist that this method works on, is the day that I laugh in that person's face for changing their belief from believing there is no deity and that this world was not created in 7 days to believing that two nudists taking dietary advice from a talking snake caused everyone to become damned. I hear that people who make friends JUST to convert them, generally have no friends except acquaintances from the church they go to be guilt tripped into believing ANYTHING they are told.

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