CAHILL: Engaging non-believers with boldness, compassion and understanding [Columnist]

December 11, 2018

Several years back when I was living in San Diego, I was sitting on the deck with my friend Keith outside his apartment. “How do you know God is real?” Keith asked as we watched the waves crash onto the shore. “I just know.” I replied.

“That answer isn’t good enough,” he said, “where is your proof?” I stumbled on words and became flustered. I told him I didn’t want to talk about religion with him; that my beliefs were my own and I didn’t need to explain them. He respectfully changed the subject and we went on enjoying each other’s company.

Keith was one of my closest friends at that time. He was intelligent, kindhearted and loyal. I loved most everything about Keith except for one thing: he was an Atheist. I remember being put off whenever I’d see books in his apartment like Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.”

I was so frustrated by his Atheism because he had many qualities that one might attribute to a good Christian. While he was aware and respectful of my Catholic beliefs, I avoided conversations about religion with him, mostly because of my own insecurities.

I was intimidated by his intellect and felt I wasn’t smart enough to make a case that would change his beliefs. I didn’t think I could have a successful conversation with him unless he agreed with everything I said and ended up becoming Catholic. I needed to defend my faith and win the “argument.”

I needed to prove that I was right and he was wrong. Talk about setting high standards for myself! I was letting my own pride interfere with having a meaningful conversation with a friend.

I think that many of us have had the same experiences when approaching conversations about faith with Atheists. We feel we need to be on the defense and prove them wrong. It’s true that some Atheists are highly intelligent and have a seemingly convincing case for their lack of belief in God.

Others may be bitter and have written off God because of the suffering they have experienced.

It definitely seems easier to avoid conversations on faith with our Atheist brothers and sisters, but Jesus calls us to be bold witnesses. And if we are going to be bold, we have to be on the front lines testifying the Good News; especially to those who desperately need that hope spoken into their lives.

Here are seven practical tips to remember when engaging in faith based conversations with those who identify as Atheists (and anyone who shares different beliefs from you):

1. God loves Atheists: God loves an Atheist just as much as he loves St. Mother Theresa, and just as much as He loves you and me. Focus on forming a personal relationship. The conversations about differences in beliefs will be much more meaningful when a foundation of friendship and respect has been laid. Strive to view the individual through God’s eyes.

2. Converse, don’t argue: Check your pride at the door. This isn’t about winning. Healthy debate is ok, but be respectful and focus on the person.

3. Ask questions: Each of us has a story that deserves to be heard. Ask questions that will help you better understand their perspective on life and faith.

4. Listen and don’t interrupt: A conversation is a two-way street. Active listening demonstrates your genuine care for the person and what they have to say.

5. Share your story: Your personal witness to how Jesus has changed your life is a vital part of the conversation. Share your story with joy and confidence.

6. Don’t make conversion the primary goal: If your heart is set on a conversion, you might be let down. Pray for conversion, but make the goal to build a relationship. Let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

7. Remember that God changes hearts: It is up to you to allow God to work through you in order that He may change hearts. His power and grace are greater than anything we could ever do on our own.

It is my prayer that, through God’s grace, we may all become bold and courageous witnesses of Jesus Christ, that we may emulate His love and light to each person we meet, and that those who are blind may come to see and believe in the power of our Almighty Father.
May God bless you and your journey to share the Good News! 

Andrea Cahill is the assistant coordinator of youth ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Houston.