Five Tips for Handling Agnostics

Tonight was tiring. I was reviewing James 3 with my bible study. We had moved into the lounge of the host church’s foyer, which someone had already occupied. I wanted to discuss how James’s critique of the tongue was contextualized with a preface on teachers, and how his analogies for the tongue controlling the body could just as well apply to a teacher managing a student body. However, the stranger was invited to join the conversation. The stranger was an agnostic. The bible study almost completely abandoned James 3 and turned into a slogged debate on Christianity. Despite numerical and age advantages, our bible study made a surprisingly poor showing. Lest I go to sleep angry, I’m going to type out a rant, under the thinly veiled guise of “Five Tips for Handling Agnostics.”

Tip One: Know your audience. Christians seem to bunch all atheists and agnostics into one category: “people who don’t know about the light of Christ.” Be that as it may, a one-size-fits-all approach leaves Christians woefully unprepared for a discussion. The subject for study is a high school pastor’s kid who fell out of the faith. She thinks her parents are too strict with such draconian regulations as “don’t do drugs,” and “don’t have sex before marriage.” She believes that she needs to trust herself foremost and shouldn’t be overly reliant on God.

Now, out the gate, we have a few things we should denote. She has tasted Christianity and decided that it wasn’t for her. She has probably read the Bible, and she’s familiar with the basic stories of Christian canon. This is a vastly different background to, for example, someone who believes in a greater power but who never got into religion. Both dossiers are agnostic but for completely different reasons. You need to treat the two cases differently.

Tip Two: Don’t blindly agree with anything, even dismissively. When our subject said, “You can’t rely on God too much” amid a number of other statements, please do not respond with “I totally agree” like one of our members said. This was likely a throwaway statement, but it’s a major blunder nonetheless. Either you didn’t listen, or you just denied Christ. When she’s complaining about her parents, don’t take her side out of empathy for her. “Don’t do drugs” and “don’t have sex before marriage” are very, very understandable pieces of advice, especially for a high schooler. Apologizing to her for her family situation, even if you find her grievances illegitimate, helps drive the wedge between her and her parents. That’s insane. It would be much better just to pass over those comments altogether.

Tip Three: Avoid “Well, the Bible says…” or like appeals to authority. You acknowledge the Bible as fundamental truth. Agnostics do not. In their minds, what does the Bible have anything to do with the conversation? At worst, if the Bible conflicts with their worldview, they might confirm the Bible to be false in their own head.

Agnostic: “I mean, what’s wrong with sex before marriage? I made my choice, and I’m satisfied with it.”

Bible study leader: “Well, in the Bible, there’s a story about a woman accused of prostitution. There were people—”

Agnostic: “About to stone her. I know. But we don’t live in that kind of society anymore.”

Denotation: This does not mean that you can’t use the Bible as a source. You don’t need to cite it. If you do, though, word it differently. For example: “There’s a concept in our Bible that states [fill in the blank]. I think it applies here.” You are then using not the authority but the argument for this discussion, then highlighting the wisdom of the authority if the argument holds true. That’s something that an agnostic can work with.

Tip Four: Stop with the Christian-isms. This was infuriating to me as I watched the conversation go down. “Jesus set us free so we could have salvation from our sins.” Yes, that’s true. That’s also a jargon word salad that she might not believe. Not only that, she’s heard that a hundred times; it has no effect on her. This goes back to Tip One; a generic response will only generate apathy. Instead, get into the agnostic’s rationale. Reverse engineer her arguments to find ways to dismantle them. I’m paraphrasing a conversation with her:

Agnostic: “I think you should have confidence in yourself, rather than relying on someone you can’t see face-to-face.”

Me: “The problem with trust is that almost everyone has some sort of limit to how much they can be trusted. If, for example, I trust myself, I might be physically incapable of what I need to do. I might be mentally incapable and forget things. Every person I know has their limits, and humans have a very bad habit of overextending their trust.”

Agnostic: “Sure, but if you fail once, you’ll be able to learn from it and move forward.”

Me: “It’s impossible to prepare for every situation that could befall us, up to and including nuclear war. There’s value in preparation, but there’s also value in the resignation that you can’t take care of everything.”

That conversation never mentioned God, but it introduced heavy Christian themes as a solid opposition to her worldview. In fact, this would play a role later in the (hilariously awkward) discussion about drugs. If I want to be physically and mentally prepared, I want to make certain that drugs don’t catch me off guard. What about this next conversation?

Agnostic: “Where’s the proof that everything that happened in the Bible was true, anyways?”

Me: “I could bring up the Dead Sea Scrolls and the various Roman documentation, but I’d like to go one step beyond that. There’s something to be said about the concept of ‘truth,’ beyond just ‘facts.’ If a religion’s tenets resonate with billions of people, that hints to something being there.”

Agnostic: “Well, there are many other religions. Islam and Hinduism both have a billion followers. Aren’t those resonant?”

Me: “I then go back to empiricism. When a religion is rigorously followed, what kind of result do you get? The Hussites formed a community that fended off three, four, five crusades when they tried to rigorously adhere to Christianity. What about a community that rigorously adheres to Islam?”

Agnostic: “I mean, they stone women if they don’t wear a hijab.”

Me: “And by contrast, you yourself mentioned how Jesus saved a woman from stoning, when she committed a far worse crime by the standards of the day.”

This conversation appealed to her past faith. It introduced elements she might never have noticed before, since they’re not on the forefront of nearly any Christian-agnostic discussion.

Tip Five: When you’re ready, get personal. It’s all well and good to dismantle walls of erroneous thought, but that counts for nothing if the walls are never breached. This was something that I could never fully realize. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my discussion. A good friend and savvy tactician in the bible study was able to provide some poignant examples from his own life to hit home and resonate with the agnostic. It gave her plenty of food for thought, beyond the confines of simple discussion. Arguments rarely if ever turn into conversions. The key ingredient, as well as the destination, is a personal relationship with God.

Please, keep in mind that this doesn’t happen overnight. You should practice listening to people outside your sphere of influence. Learn about them, so that you are better equipped. Faith is your shield, but truth is your utility belt. Churches are becoming older and sparser because attendees are more concerned about the next social than about bringing new people to the fold. Make a little difference with the lost in your life. I hope this helps.

About The Author

Benjamin Bjorkman was raised in Northern California. His first church's denomination was Presbyterian, but its controversial internal decisions drove him away. God led him to a small Dutch Reformed church on the border of Rocklin and Lincoln, where he now volunteers his technical service. He is a big fan of post-Torah Old Testament stories, and looks forward to Christianity's semi-millennial reformation!

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