Recently on CNN's Belief Blog, Daniel Burke posted a piece about the experiences of atheists who live in the part of the United States known as the Bible Belt. As one might expect (at least I did as someone who grew up in the South), being known as an atheist was often not an easy thing in small communities where everyone knows each other and there is very little exposure to different worldviews or cultures. Because most folks don't understand atheism, it's not uncommon for them to have very negative reactions to it, ranging from incredulity to accusations of Satanism to harassment.
I was fortunate to have grown up in a city in which I was exposed to many different cultures and worldviews. I had friends who were Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists. This has allowed me to comfortably navigate various religious perspectives with little trouble because I already understood a couple of very important facts: most people are people of good will regardless of their views on religion and most people are willing to dialogue about religion at least to some extent.
I find that when it comes to Christians who are attempting to engage atheists in some way, the encounter is typically not very productive. As I've explained before, that is why I don't like to argue with atheists or Christians. By and large these encounters are not productive because of a lack of understanding on the part of least one of the parties. This of course is not unique to interactions between atheists and Christians; human beings in general are pretty terrible at philosophical dialogue and even worse at it when it involves their views on religion. That's why we end up with silly and serious discussions about who is more logical or about whether atheism or theism takes more faith, for example, discussions which aren't even getting at the core issues where there is disagreement between Christians and atheists.
So what can we do to foster a higher quality of engagement with atheists as Christians? The first step is to understand where they are coming from. I don't mean that every Christian needs to try to be an atheist for a while as one pastor did fairly recently, but that we should at least listen to their story and try to follow their reasoning. We should invite them to friendship and a productive dialogue, an invitation which cannot be extended if we have closed the door on understanding. We should be thankful for their presence in our lives and let them know that we appreciate their gifts. In discussion forums, whether in person or online, we should remain civil and refrain from attacking the person even as we strongly disagree and critique each other's arguments.
There is a growing sense of a great conflict brewing between Christianity and atheism in the United States, particularly as certain demographic shifts occur which generate an increase in the number of atheists relative to the general population. Certainly, there is some degree of widespread conflict in online discussion forums driven in part by a lack of a full sense of a person's humanity when interacting with their words on a screen and maybe a bad picture. Certainly, we want to reduce this conflict to the extent that it is unhealthy.
I don't think that the solution to this conflict is to "win" the argument (as if there were such a thing in most cases). Most people don't change their views because they accepted an argument which effectively countered them, but because they were drawn to a life that has something authentic and loving to give. Accordingly, I tend to think that the best solution to the conflict between Christians and atheists is to love it to death, or at least not fan the flames of that conflict through misunderstanding and accusations.
At worst, our lives will be better because we have better relationships and a deeper understanding of others after engaging in fruitful dialogue. Who knows, we might even end the "War on Christmas" silliness that goes on each year.