why talk to atheists on twitter?

This post is going to be self-referential in a way that I swore to not indulge when I started this blog, but because this issue came up on a recent Every Thought Captive podcast and because I didn’t answer the question very well I decided to write something up. Yes, from time to time, I have been known to enter into discussions with atheists on Twitter. Some people have told me they enjoy it. Some people have told me they are made uncomfortable by it. Some people think it’s ridiculous or that I’m ridiculous. (No argument there.) I will get asked the question from time to time, “Why do you talk to atheists on twitter?” The subtext is not always the same. Sometimes they seem genuinely curious. At other times the subtext is different. “Why would you do something so silly?” or “Why would you waste your time?” or even “Why would you do something so kinda un-Christlike?” And admittedly, sometimes it is silly. Often it is a waste of time. And too often I have to admit that my demeanor or my answers are not always the best reflection of Christ.

But, to go ahead and answer the question, here is my apologetic for practicing apologetics online.

  1. Because I like it. I realize that not everyone likes debate. The very idea just makes them uncomfortable. That’s OK. People like different things. But I’ve always liked spirited debate about things that matter to me. Not everyone is built that way, but I am. Some (but definitely not my wife) would say it’s one of the most annoying things about me. I like to analyze and think through issues, and I like to help others analyze and think through issues. I like the challenge of defending my ideas to people who may disagree with me. I’m passionate about faith, about God, and about truth. Say what you will about atheists on Twitter, but they are often more passionate about faith, God, and truth than many Christians that I know. They are willing and eager to have the debate and to talk about the issues. This can make talking to them and debating with them really enjoyable even if it is very contentious.
  2. Because it’s instructive. I realized a few years ago as I was teaching apologetics that I was spending a lot of time talking about skeptics and unbelievers but I had very little personal experience talking to people of aggressive unbelief. I was in a bubble. You can’t effectively teach people about answering skeptics’ questions if you’ve never actually had the opportunity to answer skeptics’ questions. This is a problem that I have with a lot of apologetics. We are answering questions that aren’t really being asked. I realize that Twitter atheists are a subset of unbelievers and are not necessarily representative of all unbelievers, but I have learned so much from my interactions with them. I’ve learned about what they value. I’ve learned about their assumptions. I’ve learned about their influences. I’ve become very familiar with their favorite arguments (and memes!). I’ve learned about their misconceptions about religion and faith. I’ve also learned about their anger and their hurt. One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned is that the vast majority of atheists have some kind of a faith background. Many of them grew up in very legalistic, fundamentalist homes. Many were members of church communities that didn’t properly love them. Many of them had their faith shattered through personal or family tragedy. What makes their atheism so bitter and so passionate is that there is often an underlying wound that was never healed.
  3. Because it’s worthwhile. Honestly, when I hear someone ask me why I talk to atheists on Twitter I can’t help but hear them asking “Why talk to atheists at all?” “It’s a waste of time.” “It’s a distraction.” Really? Answering skeptics’ questions and challenges is a waste of time or distraction? “But isn’t talking to atheists on Twitter sort of like casting your pearls before pigs?” Well, yes, sometimes. It can be fruitless and even silly. But I’m pretty sure that Jesus never intended his words here to be used as a justification for not ever entering into deep and sometimes contentious talks with unbelievers. I know that some people don’t like apologetics. Some of my close friends who are Christians roll their eyes at apologetics. I understand their arguments and their reservations. I just don’t agree with them. They need to meet more skeptics and strugglers. The fact is that there is a large and growing group of people who have turned their backs on God (or who are considering it) and are using intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) justifications for their rejection. The gospel will never reach these people unless it is presented in the form of logical argument and defense. This doesn’t mean that this is all we do, but apologetics can at least help to cultivate the soil where the gospel can take root. It makes me sad that so many of these atheists are living in an echo-chamber where they will tell me that they have never met a single Christian who can argue intelligently on behalf of their faith. I know Twitter isn’t the best format. Truthfully I kind of hate it. Interestingly, I’ve never met a regular Twitter user who loved Twitter and thought it was good for society. A lot of days I really wish it had never been invented. It encourages nasty things like polarized thinking and dehumanization. And the platform itself has certain inherent limitations. But there are also unique opportunities presented by social media. You are able to interact with people who otherwise would never cross your path. Several months ago I had a couple of debates with Keith Law, a baseball writer for ESPN and also a vocal atheist, about the scientific merits of Intelligent Design. This could never have happened without Twitter.

Anyway, those are my reasons – like them or not. But debates on social media are still dangerous. So here are some of my personal guidelines that I try to abide by when talking to atheists on Twitter…

  1. Don’t make it personal and don’t take it personal. This is so hard at times. Some people can just be nasty, and it is tempting to return fire. I’ve fallen into this trap too often. A lot of Twitter debates can devolve into a string of ad hominem arguments hurled at each other. It’s important to remember that Jesus never called us to win debates, but he did call us to be fishers of men. The person is always more important than the debate. Attitude and demeanor matter especially when being attacked. I’ve had to go back and apologize to individuals for allowing our conversation to become too personal and cynical. Usually, this apology goes a long way towards dispelling the tension. Never, ever dehumanize the person on the other end of the tweet.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. I joke with a lot of atheists that my goal is to make them better atheists. As long as you are going to be an atheist, you might as well be a good one. My typical approach is to just ask a lot of questions (usually with just a dash of sarcasm or humor). Get them to think through their assumptions. Challenge them to address the implications of their beliefs. It’s an indirect method of apologetics that shifts the burden of proof. Religious believers are not the only ones who need to analyze and answer for their beliefs.
  3. Agree until you have to disagree. Not everything has to be an argument. Find common ground wherever you can. Be honest and don’t pretend that you have every issue of faith completely figured out. Skeptics can smell this hypocrisy a mile away. Skeptics are sometimes surprised to find a believer who actually shares some of their reservations.
  4. Don’t follow every rabbit trail. Not every question has to be answered. Not every question is of equal importance. Sorry, I’m just not going to debate specific Bible stories like Jonah or Noah and the flood on Twitter. I’m also not going to waste my time debating whether or not some Christians are bad people. Spoiler alert: they are because we all are. There are some issues that I’m just not going to waste my time on. I try to stick with big topics if I can.
  5. Try to listen for their story. It is actually possible to develop the semblance of a relationship with people on Twitter. Without going into personal stories, there have been several atheists that I have become friendly with through Twitter. We’ve shared our stories. I’ve offered and have been asked for prayer. I’ve been asked for reading lists of Christian apologists. Getting to know some of these people on a personal level has completely changed the dynamic of our conversations. And this isn’t some sneaky strategy. I really do want to engage these people on a personal level if they will let me. Not everyone will. Some just like yelling. Which reminds me…
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. 
  7. Know when to walk away. There will always be those people who will not allow you to engage them in an honest and fair conversation. Walk away. This is easier said than done. THEY ARE SO OUTRAGEOUSLY WRONG. I MUST CORRECT THEM. Walk away.
  8. Twitter has limits. It is always frustrating when I’m talking to an atheist who demands I defend the truthfulness of my faith in 140 characters. Once I had an atheist tell me that if I couldn’t explain the Trinity in a tweet, then it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Twitter has helped me to learn how to be concise with my points, but there will always be moments where you have to admit that the question is too big for Twitter.  
  9. Don’t quote tweet. It’s obnoxious. It’s bad form. It’s a way to call in reinforcements and create a feeding frenzy for your followers. I never like it when I am quote tweeted, so I try very hard to avoid the practice myself.

 

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