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New Horizons

Engaging the Skeptics

Bradley M. Peppo

“Hi. My name is Brad. I’m about to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and I really enjoy talking with young, thinking unbelievers. Do you think it would be OK if I started attending your meetings?”

This was my introduction to the student Freethought group at our local state university. I had approached two members of the group at their table in the student commons. One of them smiled and said, “We’re open to people of all viewpoints, and you’d be welcome to join us.” I thanked them, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

My plan to remain a quiet wallflower that first evening disintegrated in about five minutes. Among the dozen students in the room, I was an obvious misfit, especially after introductions were made and I explained my purpose for being there. My presence naturally directed the discussion toward the rationality of theism and the Christian faith. And being the only Christian there, I did a great deal more of the talking than I had intended. The conversation was intense and rowdy at times, but remained surprisingly friendly.

After the meeting was over, one member sincerely thanked me for coming. “This is so much better,” he said, “than sitting around like we usually do and arguing against what imaginary Christians would say.” He encouraged me to return.

And so I did return, most weeks, for the rest of that year. Each week, one of the members would give a presentation on a different topic: anything from gender theory to alternative medicine to evolutionary biology. During these meetings, I would typically listen quietly—unless they asked me for my perspective as a Christian, which they did from time to time.

Most weeks following the meeting, however, a good portion of the group would go out to a restaurant. They invited me to join them. In an environment where my co-opting of their organized meeting wasn’t a concern, I felt more freedom to be more assertive in challenging their views. They responded in kind. This more relaxed atmosphere also provided an opportunity to get to know the students on a much more personal level. I began to learn more about their backgrounds, their views on all sorts of issues, and even about some of their deep personal struggles. These after-gatherings turned out to be the most productive parts of our interaction.

When word got out that there was a Christian minister in the area interested in engaging with skeptics, members of other groups began to contact me. A meeting with a local atheist activist turned into a regular monthly gathering of Christians and skeptics, usually around a campfire at my house. Sometimes I would begin with a presentation of the gospel and then address questions and objections. At other times, a specific issue was selected in advance, which we came prepared to discuss. These meetings too proved to be occasions for productive interaction.

An attendee at one of my campfires was involved in a local skeptic podcast. He invited me to appear as a guest on the program, in which we discussed the transcendental argument for the existence of God and, on a later episode, whether Christianity was good for the world. The producers of the podcast were also members of another local Freethought group, which eventually invited me to their meetings as well. Contact with different members of these groups has continued, if somewhat sporadically, over the last few years. Most recently, I had an opportunity to be interviewed for an extensive audio documentary on the historical Jesus, which is scheduled to air on our local NPR station.

So, what have I learned from my involvement with the skeptic community? There have certainly been surprises. From the very beginning, I have been impressed by how genuinely appreciative these folks are to have Christians approach them for discussion. Unlike the majority of the rest of population, which does not want to be pried away from their cable television for any reason, these folks are eager to talk about the claims of Christ. I’ve not yet engaged with a group by whom I’ve not been warmly welcomed, and I’ve always been struck by how the conversations, however zealous or emphatic, have always remained civil and productive.

Another surprise for me has been the diversity within the skeptic community; its members do not easily fit into any one box. They come from many different backgrounds: some were raised in homes with no religious upbringing at all, several have left cults, and a number have abandoned orthodox Christianity. They represent a surprising variety of ideologies: anarchists, socialists, and even an occasional conservative Republican. They can also be unexpectedly diverse in the consistency of their skepticism. Not all are thorough-going materialists, a small number have significant doubts about Darwinism, and many will readily acknowledge the force of the presuppositional argument and even concede the ultimate groundlessness of skepticism itself. They’re far from a homogenous group.

Christians who hear about my experiences naturally want to know: have you seen any conversions yet out of this group? No, I haven’t. Do I still think this is worth doing? Absolutely. While God, to my knowledge, has not yet granted any of these folks faith and repentance, there is no telling what he may do for them in the future.

And in the meantime, I have seen good reason to encourage Reformed Christians to engage in this way. For some skeptics, my interaction with them has been their first encounter with any attempt at a rational defense of the faith. Others have discovered, through our discussions, that the god to whom they’ve been objecting is not the God of the Bible and that their arguments against the god of open theism are much less effective against the one true God who foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. Several have admitted rather candidly the newly perceived inadequacies of their unbelieving worldviews. And oftentimes the mere willingness of a Christian to engage with them in a rational and friendly manner has made them more disposed to consider the Christian claims. I’m convinced that this is worth doing.

I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing this work to begin by engaging skeptics on their own turf. Our mission work has tried a couple of different strategies for gathering audiences of skeptics for discussion, including a Socratic club at the local community college and door-to-door invitations to a Bible study, but so far the only thing that has produced any response is going to them where they are already organized. Look online for local Freethought groups or Secular Student Alliances in your area and contact them. If your experience is anything like ours has been, you might be surprised by the positive reception.

As soon as possible, however, look for opportunities to get to know these folks in other contexts, especially within your homes. Smaller gatherings tend to cut down on the pressure for posturing (on both sides). And do really try to get to know them. Interest in their personal stories is always appreciated. Strive for honesty and sympathy in these conversations as well. Often their questions and struggles are not that dissimilar to our own.

Be aware that their diversity defies a one-size-fits-all approach. In my first engagement, I went in all ready to discuss Richard Rorty, only to find that the cultural references within the discussion came almost exclusively from episodes of Star Trek. (Is Jean-Luc Picard also among the prophets?) I was also surprised to find that there were relatively few fans of Richard Dawkins among them. Each group will have its own unique composition, which will have to be learned as you go along. A good way to do this is to ask them for reading (or viewing) recommendations.

Finally, I would encourage you to engage these folks even if you don’t feel particularly well equipped for the job. I know that there are hundreds of apologists sharper than me out there in the world, and I’m confident that there are several more eloquent advocates in my own community, but I also know that when I’ve visited these groups, none of those people are there, engaging in the personal interaction that seems so important. I suspect that such is the case in lots of places. There is no shortage of opportunities for those who are willing to go forth in weakness, with reliance upon the strength of Christ.

The author is the organizing pastor of Living Water OPC in Springfield, Ohio. New Horizons, March 2017.

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