10 Tips for Compassionately Engaging with Your Atheist Friend

Jessica Brodie

Award-winning Christian Novelist and Journalist
Updated May 01, 2024
10 Tips for Compassionately Engaging with Your Atheist Friend

Have you ever met an atheist? I don’t just mean someone who doesn’t go to church or a non-Christian, but someone who doesn’t believe in God at all.

I’ve met a few in my life. Some have been coworkers and others fellow students, and it can be challenging to navigate a relationship between two people with opposing belief systems. But I’ve learned there are ways to engage with an atheist friend that can be healthy and live-giving — and hopefully, ultimately point to Jesus.

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Woman looking skeptical

What Makes Someone an Atheist?

First, it’s helpful to understand what it means to be an atheist. An atheist is someone who does not believe in God or in any deities. This person rejects the notion that God, or any gods, created the world, the universe, time itself, or the people and creatures that inhabit this earth. It’s a lack of belief, rather than a belief “in” something. Instead, it’s a rejection of the assertion that there is a God (or gods), period.

An atheist is different from an agnostic, who believes that whether God exists is not known, and is possibly even unknowable. Some call agnosticism a belief in the unknown. They might think or hope that God is out there, but they don’t know for sure, and they don’t believe human reason or other evidence can prove the existence of a deity, or the supernatural in general, in any way.

Atheism, then, is not a religion or a belief system. It’s a rejection of belief in God.

Second, it’s helpful to understand why someone is an atheist. People have different reasons for their belief systems, or lack thereof, and atheists do, too:

  • Some cite lack of evidence for God, or what they call “reliable” evidence.
  • Some say the arguments “for” God’s existence don’t adequately prove it.
  • Some say the existence of evil contradicts the notion of an all-powerful God, especially if he “can’t” or “won’t” do anything about it.
  • Some say science explains everything people used to attribute to God, so there is no God.
  • Some consider God to be a psychological crutch humans created because they sought meaning.
  • Some simply haven’t heard the Gospel, perhaps because of their cultural or family upbringing.

There are other reasons beyond this. According to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, atheists comprise about 4 percent of adults in the United States. Sociologists estimate about 7 percent of the population worldwide is atheistic.

If you are a Christian who has found yourself engaging with an atheist friend, here are 10 tips.

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two women friends having a conversation over coffee

1. Love Them

Jesus said to love others (Matthew 22:39). He didn’t say we should only love people who think like us, or only people who worship God. In fact, he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Later, he told us how we can love others: by caring for their needs, feeding them, clothing them, tending to their wounds, visiting them in prison, etc.

Atheists are people created by God and beloved by God, and as such, they are deserving of your love. Do what it takes to love them in the name of Jesus, whatever that looks like.

2. Respect Their Conviction

Don’t dismiss an atheist as ignorant or stupid. Many atheists know quite a lot about Christianity and other religions. Some were raised in the church and ultimately rejected it, or have studied it from a philosophical standpoint in school or through literature.  

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, people who identified as atheists were among the groups that performed best on their 2019 religious knowledge survey, answering more than half the questions correctly and scoring higher than most American adults. They also knew just as much about Christianity as most Christians on the survey.

There is a reason why they ascribe to non-belief. The reason might be incorrect, but it doesn’t mean they should be treated with a lack of respect. Again, love is key here.

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3. Ask Questions and Listen

Try to understand why your friend is an atheist. Lack of evidence? Existence of evil? Cultural norms? Anger or other pain? Get to know them as a person. Ask them about it if they are willing to talk. Asking questions indicates care, and care walks in tandem with love. Care about them as a person by striving to understand.

4. Don’t Assume Atheism Equals Satanism or Make Other Assumptions about Morality

Someone who is an atheist simply doesn’t believe in God (or any idea of “gods”). It doesn’t mean they worship Satan, the enemy of God. It also doesn’t mean they lack a moral compass or don’t respect basic laws of goodness and compassion.

Many people who are atheists consider kindness and good values to be extremely important. Those values simply don’t include God.

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man smiling with hands over heart

5. Know That God Can Soften Their Heart

God gives us free will. But God also wants us all to choose him. That’s why the concept of Jesus leaving the 99 sheep to go after the one lost sheep is such a powerful metaphor (Matthew 18:10-14). For instance, Jonah ran from God. But God loved Jonah and didn’t let him off easily. He sent a storm and then enabled Jonah to be swallowed by a fish in order to soften Jonah’s heart and ultimately change his mind about running from the mission God laid upon him (Jonah 3:1-3).

Similarly, Saul was an enemy of the church, arresting and throwing Christians in jail and otherwise persecuting them. But God wanted his heart, so he sent his son to beseech Saul. Jesus appeared to the man, asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul was struck with blindness, and when the scales fell from his eyes, his heart had changed. He eventually changed his name to Paul and became the apostle responsible for spreading Christianity to most of Asia Minor.

God can soften anyone’s heart.

6. Allow the Holy Spirit to Speak Through You

Christianity grew through the power of the Holy Spirit igniting in the heart of believers and spreading from person to person. Trust the Holy Spirit, alive in your heart, to do the work for you. Remember: You have God living inside you! God can do anything, including giving you the words to say to your atheist friend.

As Jesus says in Luke 12:11-12, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

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Young woman praying outside at sunrise

7. Pray for Them

Prayer is powerful. Jesus said we should ask and seek in faith, and the door will be opened to us (Matthew 7:7-8).

Indeed, Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).

8. Consider the Root

Understand an atheist’s lack of belief might stem from deep anger or hurt, or a sense of betrayal. A lot of atheists have been hurt by the church, whether theology they disagree with or because of other Christians who have behaved in un-Christlike ways.

Others have lost someone very close to them—a parent, spouse, or young child—and are angry with God, thinking that if God exists he wouldn’t possibly take their loved one away, or cause natural disasters or allow other evil and devastating circumstances.

Many are very upset about the way human beings have used religion to hurt other people. For example, people used the Bible to advocate for slavery at one point in history, or they point to the violence of the Crusades or other conquests that claimed land and took over communities or nations, supposedly in the name of God.   They look around at the polarization and the fighting among Christians and have a negative opinion about God based on this.

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9. Ask What It Would Take for Them to Believe in God

Sometimes, the solution is simpler than we think. Try asking your atheist friend what would need to happen in order for them to believe. Often, this will indicate the state of their heart, and whether or not they are open to the Lord.

Then step back and watch God do the work.

10. Get Personal

Get to know them and try to understand the best way to reach them. Perhaps God will use you to reach them through intellectual facts, a heartfelt testimony, or your own witness of Christian love as you model a life of love. Or perhaps he’ll use them to teach you something, and he has a different plan for how to soften their heart and show them the way.

Remember: Atheists are people, too. And some atheists are future Christians — only, they don’t know it yet. Let God use you to show the way if that is what God intends.

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Jessica Brodie author photo headshotJessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.com/advent. Learn more about Jessica’s fiction and read her faith blog at http://jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional and podcast. You can also connect with her on Facebook,Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed

Originally published Wednesday, 01 May 2024.