We have known for decades that, across the Western world, secularism is on the rise. Census data indicates that “no religion” is an increasingly common response to the “What religion are you?” question. In a world obsessed with identity, we have become surprisingly non-committal when it comes to religion. This increase in the “non-religious” has gone hand in hand with an increase in atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, and is a catch-all way of articulating all three.
Atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism are best viewed as shades of conviction on a spectrum. Rather than thinking of them as distinct views, we should see them as expressing differing degrees of persuasion. They encapsulate a range of positions on the scale of belief. On one end of the scale, you have what a non-Christian friend of mine calls “anti-theists.” They are more aggressive than many atheists and are combatively against God and any notion of Him. At the other end of the scale are theists. In between these two are a variety of other views, including atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism.
This scale of conviction relates to the degree of knowledge any given person would say they have. Some atheists profess to know for certain that God does not exist; others are not so sure. Some agnostics claim to know that we cannot be sure if God exists; some do not know whether we can know. Many skeptics want to know God if He does exist but are not sure how they would know Him if He did. With this in mind, we can define the three as follows:
An atheist is someone who does not believe in God. Not all atheists are anti-theists, in that they are not all necessarily opposed to the idea of God. Many are simply not convinced there is one.
An agnostic is someone who does not know whether God exists or not. Many agnostics are open to discussing God and see the value of religion and morality.
A skeptic is someone who doubts and questions the existence of God. Some are open to finding out more, and many are actively seeking the truth.
Having the above in mind as we engage with any one of these three convictions can itself be helpful for the Christian. Self-proclaimed atheists may be more agnostic than atheistic when you begin to discuss the details of truth, morality, and the existence of God. Skeptics may have moved in recent years from being anti-theists who are now open to, but unsure of, the reality of a spiritual world. The atheists, agnostics, and skeptics I interact with have a whole range of views on almost every subject we discuss. The strength of their convictions can also vary. Because of that, we need to get to know people well enough to get past the labels they (or others) may use to define themselves. How can Christians engage?
1. Be Friendly, Ask Questions, and Share the Gospel
The first thing that Christians can do when engaging with someone in any of these three categories is to simply be friendly and ask them questions. The Christian who is willing to sincerely discover the non-Christian’s convictions is best placed to tell them the good news about Jesus Christ. Take an interest in them, get to know them, and spend time finding out about them. As basic as this sounds, it can be one of the most effective ways of understanding them and thereby having opportunities to share the gospel in a personal way. It is also dangerous. It means you are likely to get into their lives and share more than a conversation about the existence of God. You will get to know their joys and struggles and will have opportunities to serve and love them. When this happens, your conversations about God and faltering attempts to speak of Jesus will have a new power and authenticity.
2. Invite Them to Church
Another thing you can do is invite them to church. You may be surprised at how open they are to coming. Many atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have genuine questions that they are seeking answers to. An invitation to church is an opportunity for them to find out more. In addition, loneliness is a major issue for many today. The opportunity to join a church family as you worship and fellowship together may be more attractive than you imagine. And if they come, they will be exposed to the very thing they need the most: the preaching of the gospel.
We must never forget to pray. Unless God opens their hearts and the Holy Spirit enlightens their minds, our acts of love and words of truth will have little effect. Our engagement with atheists should be saturated in the prayer that God would convince them that He exists. Our discussions with agnostics should be bathed in the prayer that God would give them true knowledge of Him. Our friendship with skeptics should be suffused with the prayer that God would persuade them of His truth.
4. Tell Them about Jesus
Fourthly, though no less importantly, we must remember to keep pointing them to Jesus. He is the main attraction, and we need to do everything we can to bring them to Him. Christ is the answer to their deepest questions. How do we know God exists? Take them to the God-man, Jesus. How do we know what God is like? The greatest revelation of God is in Christ—God is Christlike. How do we know God cares? Take them to the cross of Christ, where we see the love of God for His people. Atheists, agnostics, and skeptics need more than to be moved along the scale of conviction toward theism. They need Jesus Christ, who alone will answer their questions and satisfy their longing hearts.