I help teach a PSR class. The students are Soph in High School. One of the students, at our last class, informed us that he has been confronted by an atheist, and he really does not know how to respond to this person. Does anyone have any idea how to deal with a confrontational atheist? I have never dealt with one, and if I have met an atheist I haven’t known it, so I really did not know how to respond.
Well, I think in general the answer depends on a lot of factors that are not mentioned here. To begin with, how did the atheist confront the student? Did the student do or say something that that identified them as a Catholic and Christian? Generally, atheists do not target people at random.
Ultimately, how the student was approached, and what arguments were used against their belief should form the response the student takes.
I will however relate a thought that I read recently in a book that Pope Benedict wrote almost 40 years ago called Introduction to Christianity. In it he is pondering the mystery of belief and how the believer might be assailed by doubts their entire life. Likewise however, if an atheist is honest with themselves, they can’t be sure if their unbelief is correct as well. So, he tells a story that I believe he said he got from Martin Buber. In the story, an Atheist in the age of the Enlightenment is smugly going around to all the great theistic thinkers of his age and debating them about God’s existence. Since he will admit nothing but proof of God’s existence as victory for the other side, he is feeling pretty smug. One day he approaches a Rabbi to engage him in debate. The Rabbi looks to him and says something like this, “You have engaged all of the great scholars of the Torah looking for proof and they have been unable to provide it to you. Nor can I but what if it is true?”
Don’t deal with a confrontational atheist at all. He’s not looking for discussion. Nothing good will come out of it.
For a non-confrontational atheist, I think the best starting place is to force him to examine his own assumptions. What he believes about the origin of the universe, life and the human person is every bit as based on faith (belief in something for which there is no proof) as is our faith. Start by getting them to face that fact.
Good advice. If someone is being “confrontational”, there’s a very slim chance that they are interested in any sort of authentic dialogue, and an even slimmer chance that they will respond favorably to any information you present to them.
However, as a PSR teacher, you should certainly respond to any questions that your student may have as a result of this encounter, if this atheist is challenging your student’s faith. Even though it’s not fruitful to engage someone who is being openly hostile, you can still use this event as a teaching moment to address many of the issues your students are likely to encounter from atheists.
I would recommend San Juan Catholic Seminar’s booklet How To Answer Atheists & New Agers as a good starting point for addressing the major issues your student is likely to encounter in dealing with an atheist.
I disagree that “confrontation” necessarily mean a person is closed to truth. It could be a cry for help.
It seems to me the most common belief that turns people to atheism is scientism.
“Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science (Shermer 2002).”
Under scientism only empirically verifiable evidence can be true and since the supernatural is not empirically verifiable, it can not be turn. This view is reinforced in popular culture in television, movies and books.
Fortunately, there is a easy answer. Philosophers have move in depth responses but for purposes of daily discussions the easy answer should be sufficient.
Since Scientism itself is not scientifically verifiable, it can’t be true according to it’s own criteria.
I hope this helps.