Should Christians be nice in dealing with nasty atheists?

Professor Richard Dawkins is one of the more vocal new atheistsAP/Akira Suemori

There is a fascinating YouTube video of Richard Dawkins (scroll down to watch) speaking at a 'Rally for Reason" in the USA where in front of his devoted followers he urges his fellow atheists to mock and ridicule the religious in public, to challenge the claims of religion with contempt.

As anyone who peruses internet comment columns or any of the various social media outlets, will know, Professor Dawkins' advice is frequently followed. So much so that it seems as though the motto of what I term the New Fundamentalist Atheists (NFA), is "there is no God and I hate him".

How should Christians respond to the nastiness that results? For some the answer is straightforward. We should be really, really nice. When you consider what 'nice' means such an approach does make some kind of sense. According to the OED 'nice' = 'pleasant, agreeable or attractive'. Surely that is what we want to be as we seek to adorn the Gospel?

Recently I debated a well-known American Atheist on Premier Christian Radio's 'Unbelievable' programme. Matt Dillahunty is the host of an online TV show called 'The Atheist Experience', in which he and his co-presenters take calls from religious people, mainly Christians, and then proceed to argue and fulfil Dawkins mandate to mock them. Some people thought that having Matt and myself on the same show would be interesting. For me it certainly was. We recorded two programmes that were feisty and robust – a little bit too much for some Christians. You can listen to them on the Unbelievable Podcast here

The reaction was astonishing, producing one of the largest responses Unbelievable has ever seen. The number one complaint from the atheists who wrote in was that I was rude and nasty (as well as being ignorant and stupid). This response intrigued me. Why was there so little concern about what was said, and so much about how it was said? I suspect that the atheists were used to Matt doing his own show and being rude, mocking and abrasive to Christians – which they loved. But when the boot was on the other foot, there was outrage. I would deny that I was rude to Matt, or that I used ad hominem, or even that I mocked him (although when he claimed that the Bible was untrue because Jesus got the properties of salt wrong, it was hard to resist!). I accept fully that I was robust. I did not let him get away with some of the more ridiculous statements and accusations. I challenged him on assertions that he made (such as the usual NFA allegation that Hitler was a Christian) and I tried to get him to go to the logical conclusion of his beliefs. It did not surprise me that those who shared those beliefs were more than a little upset.

But what upset me were the number of Christians who basically agreed and came up with the argument: that's not nice and you won't win people for Jesus like that. What can one say in response to such an allegation? To reply by saying 'I'm actually really nice' comes across both as lacking humility and a bit wet! In fact there really is no response to the 'you're not nice' accusation except perhaps to point out that it's not nice to make it! The problem here is that so many Christians get confused between the fruit of the Spirit and niceness. Surely Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, Paul telling the Galatian circumcisers to go the whole way and emasculate themselves, and Jesus telling the Pharisees they were of their father the devil, were not exactly 'nice'? The irony for me is that those who complain that being robust in this way is not Christlike, end up condemning Christ for not being like himself!

This is not to say that rudeness, abusiveness and abrasiveness are 'qualities' to be condoned, far less cultivated. But we have to beware of allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the post-modern touchy feely mantra of you can say whatever you want, just don't hurt my feelings, or appear to be not nice. Richard Dawkins relies on Christians being too 'nice' to fight back. This is using nice in the sense of the original Latin nescius 'ignorant'. Christians far too often come across as stupid and coy even though we think we are coming across as pleasant and agreeable. We need to stand up to the verbal bullies, speak up for Christ and his honour and be prepared to always give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16). It is possible to respect people, to be gentle and to be robust.

Why do we need to be robust? Because there is a lot at stake. If we do not challenge ignorance and prejudice with knowledge and truth, then we will find that the consequences will be severe for many people. I think of the school girl mercilessly mocked by her classmates for her faith, the social worker frightened to say anything about her faith because of the anti-religious hate speech amongst her colleagues, the young banker frightened to tell his workmates that he is going to a bible study at lunchtime, and the student scared to tell her parents that she has started going to church. Why? Because they live in a culture where being a Bible believing Christian is equated with being a religious person whose religion makes them fly planes into buildings and is the source of all evil. Witness the recent pronouncements by the Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, who thinks that being religious should be as offensive and unacceptable as being racist

We should also have a passionate concern for the good of the whole of our society and especially the poor. If we remove the thread of Christianity from the garment of our culture, it will unravel and the consequences will be devastating. Not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the whole of our society, we need Christians who will boldly, graciously and lovingly take on the mockers, deceivers and destroyers of the New Atheist Fundamentalism, because it is not the indestructible Church of Christ they will destroy, but rather the countless lives of those who will listen to their myths. Just because Christians were too 'nice' to speak out.