FENTON, MI – Non-believers are all around us. In fact, there might be more non-believers around you in your day-to-day life than there are brothers and sisters in Christ. According to Pew Research, religiously unaffiliated people are the second-largest “religious” group in roughly half (48%) of the world’s nations.
In 2014, there were approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States, making the unaffiliated second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S. And the number is growing. Between 2007 and 2015, the percentage of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.
As the number of non-believers rise, followers must learn to identify those without faith and how to talk with them about Christ in ways that will resonate with their beliefs. If we are to stem the rising tide of lostness in the world, we must first understand the hearts and minds of the non-believers before we can hope to lead them to the Lord.
WHY ARE THERE NON-BELIEVERS?
First, it might be helpful to understand some of the reasons why the unaffiliated don’t identify with a religious group. Knowing why a non-believer has chosen to forsake his or her relationship with God can help us in our attempt to foster a new one. Again, information from Pew Research can help us understand some of the actual reasons non-believers give for turning away from religion.
As part of the Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research asked people to explain, in their own words, why they no longer identify with a religious group. This resulted in hundreds of different responses, but many of them shared one of the few common themes. Examples from the survey include:
“Too many Christians do un-Christian things.”
“I’m doing a lot more learning, studying and making decisions for myself rather than listening to someone else.”
“I see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.”
“Religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business. It’s all about money.”
“I stopped going to church and never picked it back up. I was never super religious.”
From these responses, we can start to shape our engagements with non-believers to address the issues and concerns they have with the idea of religion itself and not necessarily with the Creator. Bringing non-believers to God requires us to meet them where they are; not the other way around.
TYPES OF NON-BELIEVERS
So, who are the non-believers? Non-belief is an ontologically diverse community, and no two non-believers may have the same set of values or ideas. And yet, however subtle the differences may be, there are types of non-believers that the religiously unaffiliated often identify with. Understanding these types, and the differences between them, can help those who seek to save the lost.
Atheists – The word atheism, in the most basic term, translates to “no god.” However, there are further distinctions that can be made. Positive atheism asserts that a supreme being doesn’t exist, while negative atheism asserts a lack of belief in such a deity. In either case, people may identify as atheists simply because they haven’t seen any evidence that God exists, or because they fail to the see the impact of organized religion in people’s lives.
Anti-theists – While atheism is defined as the lack of belief, anti-theism challenges the legitimacy of faith as a moral authority or way of knowing. In other words, anti-theists disagree with the institution of religion and assert that any belief in God is harmful to society. Anti-theism, also known as strong atheism or New Atheism, seeks to replace religion with secularism and faith with science. Anti-theists tend to be the most dogmatic and aggressive type of non-believer.
Agnostics – Like atheists, agnostics also assert a lack of belief in a supreme creator, but only because they view God’s existence as unknowable. An agnostic believes human beings simply cannot know anything beyond the physical realm, although some agnostics would say that it may be possible someday. Agnostics may also admire the life and moral teachings of Jesus as told in the Gospel, but not necessarily more than other historical figures like Socrates or Abraham Lincoln.
Skeptics – Someone who claims to be a skeptic has put critical thinking at the heart of their belief structure. They broadly challenge the legitimacy of all institutions and ideologies that are not based on evidence. Skeptics, also sometimes known as free thinkers, are questioning and doubtful by nature, but they will change their mind in the face of evidence they deem satisfactory to the question at hand.
Humanists – Humanism is the belief that mankind is the highest entity. People who identify as humanists might ascribe to the saying, “Man is the measure of all things.” They see man as being responsible for his own self-direction. Humanists may be atheist or agnostic, although some may be more open-minded to appreciating the positive influence of religion, such as offering a basis for moral values and methods for dealing with life’s problems.
TALKING TO NON-BELIEVERS
One of the biggest hurdles Christians must overcome before they can have a deep, meaningful conversation with a non-believer is to meet them on their terms and speak in a language they understand. There are obviously certain concepts that carry little meaning for those who don’t share our beliefs, but research shows there might also be more “spiritual” commonality between believers and non-believers than one might think.
According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, a third (31%) of atheists say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly, and a similar share (35%) often thinks about the meaning and purpose of life. And perhaps most interesting of all, the number of Americans who believe in an afterlife has risen even as religious affiliation has gone down: In 2014, 80% of Americans said they believe in an afterlife, up from 73% in 1974.
These insights provide good places to start a conversation about God with non-believers: spirituality, the meaning of life, and what comes after death. The key, though, is finding the right opportunity to bring up these topics with non-believers.
That’s where the art of listening comes in handy. Asks questions, show interest, and be prepared to share your faith when the opportunity presents itself. Talk about the power of the Gospel to transform lives, but most importantly talk about how the Gospel has transformed your life. To seek and save the lost, we must be examples of Christ’s love and compassion so that non-believers might allow themselves to have a heart change. We can convince non-believers to a point, but only God can convict them to seek forgiveness and receive the Holy Spirit.