How to talk to atheists – 7 principles

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Sabahat Ali Rajput, Missionary, Mexico

1. Morals, morals, morals

The single most important thing when discussing opposing views – especially when discussing God Almighty – is to remember that if we are trying to pitch a version of God with certain attributes to someone – mercy, compassion, forgiveness, benevolence – then these attributes should be visible to the atheist in ourselves first.

Particularly worthy of note are four things:

i. The way we behave

ii. The way we speak

iii. The way we respond

iv. The way we listen

In a world abounding in talkers misguided by a grossly disproportionate cultural emphasis on self-importance, sometimes, the rarest gems are those that have mastered the art of listening. Being intelligent and graceful in any conversation demands the right amount of listening and so does a Muslim’s sympathy for his fellow man.

Remember that it is sometimes the things we don’t say – silence in its proper place and its proper time – that catapults us beyond our self-concocted cornucopia of words. Listening properly will not only demonstrate that you genuinely care about the person, it will earn you an opportunity to speak without being interrupted when comes your turn.

2. Where does his/her atheism stem from?

If you’ve ever stood against a brick wall, felt its vicious gradient against your skin, seen the cold stone stare back at you in all of its adamantly lackluster glory, you know how wise it is to come at it with a fist. When dialoguing with atheists, if it feels like you are talking to a brick wall, take a step back.

Ask them, “Are you an atheist because you hate the version of religion you were taught or because you know without a shadow of doubt that there is certainly no God?”

Chances are that if you are being warm and friendly, the person will open up about their contentions and perhaps even about their emotional journey toward rejecting the concept of religion/God.

3. Gently open the door

Most of our atheist friends are born out of repugnance to a skewed misunderstanding or false version of religion. Often, this is emotional and not academic. One friend of mine was passionately training in South America to become a priest and was among the favourites of the region’s archbishop. He once related to me that when he found out one of his own teachers was caught in a scandal of sexual misconduct, he became so horrified that it rendered him bitter to the concept of religion in general.

Alternatively, in Islam, many ex-Muslim atheists are those who endured years of backward (and totally un-Islamic) cultural customs, which they mistook for the religion. Until we spoke about it like friends and he witnessed first-hand how I treat my daughter and wife, another friend of mine was fixated on the false notion that Islam suppresses women and had rejected the god which – in his view – endorsed that.

Being very gentle, we should probe the elasticity of our atheist friends’ willingness to accept another version of events.

Ask your friend:

“Would you be willing to discuss the fact that perhaps the version or narrative of religion that you know isn’t the only one?”

4. Find common ground

If he/she argues that other, dangerous versions of your faith also exist, then great! You can both agree in your rejection and condemnation of these views. You might be surprised to know that the Islamic declaration of faith requires a great deal of “A”theism (rejecting deities). When Muslims declare those sacred words known as the Kalimah, even before giving expression to their belief in God, they first emphatically denounce every single other deity or form of God – “There is none other worthy of worship…”

It’s a curious point, after all.

When the companions of the Holy Prophetsa declared the Kalimah, they were effectively announcing their rejection of the 360 false gods found at that time in the Ka‘bah first and then expressing their belief in the Oneness of Allah the Almighty.

Hence, we have a lot more in common than we think with our atheist friends. We have rejected all false and corrupted silhouettes wrongly attributed to God Almighty and have accepted the Ultimate Reality.

5. Let it breath & be infectious

If you’ve ever run a marathon, half-marathon or even a 5K, you know how important it is to pace yourself. Go too fast all at once and you will burn out. Waste time dilly-dallying or slothfully meandering along the route and you won’t perform.

Many atheists, on account of being far from faith and spirituality, haven’t the stomach to digest a lot about religion at once. Like a tiny partridge that can only eat so much, it does not matter how scrumptious a spread is placed before it – it will only eat what it can stomach.

When we speak with our atheist friends, we ought to give them time between discussions. Don’t always bring up religion – let your actions speak. Our behaviours and mannerisms – from how we respond to the beggar on the street to whether we hold the door open, smile at the cashier, say please and thank you – all tell people more about us than any elaborate speech that might follow over coffee. We are all human – talk about sports, what Netflix series they’re watching, ask how their family is doing, offer to help in anything you can. It is imperative that they see that we are not just claiming to be moderate and balanced people – we actually are.

6. Being jolly doesn’t hurt

Don’t be afraid to joke and laugh. Just because we have different views doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve the very best of one another. An atheist will say things which we find hurtful, but imagine how much the atheist might be hurting – after all, his god is dead.

Many times, when people say derogatory things, it stems from a wound deep within their unconscious. It is the duty of a Muslim, about whom the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa said, “Beware the sharp insight of a believer,” to use the instruments of true compassion and intelligent grace to get to the crux of the matter and see if he can help his brother/sister in mankind see the true face of God Almighty.

7. Pray, pray, pray

Even before getting together for a dialogue, responding to that offensive comment someone left on a Jamaat article or respectfully interjecting a conversation you hear on the bus, take a moment to raise your hands and pray first. After reciting Surah al-Fatihah and Durood, which is the way of dua, take a moment to pray for the person.

Light a candle of compassion in your heart for the person – when you speak to them after that, the seed of compassion and love you planted will emerge in your mannerisms and dialogue. Take another moment to pray for your own words and remember that even the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa was not given the power to change hearts. His actions shined so brilliantly with the torch of love that over time, even his staunchest enemies could not hold back from throwing their hand into his.

Finally, if you are becoming friends and are on good terms, write to Hazrat Khalifatul Masihaa about him/her. If they are going through some exceedingly difficult circumstances, solicit the prayers of this noble saint of God whose prayers are a grand sign of His existence. If you receive a response, give a copy to your friend. There are such blessings in that letter that even where our humble efforts fall short, they will light up the way.

(This concludes the first part of the ongoing series of articles called “Atheism on Trial”)

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