Talking With Atheists: A Few Observations from Berkeley

by J Warner Wallace

Brett Kunkle, Sean McDowell and I have been taking students to Berkeley for several years now, creating and facilitating trips to challenge young Christians and expose them to the arguments they may eventually face in their university experience. We typically invite local atheists to join us on these trips to make the case for what they believe. In the past we’ve listened to presentations from Richard Carrier, Mark Thomas, David Fitzgerald and Larry Hicok. After each presentation we have the opportunity to engage each speaker in a question and answer session. We also spend several days on the campus of UC Berkeley, talking with students and answering their questions about the Christian Worldview. We meet with the campus atheist clubs and sometimes even engage in public forum discussions. We learn a lot from this trip, so I would like to share a few observations on what I’ve learned from our interactions.

We ask unbelieving speakers to come to our group to spend some time talking about why they are atheists. They are thoughtful, passionate and happy to tell us the reasons for their disbelief. Some offer classic objections to Christianity. Others argue against God’s existence from the problem of evil. After several hours of careful listening over the years, I’ve begun to recognize a number of commonalities in the stories and explanations I’ve heard from a variety of unbelievers on our Berkeley trips. Here are a few of my observations (in no particular order):

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It’s Not Always About the Evidence
Some atheists are not as unconvinced by the evidence as they are upset with believers. We see a general disdain for Christians as we talk with our invited atheist speakers. They consistently point to alleged evils of Christianity (and Christians), even as they develop an evidential case against the existence of God. The evidence from history, science or philosophy isn’t always the underlying issue. Many are more troubled by a past experience or some perception about a Christian (or group of Christians).

Dad Has A Lot To Do With It
I want to be careful not to over generalize here, but I often find a pattern in these interactions related to the relationship some of these speakers and guests have with their fathers. When asked to describe their relationship with their dads, hardcore atheists often have little good to say about them. One of these speakers said the best thing his dad ever did for him was to die. Many have fathers who were either absent, mean-spirited or overbearing, and (sadly) many of them had fathers who were involved in Christian ministries of one kind or another…

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