How to convert an atheist:
Cause the atheist to believe in your god(s)

Index | Prepare to make the case | Cause the atheist to believe in your god(s) | Cause the ex-atheist to practise your religion | Supplement - Creationism / Intelligent Design | Discussion

Here are three hurdles that apply to me and probably to many other atheists. You can help the atheist over them one by one, or more than one at a time, or even all three together. If you have sufficient resources to help the atheist over hurdle 3 these may also be sufficient for the first two hurdles.

Diagram showing the 3 hurdles

Listening, caring, gods

I am using the term "listening, caring, god" to mean a god that does one or more of the following:

  • observes actions and/or listens to thoughts and/or prayers and sometimes acts accordingly
  • sometimes performs miracles to reward and/or punish you or mankind in general
  • provides an afterlife, such as heaven and/or hell, or reincarnation

Many religions identify their own type of listening god(s). I assume your listening god is special, so you need to help the atheist believe in those special characteristics in addition to the generic characteristics of all listening gods.
[Discussion: Do people ever believe in exactly the same god? | Are the gods of the Abrahamic religions the same?]

Helping the atheist over the hurdles

If the atheist accepts that these are the hurdles, then this is what you need to do. (If not, reconnaissance is needed to identify the atheist's hurdles). The same numbering is used below. Links on the right identify resources that may be of use to you whatever your gods or religion. Various combinations of hurdles follow.

A technique that might first be used is "Negative theology", identifying what may not be said about god, in order to cleanse the atheists' minds of misconceptions. Then the positive features can be expressed.

Hurdle 1 ("any god")

You need to decide whether to help the atheist over hurdle 1 the easy way, even though this may cause extra problems with hurdles 2 and 3. If you don't care about hurdles 2 and 3, hurdle 1 is easy! For example, if you simply define "god" to mean "the basis for the laws of physics", or "whatever was needed for the universe to exist", I already believe in that god. I believe there is a basis for the laws of physics, and I believe something (in the most general sense) was needed for the universe to exist.

But such a definition does nothing whatsoever to help an atheist over hurdles 2 and 3, and in fact is likely to make things harder. How can you convince an atheist that "the basis for the laws of physics" performs miracles?

Hurdle 2 ("any listening god")

I can't supply you with the resources (arguments and evidence) you need for hurdle 2. You must identify for yourself the resources you need.
[Discussion: Where are suitable arguments and evidence? | "You need to open yourself to god"]

Helping an atheist over hurdle 2 still leaves a variety of possible gods, for example Yahweh, the Christian God, Allah, Vishnu, etc. (There are 100s of gods currently being worshipped in the world).

An ex-atheist who has been helped over hurdle 2 now has the mental basis for a range of religious beliefs. Perhaps this is all you want, but my observation is that religious people who want to convert atheists typically want to help the atheist over hurdle 3. A Christian is likely to want the atheist to become a Christian, not a Muslim or a "don't know".

Hurdle 3 ("your listening god")

I can't supply you with the resources you need for hurdle 3. You must identify for yourself the resources you need.
[Discussion: Where are suitable arguments and evidence? | "You need to open yourself to god"]

Hurdle 3 uses arguments and evidence specific for your god. For example, an obvious special feature of the Christian God is that he had a son who was resurrected. Sufficient evidence of this resurrection wouldn't itself demonstrate that all aspects of Christianity were true, (what would?), but it would cater for all of hurdle 1 and much of hurdles 2 and 3.

An ex-atheist who has been helped over hurdle 3 now has the mental basis for a specific religious belief, for example Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. This person is a believer.

Combining the hurdles

It is probably rare that people convert to a religion one hurdle at a time. It is an option available, but other combinations are more common. These are all the possible combinations, and are shown here probably in decreasing order of frequency. You need to use the combination that fits best with your knowledge of the atheist and with your own resources and confidence.

The titles are simplifications, and don't cover all the nuances and variations.

Full leap of faith

This "full leap of faith" appears to be the typical method used for childhood immersion in a religion. A child is exposed to a specific religion, and alternatives to "Allah" or "God plus Jesus" (etc) are not promoted and often not even mentioned.

This appears to be the path taken by Francis Collins, who was inspired by 3 frozen streams to believe in the Trinity. Perhaps in an adult it needs a startling revelation rather than gradual immersion?

Appeal to cosmology or design

This pattern is often employed by religious people during debates. A Christian (say) may temporarily divert from justification of Christianity to try to establish the existence of a god that initiated the "big bang", or a god (for example, an "Intelligent Designer") that intervened at critical events in the evolution of the universe and/or life. You should be able to examine many examples of this pattern in use.

The strength of this method is that science hasn't yet supplied all the answers, and there are inevitably gaps. Anyone who is impatient for answers, or who hasn't much experience of the steady manner in which science tends to fill such gaps over decades, or who simply believes that science will never provide certain answers, may see merit in an explanation based on some sort of god. Many well-known people have progressed over hurdle 1.

One weakness of this method is that the (ex-)atheist may come to believe in a god that doesn't resemble the god that the religious person believes in. A god who initiated the big bang may have "walked away" afterwards without caring about any life that came later. People don't base a religion on such a god - they don't pray to him and hope for an afterlife. So you need to establish that "the god that caused the big bang" is the same as "the Allah that had a Prophet called Mohammed" or "the God that had a son called Jesus". (Or else hope that the (ex-)atheist doesn't notice that using the word "god" for both of these doesn't mean that they are the same thing). You may need to respond to the fact that several "listening, caring, gods" are claimed to have caused the "big bang".

Another weakness is that any scientific education of the atheist makes it harder to argue that a gap in the science means that "god did it". Your reconnaissance of the atheist is useful to check whether this method may work.
[Discussion: Science versus religion]

Conversion by revelation

Some people get a "revelation" concerning the efficacy of prayer, or miracles, or the afterlife, and come to believe in some such god. They then seek that god. (The right hand side of this pattern may be useful for attempting to convert people from one religion to another, since they have already securely passed the first 2 hurdles. However, that is not in the scope of this method!)

This might be effective if a suitable experience can be revealed to the atheist. You probably need to show the atheist why your god is the true god. (Unless the atheist has been brought up in an environment where your god is the automatic default).
[Discussion: "You need to open yourself to god"]

Step by step

Diagram showing the 3 hurdles

This is included for completeness, although I suspect it is rarely the method of choice. If it is useful you can probably resource it from the combinations above.