“Would you be willing to describe the god you are pretty sure you don’t believe in?”

I found it helpful, for example, when interacting with a self- proclaimed atheist to take this approach: “I can see that you are an intelligent person. I’m inclined to think that you are interested in following the evidence wherever it goes, embracing reality, whatever it may be.” Notice that I affirmed his ability to think, and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he has some measure of interest in the truth. “May I ask you to answer a question?”

Once granted permission to pose my question, I asked, “Would you be willing to describe the god you are pretty sure you don’t believe in?” This question does several things. First, it affords me an opportunity to listen, which is both honoring to him and enlightening to me. Second, it elicits from him a clear articulation of just exactly what it is he denies, an exercise that helps me understand his mental obstacles and helps him rethink his own objections as he spells them out. After all, if we are going to have differences, it will be helpful to know exactly (and not merely imagine) where they lie. Third, it—surprisingly, to him— revealed common ground. You see the puzzled and startled look on their faces when I say to self-professed atheists who know I am a God-fearing Christian, “I don’t believe in that god either.” We still have a difference, and we both know it. But at this point, he knows I treat him with respect as a thinking human being and that we actually have some thinking in common. We have something in common to build on. I don’t believe in that god either, but now he may want to know what kind of God I do believe in.

– Sam Crabtree, Practicing Affirmation, p. 22

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