Today’s conversation is different than other conversations on this podcast. I typically have conversations on the show with Christians “about life and faith,” but today’s conversation is with my friend Brad Willett, who is not a Christian. In fact, Brad does not believe in God at all. He and I have been talking via email and social media for a couple of years and though we have a very different worldview and disagree with one another on fundamental questions, I am thankful to know him.
In this conversation, Brad and I discussed how he became an atheist and some of his interactions with Christians since he stopped believing in God. We also discussed some of the myths Christians believe about atheists and how Christians can do a better job having conversations with their atheist, agnostic, and skeptical neighbors. I hope this conversation is beneficial to everyone who hears it.
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Transcription Generated by Otter.ai
Wes McAdams 0:03
Wouldn’t it be great if Christians could talk about the Bible and various issues without fighting or arguing or name-calling? Imagine if we could just sit down, have a cup of coffee discuss and even if we disagree, treat each other with respect. That’s what this podcast is all about kind, loving Christian conversations. It’s not a sermon or Bible class. It’s just followers of Jesus talking about life and faith, and hope this show encourages you to have conversations like this with people in your life. I’m Wes McAdams, and I want to welcome you to the CrossTalk Podcast.
Most of us have probably had conversations about atheists, agnostics and skeptics. But have we ever just sat down and talked with our unbelieving neighbors? Have we listened to them? Have we loved them? today’s conversation is a bit different from the typical conversation on this podcast. This is a conversation that I had with my friend Brad Willett, who does not believe in God, I think you’ll find this conversation insightful.
Would you classify yourself as (I don’t guess I’ve ever asked you this question) but atheist, agnostic, something else? And then why?
Brad Willett 1:10
Oh, yeah. So this is a not as simple question, right? Yeah. People think, right, because so atheists and agnostics need to be defined, right? So atheists essentially is essentially the negation of the theists’ position. So a theist has a belief in a deity and an atheist is the negation of that, so no deity. A “gnostic” position kind of connotates knowing, right. So an agnostic would be not knowing. So they’re, they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. So for me, I guess how to classify myself as both. So an “agnostic atheist.”
I don’t, I don’t believe in a God. But I’m also not to the point where I’m just so certain that I can say there is no God, I’m just not convinced that there is one. But I don’t know for sure if that makes sense.
But even with that said, atheist, agnostic, they’re, they’re weird labels to have. Because where else in life? Do we define ourselves on the negation of, of a position? Right, you know, so, you know, I’m, I’m not primarily an atheist, you know, I’m a dad, I’m a husband. I’m a craft beer enthusiast. Science enthusiast. I’m a humanist. You know, I don’t like sports. But I don’t watch a lot of sports. But, you know, I’m not walking around defining myself as a-sports enthusiast. You know, it’s kind of a unimportant label. But yeah. You know, I guess ACS is, is only important because of the importance made out of it from the theist side, right, you know, I’d be perfectly fine. Shucking that label. Because it’s, it could be just as unimportant as a-sports fan,
Wes McAdams 3:25
Yeah. Like I’m a a-leprechaun believer. You know, I don’t I don’t believe in leprechauns. But I don’t, I don’t think about it all the time. The only reason, I guess, is because for the majority of human existence, I guess, you know, we have believed human beings have believed in a deity or deities. And so we’ve looked at those that don’t believe in a deity as different. And so the weirdos Yeah. So and I guess, “skeptic” would be the same. Would you kind of put skeptic in this thing? I think that that’s seems to be a term or a category that people throw out sometimes. Would you put that in the same category as, as the other terms?
Brad Willett 4:08
Yeah, I guess skeptic is something that I could adopt a positive sense. Okay, gotcha. So yeah, I’ll take that. Yeah.
Wes McAdams 4:15
Cool. Okay, gotcha. Now, you’ve shared your story with me before. And and let me say, first that, that this has been a helpful dialogue for for me, I just went back and looked at our, our Twitter DMS back and forth. And and I guess, I’ve been talking for like, two years now almost for a while, yeah,
Brad Willett 4:35
it’s been a while.
Wes McAdams 4:36
And it’s really been helpful to me, because it’s a, it’s been a good reminder, that, that people on Twitter are people. And obviously, that should be that should be obvious. But I don’t know that it always is. Sometimes we have this tendency to treat people online. Like they’re not real people. And we put them in a category, whether that be Christian, or atheist, or skeptic or whatever. And we, we, we treat them you know, like a category or we treat them like, like their avatar or something like that, rather than treating them like a human being. And so it’s been really helpful for me to and I would consider you a friend. And so our friendship has been has been helpful to me just just from that perspective. So I would, I would love for you to share your story with the audience so that they know where you’re coming from?
Brad Willett 5:29
Absolutely. I’ll No, actually, I haven’t been on Twitter in probably 910 months, because it gets a little unbearable, you know, in when when you’re on there, as an unbeliever it starts, it starts arguments, and not not that I’m out looking for arguments I’m looking for, you know, conversations. Yeah. It turns into arguments pretty quickly. Yeah. But, uh, yeah, let me let me get to my story. So I was raised in a Christian household, I was raised Baptist. And then I started attending a church of Christ with my then girlfriend, who I married in 2005. And, and through quite a bit together, you know, in the military, two kids later, couple couple moves from a few different states.
But in that time, I at one point was considering ministry. That’s how, that’s how in it, I was like, as I was baptized at 2120, some that that area is like 2007 2008 timeframe, as baptized. And was looking at mentor School of Preaching for a little bit. That didn’t actually pan out for other reasons, I ended up getting a job offer that was just too good to pass up.
But in the, in the meantime, you know, because of my interest in being a minister, I started a lot of studying and researching and things and, you know, there’s one thing about the, towards Christ that I really like, is this, this desire to know the truth, you know, and, and, and explore what, what truth is, and that’s, that’s been a value that I’ve, I’ve maintained, you know, I want to know, truth is, and, you know, just in the process of my studying and researching, it got to the point where I wasn’t convinced any longer that Christianity was the truth. So in essence, I just,
I just came from, if that makes sense. Yeah.
Now, I can’t really relate it to one specific reason why, you know, think of it like, like death by 1000. paper cuts, you know, it was a bunch of little things that all added up to culminated into the, my disbelief at this point. So
Wes McAdams 8:27
yeah. And I think that’s helpful for people to understand that, how serious you were about your face. And you know, where you were going with that, and your desire to know. And that’s what I’ve always appreciated about you and every conversation we’ve ever had, is your desire to know what’s true, and why. Why do you know that’s true? And so I think that that’s really helpful for everybody to know, your background. So let’s talk a little bit about what your experiences because probably the majority of our conversations over the last couple of years have been about your experiences with other Christians. But so we could go in a million different directions without man, we really will try to narrow it just to what are some of the the myths that Christians believe and propagate and share about about atheists? From your perspective? What have you heard Christian say? Or what do they said to you? Or? Or what in your mind? Or the the things that they believe about atheists that just aren’t true?
Brad Willett 9:32
Yeah, absolutely. I have a couple of these. But I guess I want to start with, you know, there’s a Pew Research Report floating around from a couple years ago, that that indicates that atheists are the second most hated group in America. Right, right behind Muslims, which both are pretty unfortunate. You know, I like to wager that, you know, a lot of people don’t really understand what it means to be an atheist what it means to be a Muslim, you know, and so a lot of this hatred or fear, fear based hatred, kind of stems from these misunderstandings, you know, so that’s why it’s good thing to have these conversations is because if we can eliminate misunderstandings and really humanize each other, we’re not just talking past each other and about each other, we can actually take time to talk to each other. You know, so I address the misconceptions with the term atheist early on. And I guess, barring some of the are leaving out some of the crazy ones like atheists worship the devil or HPC, babies, or communists, those sort of things. And those, those positions are out there. But I’d say there’s there in the extreme end of the misconceptions. A lot of the common ones I see. Especially reading like, like apologetic articles, and things like that.
Are things like, there’s no good reason to be an atheist or an atheist life is a meaningless life, or atheists are just mad at God, or have no morals or hate Christians, you know, and there’s, there’s reasons behind each and every one of these and I can get into some of my thoughts behind behind those, but I think those are probably the biggest ones. That that seem to be misconstrued or at least misunderstood by, by the theist side.
Wes McAdams 11:45
Yeah. I think what you said in the beginning is so incredibly helpful about humanizing I had a friend on not too long ago, and he, he grew up as a Muslim and in Iraq, and he became a Christian, but but he was talking about engaging with your Muslim neighbors, you know, one of the things that he said, Well, you know, obviously, as a Christian, we want to reach them with the gospel, and we want them to become Christians. But, you know, but his point was, if you’re not going to continue to love them, even if they say no to your Christian faith, then don’t even try you know, don’t even don’t even try to share your faith with them if if you’re not going to continue to love them, if they say no, you know, if they don’t want to become a Christian and and i think that so much of it goes back to fear and and i think that so many travesties, so many injustices in world history have come about, maybe just as much through fear as they have hatred, and I love the way you put that fear based hatred. And I think that, for whatever reason, we do have that fear of people that are unbelievers, or skeptics, or atheists or agnostics, or whatever the case may be. So it’s helpful, like you said, to to listen and sit to have conversations and talk to people and realize that they’re human beings. And and instead of, you know, just assuming the very worst about people, I guess,
Brad Willett 13:10
right, exactly. I mean, we all have, you know, our trials that we’re a part of, you know, you know, Phillies fans, or, you know, in my case, you know, Michigan, everyone here is a lions fan. I’m not, I’m not a sports fan, so I get put into the other category. And in that, that situation, but, you know, Christians have their Christian tribe and, you know, I’m, I’m thinking to, like Japanese cars, Subaru. So, you know, we have our own little group that, you know, we have our own lingo and our own way to talk to each other. Regarding the things that we all share in common there, but I think, more broadly, I mean, we’re, we’re all a part of, you know, humanity, we’re all humans, we’re all part of this human tribe. And, you know, constructing in groups now, groups seems sort of silly to me, even though I know, it all happens. And we all have the propensity to do that. I think it’s, you know, I have the practice of trying to break down barriers between people and, you know, trying to broaden my in-group as much as possible. Yeah. And that’s why I like to call myself a humanist, rather than an atheist, because, you know, as a humanist, humanity is my tribe, you know, so it’s, everyone’s a part of the group, regardless of race, color, religion, what have you.
And, you know, I really think it’s unfortunate that sometimes because of this, this tribalism of sorts, you know, when when somebody starts not thinking the same way as his view, all of a sudden, that’s, it means they need to be withdrawn from are not be friends with them anymore. I think that’s, that’s really unfortunate loss to think that way. Yeah.
Something I’ve experienced, you know, in the process of my leaving the faith is that a lot of people ended up leaving me, which is pretty, pretty unfortunate, simply because it stopped believing.
Wes McAdams 15:26
Yeah. You know, and, and I mean, you talk about morals, and you know, what, what is a person’s moral standard, or moral compass or whatever, you know, for Christians, kindness and love are supposed to be at the very core of what we practice and what we do. And so it’s unfortunate when we treat people with fear and hatred, and bitterness and anger, and you know, all of these things that are really the very opposite of what is supposed to be our moral foundation. But but that brings up, you know, back to the myth idea, you know, you mentioned that one of the the myth is that, that atheists have no morals. And I think that that, I totally agree with you. And I’ve seen that too. And I’ve probably been guilty of propagating that idea. Because I think that for a Christian, it’s very hard for us to sort of figure out if there was no God. And if there was no eternity, what would what would be the motivation for right living, which, of course, can get into all kinds of things, you know, we know that there’s all kinds of problems with that idea, anyway, that somebody’s just doing the right thing, because they’re afraid of going to a bad place when they die, you know, so, you know, that that aside, what would you say? Is, is your motivation? What, what would you say is the basis for your moral standard?
Brad Willett 16:50
Oh, man, that’s, that is a complicated question. With a company flex, complicated answer. If I want to take it down, like, the scientific or philosophical route, but I think keeping it high level and just basic. I mean, it’s, it’s the idea of, you know, being neighborly, you know, and in this innate sense of empathy, you know, we all have some, some semblance of empathy, some people have a stronger empathy bone than others. But at the end of the day, you know, we all see somebody in a dire situation, and we can reach out, and we can imagine ourselves in that person’s shoes and say, I want that for myself. Therefore, this person being in this position isn’t good, either. So how do we help them? And that’s, that’s really, the, I’d argue is, the basic basis of morality in general is just, you know, this, this sense of identity and wanting the best for ourselves and for each other. Yeah.
Wes McAdams 18:11
You know, and I see that as such a commonality and a common ground to start from, you know, so you and I both agree that the basis is Love your neighbor as yourself. And so if we’ve got that basis, we could go from there. But it seems like, you know, some of my Christian Brothers and sisters, we want to dismiss your right, to hold that view, since you don’t hold the same view of Jesus or God that we do. And so he said, Well, you know, you don’t have a right to, you know, think you should love your neighbor as yourself because you don’t believe in God. Whereas I think it would be so much healthier. If we just began from the points of commonality. I feel like so many times, instead of embracing our common points and our touch points, we we dismiss those and say, well, you, you can’t hold that, because you don’t hold this other thing in common with with my line of thinking.
Brad Willett 19:09
That’s a great point. I honestly, I think what I’ve seen a lot of apologetics is really assuming the worst of the other. Yeah, right. And it doesn’t necessarily go down the route that atheists have no morals, right. But it’s often put in language, like atheists have no reason to behave morally. And that’s, I mean, that’s simply not true. You know, and when, when I see somebody speaking about, you know, me like that, you know, that’s, that’s difficult to see their point of view, because they’re already starting from the premise that I am a terrible person, or I have no reason to be a good person, which is, why would you assume the worst of somebody like that? That doesn’t make sense to me? You know, I watched a Christian broadcast recently that was going over, I want to say the, the title of it was like, Okay, my friends, an atheist, what should I say to them, and then began to list all of these assumptions, and all of these myths that just, you know, from an atheist hearing this, and watching this, like, no, all of that is wrong. And if you said this to me in person, I’d be a little bit upset. Why? Why can’t we just go in assuming the best of, you know, the other party, and then work forward from there. But it makes it really difficult to want to even listen to you when you say things like, oh, if we take an atheist conception of morality to its end, they would have no reason was no reason to be upset with somebody coming in and, you know, murdering their family. And the breakthrough guy, that’s, that’s not the case at all. So yes, it’s disheartening to read articles and apologetics. see things like that, because it’s just
Wes McAdams 21:06
yeah. And I think that if, if we did this more, you know, like you and I are doing right now, and we talked about it, then then at least we could begin with an educated guess, as to what the other side might say. But so often, like you said, before we talk past each other, or talk about each other instead of talking to each other. So I think this is incredibly helpful. So what and that that already gets us into the next question I would ask is, what are some other mistakes that Christians make when they engage in conversations with with skeptics?
Brad Willett 21:40
Yeah, so I think one of the biggest mistakes is going into the conversation with those myths and toe, like with those as you’re starting assumption, you know, that atheists hate Christians, or we have no morals, or we’re just mad at God, you know, none of these are our true, you know, I don’t believe in God, why would I be mad at something I don’t believe in, you know, or that life is meaningless. You know, if life was meaningless, I would have, you know, done something about that a long time ago, I’m sure. That’s, that’s not the case. So, you know, going into a conversation with these assumptions and tau. They’re bad assumptions. You know, it’s, it’s best to, you know, try to go and blank slate I know, that’s kind of hard to do. And, you know, nearly impossible, but be, be fair enough to the other party. tipa leave them when they tell you that, you know, it’s okay. We’re, we’re not bad people. We don’t hate Christians. We don’t hate living life. We’re not bad people, you know, it’s, you know, don’t assume the reasons or the motives behind, you know, somebody being an atheist, you know, you say things like, oh, they’re an atheist, because they just want to say in or, you know, somebody hurt them. You know, which may be the case, in some instances, but I, I’d say that, in general, that’s probably not the case. You know, I wasn’t ever hurt, as during, I guess, my conversion process, but, you know, the hurt all came afterwards, you know, when I said, Okay, I don’t believe in God anymore. That’s when the hurricane, but it wasn’t a hurt that led to my disbelief.
It was more of a, an intellectual pursuit.
So going in with, you know, those sort of assumptions and assuming motives and reasons. You know, at the end of the day, being an atheist isn’t the answer to one question, do you believe God exists? And outside of that, in where people just like, just like everyone else, right.
Wes McAdams 24:00
You know, it really, I mean, even from, you know, from my perspective, if we’re going to send people into the world to, you know, to share their faith, if that’s a person’s goal, when they’re talking to an atheist, if they want to convince them that God does exist, if we send them in there with the wrong sorts of assumptions, you know, like you said, you know, what, what do I say to my atheist friend, or whatever the name of that program was, you know, if if we send them in there with the wrong sorts of assumptions and the wrong way of going about it, then we’re setting them up for failure. And so it’s so much healthier, no matter who we’re talking to, if we hope to have a conversation that goes somewhere, even if the place to which it goes is just friendship, and just a better understanding of another human being, that we have to go in listening to people instead of just just assuming that we know and that’s I think that’s what we do, you know, we we are have the tendency to do that, I guess, generalize about people and say, Well, you know, all Christians believe this, all Baptists believe this all Catholics believe this, all atheists believe this all, you know, Americans believe this, all Europeans, you know, and and we we over generalize about people, instead of just listening to individuals and finding out, you know, how did you come to this conclusion? You know, what’s your story? Where do you Where did you come from? Tell me about your family. You know, I mean, there’s all kinds of
Brad Willett 25:26
Exactly, yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, just like, you know, you can probably say that any, to Christians, they don’t share exactly the same belief. Yeah, just just the same as an atheist, you know, any to atheists are going to be totally different. Because it’s, you know, atheism is the is the only thing where, you know, we’re just, the only thing that binds an atheist to other atheists, is the fact that we don’t believe in God, you know, but there are republican atheists and democratic atheists. And, you know, atheists that still believe in ghosts, you know, atheists who are practicing paganism, or atheists that do X, Y, and Z and other atheists that don’t do anything, you know, it’s such a broad spectrum of things. So I think it’s best just, you know, to go in and listen, have an actual conversation. And, you know, be picky medical, a bit unfair to the person you’re talking to.
Wes McAdams 26:26
Yeah, definitely. So, so that, that, that really brings me to my next question. And again, I mean, I know, you know, we’ve talked about the mistakes that that Christians make. And again, I’m in that category. You know, I’ve said the wrong thing is and done the wrong things about atheism and to atheists. So I’m in that category, but But what would you say that Christians need to do to earn your respect, generally speaking?
Brad Willett 26:54
Gotcha. Yeah. Um, I’m not really the sort of person who is under the mindset of a respect is earned. Okay. Yeah, sort of thing. I’m, I’m more of a respect is granted, and then taken away? Should situation call for that? Yeah, like that. So I don’t think there’s anything you can do to earn my respect. I mean, at the end of day, you’ve already got it,
Wes McAdams 27:23
maybe maybe impress would be, you know, what would a Christian do? You know, and again, somebody that that’s serious about their faith, but but at the same time, might impress you that they’re, they’re not like, like the, you know, like, like, we’ve been talking about, you know, what are some of the things that, that a Christian might do that you might think, oh, okay, well, that that’s a pleasant surprise, maybe?
Brad Willett 27:48
Yeah, well, honestly, I think it would probably be, you know, coming into a conversation.
Without the looking for gotchas, you know, you know, I used to engage quite a bit online, I’ve really tone that down quite a bit, in recent months, last six months or so. But, you know, when I was when I was engaging online, and trying to do what I’m doing here with you just online, which is a lot more difficult, I think, yeah. There’s always somebody going in with a gotcha question, trying to, you know, stump the atheist. And, you know, what i what i think isn’t necessarily a fair thought to have, you know, so I’m going to sidetrack a little bit. So, you know, as, as a Christian, when I was, when I was a Christian, I wasn’t necessarily expected to know, all of the answers, in order to be accepted by the community, you know, I’m saying, so, I wasn’t necessarily required to do all of this study, or know, the philosophy, or, you know, understand the history and the hermeneutics and those sort of things, all I had to do was profess my belief in God, and I was, you know, welcome, welcome to the club. You’re a Christian, you know, you’re part of us.
But, you know, as an atheist, I don’t get that fair of a treatment. You know, it’s, all of a sudden, I’m expected to be an expert in philosophy, and theology and history and hermeneutics and all these other things that are, you know, tangentially related to Christianity. But at the end of the day, why can’t I just say, you know, I’m not convinced, or I don’t believe in God and be excited that at that base level, you know, with without, you know, without trying to start an argument, you know, say, say, you ask me a question, I just say, I don’t know, that’s not necessarily a reason to be like, Oh, we got him. He hasn’t, you don’t have any support for his beliefs? You know, it’s not quite how things work, you know. But I guess, what would impress me? You know, just just going into it. without trying to railroad? Yeah, the the other person, you know, we’re all living on this planet together, trying to get along. You know, and, you know, just because we don’t believe the same way doesn’t mean, all of a sudden, we need to be at odds with each other. I mean, I can get along with a lot of Christianity in general, I have no issues in Christianity. Generally. I don’t, I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t necessarily believe in Christianity, but there are so many common interests that that Christians and atheists share. But for some reason, we’re not focusing on the commonalities, we’re focusing on the differences, which is only a recipe for disaster, right? I think we should spend more time focusing on the commonalities. And how we can, you know, bring people together, bring communities together, work together, to towards a common goal, whatever that common goal may be. Yeah,
Wes McAdams 31:34
yeah. And that’s where I think any conversation, any friendship, any relationship, even just being neighbors, it has to begin with the things that we have in common. And there are so many things we have in common, and as believers are supposed to believe that their neighbor, even their unbelieving, skeptical atheist neighbor, is is made in the image of God. And so we were supposed to believe that the very, very best about human beings, all human beings, regardless of their faith, we should think and think the best about them, give them the benefit of the doubt, treat them well. And I think all of these things are well supported in you know, in the core of our faith, it’s just sometimes we don’t we don’t necessarily practice that. So if you could boil it down, Brad, and and you could just give one top recommendation for Christians who want to engage their atheist neighbor in a conversation. What would be your number one? Top recommendation?
Brad Willett 32:32
Oh, man. Goodness, just just be fair, if that makes sense. Yeah. Yeah, just coming off of that, that last question. You know, don’t don’t assume the worst of personally.
Wes McAdams 32:53
I want to thank my church family, the Church of Christ on McDermott road, and our editor, Travis poly for making this podcast possible. Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already done so please rate review and subscribe to the podcast on the apple podcast or wherever you’re listening. I also want to invite you to check out logos Bible software who is partnered with us to give our listeners a great discount, just go to RadicallyChristian.com/logos. I think you’ll love the software and you’ll get a great discount by using that link. As always, I love you. God loves you and I hope you have a wonderful day.