A Review of Preston Ulmer’s “The Doubters’ Club”
How to Help Compel Atheists to Become Christians
I have a story to tell as a progressive Christian if you’ll indulge me, that kind of relates to Preston Ulmer’s new book, The Doubters’ Club. I recently became friends with someone I knew from elementary school on Facebook. Let’s call him Samuel to protect the identity of the innocent. It turns out Sammy is not only an atheist, but he’s the kind of atheist who likes to push his beliefs on others by sharing anti-Christian memes in his newsfeed on the social media platform. One day, he shared a meme that indicated that churches should not be tax-exempt because Joel Osteen rakes in millions of dollars with his church. I tried to explain to Sam on Facebook that this was an unfair meme because Joel Osteen is an anomaly when it comes to Christianity: he preaches a very specific Christian subgenre known as the prosperity gospel and that most churches are struggling to make ends meet. Witness all the recent church mergers or closings as proof. Well, I got a response to the effect that Sam was not interested in what I thought. The thing was, I wasn’t trying to convert Sam to Christianity. I don’t care if you’re an atheist or even a Satanist so long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others with your beliefs. (As long as you’re not sacrificing virgin girls on an altar with pentagrams emblazoned on it, I think all is good — really!) I was merely trying to point out Sam’s faulty logic and was trying to give him better ammunition to attack Christianity with. Because, if you’re going to attack my chosen religion, you’d better do it right!
Well, I read The Doubters’ Club hoping to gain insight into how to deal with people like Sam. The book was instructive: it turns out that I was the one in the wrong. If I was really interested in helping Sam, the first thing I should have done is start asking questions about his beliefs, rather than trying to ramrod my concerns down his throat. It might have led to an enlightening, engaging conversation, one where I was sure to learn something about why Sam believed the things he did. Thus, I can say The Doubters’ Club is an important read when it comes to Christians learning how to properly deal with those who don’t share our beliefs. It has its potential imperfections in that Ulmer is an evangelical Christian, so, of course, he wants to convert people to his beliefs. However, to his credit, he seems to want to do it differently — one that leads a person to live more like Jesus did, instead of one who merely goes to church and believes certain things. Ulmer leaves room for the doubter and the skeptic in his ministry, so there is some good and worth in this book, even if you’re not an evangelical.
The book is so-called because it is based on real-life Doubters’ Clubs that Ulmer has formed and helps to facilitate. These meetings function in a way for atheists and Christians to come together and talk about things of interest to both groups, with the hopes that some of these atheists might come to change their view of Christians and God. (And, maybe, vice-versa.) This is where the book, and the description of these meetings, get a little thorny because as much as Ulmer says they’re not meant to convert, they’re still meant to convert through compelling certain attendees to, say, follow the ways of Jesus through the actions of the Christians at these gatherings. I’m not sure how I feel about that but acknowledge that it’s a fact of life that evangelicals are going to evangelize (because that’s just how they do things) and I think Ulmer is going about it in a much more positive way than many evangelical Christians do. The book sidesteps issues such as gay rights and abortion, and I had to wonder what Ulmer currently thinks of such issues and whether his “converts” are expected to hold similar beliefs. After all, some of the attendees of these meetings seem to be those affected by such issues, and naturally these issues and how the Church treats them are framing their atheist beliefs.
Anyway, the book — which does have a sense of humour, by the way — does have its utility in that it shows you how to have a non-judgmental conversation with those of a belief set than yourself. The Doubters’ Club could have been of great use, for instance, when I was dealing with Sam on Facebook — who seems to have gone inactive or just isn’t showing up in my newsfeed these days. I learned a new way of approaching doubters by reading this title, and I can certainly say that I’ve been on the other end of the spectrum as someone who has had doubts and, in some ways, continues to have doubts — after all, I’m a member of a progressive church that allows parishioners to entertain them. Though some of Ulmer’s doctrine and references to things such as sin might make you a little uncomfortable if you’re a progressive as I am, there is some great food for thought in this book in terms of being encouraged to walk in the other person’s shoes for a while and getting to know them before expounding your beliefs on them. Once again, I wish I had read this book a little earlier because it might have made me a better person in knowing how to ask Sam why he thought churches should be taxed, beyond what little he might have understood about Joel Osteen. He didn’t want to learn from me, but I should have been more forthright in trying to learn from him before swooping down with explanations. To that end, The Doubters’ Club is an interesting take on the age-old question of “how do you speak to an atheist?” I’m sure this will be a useful book for Christians of any stripe to read, not just evangelicals, and I — with minor reservations — recommend reading it wholeheartedly.
Preston Ulmer’s The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded will be published by NavPress Publishing Group on September 7, 2021.
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