Online dialogue between Christians and atheists is often driven by the same outrage-focused mentality that permeates today’s polarized culture. But recently, a Christian apologist and an atheist skeptic used their YouTube platforms to do something different — to engage in a good-faith discussion.
Sean McDowell, a Christian author and a professor at Biola University, has repeatedly said his goal in doing apologetics is to show love to his atheist neighbors. And when he went to give a speech at the King’s Academy, a private Christian high school, in February 2021, he went about it in an unexpected way.
“I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God,” Sean declared. “I grew up in a Christian home…. [but] to make a long story short, after I started to read people of different worldviews, I came to the conclusion there’s no good scientific evidence that God exists. There’s no reason to think the Bible is true, let alone inspired, and there’s far too many errors and mistakes in the Bible.”
As the students later found out, Sean McDowell had been invited by their Bible teacher to do his “atheist encounter,” a speech where he roleplays as a professor who abandoned his Christian faith when he was a college student. Normally, Sean explains the persona before attempting to take questions as an atheist, but in this case, he had been asked to leave the disclaimer out — something the high school teacher argued would challenge his students more. It was only after almost an hour that Sean revealed his true identity, telling the students in the classroom what he actually believed.
Several months after King’s Academy published Sean’s speech online, two atheist YouTubers issued a response. In their video, Drew McCoy, the creator behind the YouTube channel Genetically Modified Skeptic, an account with over 400,000 subscribers, said that Sean’s attempts to answer questions as a fake atheist were disingenuous.
“Since Sean is a Christian who spoke to these students with the objective of strengthening their faith, atheist Sean only answered questions in a way which Christian Sean could readily counter,” he argued in the video. “After all, if his atheist character could actually stump his Christian self, Sean might just be an atheist. This guarantees a one-sided discussion in favor of Christianity.”
As Drew proceeded to explain, Sean’s objectives — challenging students to think critically and encouraging them to engage in respectful dialogue — might have been commendable. But in his view, Sean’s decision to impersonate an atheist rather than simply having a conversation with one perpetuated false stereotypes and denied his audience an honest encounter.
“I ask you to do this one thing,” Drew concluded. “Allow atheists to be present in this discussion and represent ourselves in these dialogues.”
Two weeks later, Sean McDowell did exactly that, inviting Drew on his personal YouTube channel for an interview titled, “Breaking Down Walls: A Christian and an Atheist in Conversation.” In my interview with Sean, he explained the thought process behind that decision.
“When I saw that review video [Drew] first did, I had a number of Christian YouTubers reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, come on my channel and do a response video,’” Sean recalled. “I appreciated that they would give me that platform, but I started thinking, ‘Is this how we communicate today — one side critiques, the other side critiques, and we stand in our positions, kind of critiquing the other side from a distance?’ So I reached out to Drew personally to have a conversation, and to his credit, he agreed.”
In an atmosphere of escalating partisanship and media entrenchment, an online dialogue between a conservative Christian apologist and a progressive atheist YouTuber is unusual — particularly one that is neither a debate nor an attempt to score “gotcha moments” from the other side. Both YouTube apologists and skeptics often post videos responding to what they view as extreme or silly content from the other side.
Kent Hovind, a Christian evangelist who films regular videos from his Dinosaur Adventure Land campground in Lenox, Alabama, posts weekly videos in a series titled “Whack an Atheist Wednesday.” Filmed in front of a live audience, Hovind often exaggerates his criticism for comedic effect, claiming his goal is to “find one functioning brain cell in those who claim there is no God.” In one video, Hovind addresses Drew directly, responding to a video in which Drew explains why he left the Christian faith. “You have traded in the gospel and teaching of the Scriptures and the obvious scientific accuracy of the Bible for a dumb religion like evolution?” Hovind sardonically asks. “Drew, pay attention boy — you need whacked.”
Similarly, several popular skeptic YouTubers post regular videos making fun of smaller Christian channels. Jaclyn Glenn, an atheist content creator with over 800,000 subscribers, posts regular videos in a playlist called “Christian cringe,” and her video intros are the reverse image of Hovind’s. In a video called “The Transformed Wife – MEGA CHRISTIAN CRINGE,” Glenn opens with the line, “Hi everyone and welcome to another video on my channel where I slowly kill all of your remaining brain cells with stupidity on the internet.”
While Drew and Sean both acknowledge that comedic exaggeration is one path to YouTube success, they stress the importance of conversations between Christians and atheists online. When Sean asks him why he would appear on the channel of a YouTube apologist, Drew offers a line that encapsulates the state of tribalism and partisanship that often surrounds online faith-based communities. In his words, “It’s more likely that plenty of my loved ones will listen to what you say about how I think over me telling them directly how I think.”
When I asked him directly about that comment, Drew clarified his position. “It’s definitely true that outrage sells better than actual news or substantive content,” he said. “That says, there’s so much outrage surrounding the topic of faith and deconversion that when someone comes along and is willing to engage in a conversation in good faith, show some kind of positivity, some kind of love for their interlocutor, that stands out to people. There’s a reason why Sean’s video with me is doing well, and that’s because the majority of conversations we see between apologists and atheists are pretty toxic.”
According to a fall 2020 survey from Pew Research, 74 percent of Americans use YouTube, and 23 percent regularly get their news from the site. But Drew is right that YouTube’s algorithms and the watch patterns of people who use YouTube incentivize religious content creators to make videos that highlight the flaws of people in the outgroup, rather than reaching out to them. In a 2018 article from The Guardian, one ex-YouTube insider expressed concern about “filter bubbles…that only show people content that reinforces their existing view of the world.” In light of this quote, Drew’s quote about his Christian family members is perhaps even more poignant—the only time they’ll actually see him speaking for himself online is on Sean McDowell’s channel.
For his part, Sean says largely the same thing. “I don’t think most people, regardless of their worldview, are willing to hear multiple sides before they make their minds up. There were a whole lot of people who saw Drew’s video — even though he was gracious in how he did it — and completely made their mind up about me. They didn’t watch my response video; they didn’t give me a chance. They sent me vicious, mean emails — more than I’ve ever received in my life. And you know what? Christians do the same thing. Some people heard my side and then they were talking about Drew. I was like, OK, time out. Understand where he’s coming from, listen to him. That’s one of the reasons why I had him on my channel.”
While Sean’s decision to have a calm dialogue with a YouTube atheist might not be the norm, as Drew points out, it’s much more effective for winning people who disagree with him to his side. “If someone is taking the approach of fire and brimstone, mockery, and derision in order to convert someone, I would ask them to show me the statistics showing the success rate of that method,” he says. “It’s not that I’m trying to protect atheists’ beliefs (or lack thereof) by saying, ‘Be nice to us, approach us with love, with kindness, with compassion.’ I actually am giving advice that I think — truthfully would lead to more atheists going back to the fold, becoming religious, converting. I’d rather live in a world where more atheists convert but people show more love to each other.”
Sean is open to collaborating with Drew more in the future. “Yeah, totally!” he says. “I don’t know what that would look like — his channel and my channel, what the best format is. But I think he’s honest, I think he’s a person of integrity, and he’s really good at YouTube. And I think there are people hungry for that dialogue.”
The people who have watched Sean’s video seem to agree. As one commenter put it, “Atheist here and WOW Sean has to be the most genuine apologist ever. Kudos for having a conversation with one of your critics….I want to be the kind of atheist that treats Christians the way Sean treats atheists. What would Sean do?”