“I just wondered what your thoughts were of Jesus the man,” read the recent message to me from a Christian.
I wasn’t fooled, especially because his message went on to preach at me about how I’d obviously just gotten everything wrong about Christianity and clearly just didn’t know how “historical” the religion was. Yep, I’d just run into the dreaded “Just Asking Questions” Christian, and I’m sure he was just simply aching to know what I just thought of “Jesus the man.”
When someone is “just asking questions,” that person is asking a question that he or she really isn’t interested in having answered. The question is nothing more than a springboard from which to launch an evangelism attempt, an opening gambit. It’s far from an exclusively Christian tactic–feminists are long accustomed to seeing it as well; being disingenuous and pretending to ask questions happens in a lot of arenas. Chest-thumping and attempts to dominate are dogmas that run far deeper than any religious ideology. Today, though, I’m just going to talk about how this tactic applies to religion. And I do want to make clear that I’m not talking about people who simply haven’t run into some of the ideas that ex-Christians talk about, who genuinely don’t even know what resources are out there, and who are really just wetting their feet in understanding. We should want to be really gentle to people like that. I’m talking here about people who abuse our patience by pretending to ask us stuff but who really actually want to preach at us.
Sometimes you hear this particular form of abuse called “JAQing off,” and the imagery that might have arisen in your mind is perfectly in keeping with what it seems like for the person doing it. Indeed, the person asking doesn’t really care a bit about what the target thinks; the question is only being asked to frame a bit of imminent proselytization. It’s a form of abusive behavior as well as hugely dishonest, but it’s a tactic that ex-Christians might get tripped up by very easily–we’re so used to being on the defensive! And we often feel that we have an obligation to convince our friends and loved ones that we deconverted for a good reason.
No matter what we do about the question being asked, we lose. If we answer, we quickly discover that the person asking it just uses it to draw us into an unwanted, unasked-for discussion about the validity of our decision to leave the religion (and our reason will inevitably be found invalid, I’m warning you now). If we don’t answer, we’re clearly scared of answering which must obviously mean our decision to leave wasn’t valid. So we often feel a lot of pressure to answer these insincere questions, like this time we’ll find the magical way to convince that person that we did what we did for a good reason.
The Christians asking these fake questions are perfectly aware that we will feel obligated to answer all their questions, by the way.
That’s exactly why they do it.
They are playing against our feelings of being bound to a social contract. But they’re not playing very fair, because they’re not holding up their end of the social contract: once we answer the question, they won’t really listen to what we have to say, and will only use the question like a pushy salesperson might use a shoe stuck in a doorjamb. The difference between a sincere question and a “just asking questions” question is like night and day.
The real problem with “just asking questions” is that Christians often confuse arguments for evidence for their religion (and I’m pretty sure I know why that is). Thanks to irresponsible preachers and apologists like Ray Comfort, they’ve gotten the idea that they are lawyers arguing a case. Watching one of them in action with this tactic is like watching an episode of Boston Legal–I really think such folks think they are star lawyers leading poor little apostates on a witness stand to some singularly impressive finale, at which time they will get to dramatically point at us like that anime figure and shout “AHA! MY WITNESS, YOUR HONOR!” and we’ll have to break down and admit that they were totally right. It’s a really twisted form of Socratic education, which I’m noticing Christian homeschooling groups and right-wing Christians alike getting into of late. I really think that one reason they love debate like they do nowadays is that they make that singular mistake of thinking that persuasive-sounding arguments are actually credible support for the objective truth of their religious views.
Here are the things I think about if I want to figure out if someone’s “just asking questions” or if that person’s really asking me a real question that wants a real answer:
* Is the question coming out of the clear blue sky?
* Is the question obviously leading or loaded?
* Is the question about a very controversial subject?
* Do I have some reason to suspect the person asking the question isn’t really sincere?
* Is the answer easily found online or in other resources?
* Have I answered this question at length already in my other writings?
* Has this person demonstrated non-receptiveness and disrespect in other encounters?
If a lot of “yes” answers start piling up, the likelihood of sincerity drops considerably.
That’s why, after the famous Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate when Creationists were asked to write down their burning questions for non-science-deniers, nearly every one of those questions were actually just their writers JAQing off. The translations offered by that link are not only spot-on but devastatingly accurate. The questions weren’t sincere. They were meant to terrorize non-Creationists, threaten them, put them on the defensive, and preach. They weren’t questions. They were just zingers that these Creationists mistakenly thought were hugely effective against non-Creationists.
Those 22 post-debate questions are probably one of the most dramatic examples of the “just asking questions” Christian, but there are lots of others. I could fill several blog posts with just a one-line summary of them all: Why did you leave Jesus? How could you leave the truth? Did you actually really truly believe (insert whatever it is the asker thinks is vitally important)? Were you just angry at “God”? But how do you live morally? It’s just so tiresome. Answering one question just makes a half-dozen more pop up, until finally the person doing it gets to the point and springs the real zinger, the one that they have been aching to zing us with all along.
When we start noticing what we suspect are insincere questions, we’re allowed to ask why the question is being asked. If we think we’ve found a lawyer Christian, we’re allowed to ask the Christians doing it to just get to the point already and skip the primrose-path questioning. (It’s so funny to see someone call them out in this manner–it’s like their entire strategy got short-circuited; generally you can all but hear them fuming that we’re just not cooperating with their playbook, damn it!) We’re allowed to simply direct the person “just asking questions” to some resource sites rather than waste time typing all that information out from scratch for them. And we’re allowed to decline answering altogether if we don’t think that a meaningful dialogue will result from so doing.
There is a distinct whiff of privilege involved in the asking of such questions that we must also be aware of. A person demanding to be persuaded before accepting the validity of someone’s life experiences is a person attempting to exert dominance over us. This isn’t like someone asking for evidence that GMOs are unhealthy or for evidence of voter fraud before endorsing measures for or against those things. When the subject at hand is whether or not my personal decision meets with their lofty, exalted approval, the implicit statement I’m hearing is you’re going to need to convince me beyond any doubt that you did the right thing before I will treat that decision–or you–respectfully. And by wild coincidence, few if any ex-Christians have ever met that exacting standard. Really, it’s simply breathtakingly presumptuous.
We need not fear such people thinking less of us; they’re the ones who are being insincere, disrespectful, and dishonest, not us. If they want to negate us or sneer down at us, they’ll find a way no matter what we say or do. I suggest we be polite but maintain our boundaries. If they’re not ready to hear what we have to say now, maybe they will be later.
With all of these things in mind, when I applied my decision-making process to the Christian who sent me the message I mentioned up at this post’s start, I quickly saw nothing but “yes” answers. There was a very, very low chance, therefore, that the question he asked was actually sincere.
But the real proof of his sincerity and intentions came after I replied, and that’s not too uncommon either.
You see, in the end my response to the Christian who sent me that initial message–as it is to many other “just asking questions” Christians–was largely to disregard the fake question and focus on what he really seemed to want to talk about.
And since he didn’t care about the question anyway, he didn’t even seem to notice that I never answered it.
It’s times like these that I’m really glad to be out of Christianity.