Note: The letter writer’s name has been changed, and his location has been made more general to protect his privacy.
I am a Small Groups Pastor at a Christian Church in a mid-sized city in the Midwest. I wanted to say I really appreciate the tone of your website, it is quite refreshing. Our church is doing a series on why you believe what you believe, and I was wondering if you could provide me with the most challenging questions for Christians about their faith. I feel that too often Christians have taken the stance of isolation and even get angry when we are confronted by those who do not believe what we believe. Honestly, I believe God wants all of us to ask these questions and seek the answers. I believe that for Christians and atheists alike, the problem is that when we become comfortable with our stance, we stop asking questions and seeking answers. Any question or questions that you could provide will be quite helpful.
Thank you for your gracious attitude. I admire your courage to both present such questions to yourself and your congregants, as well as to come to a group of atheists to ask for those questions. I agree with you that we should all avoid intellectual complacency, and should practice constant genuine self-questioning. The anger that believers and non-believers often hold for each other I think is rooted in fear and hurt. So we should also keep questioning our assumptions and prejudices about each other.
Many of the readers on this blog are very astute in these matters. Some were formerly devout Christians, and they might offer questions that challenged them. So I will leave it to them to provide the challenging questions. I also refer you to a post published on this site a few years ago where you might find some interesting questions.
My questions to you will be about how deeply will you and your group apply those challenging questions to your faith and to your religion.
No question can be framed that can shake or destroy someone’s religious faith if they are not willing to let that question fully into their minds and to consider it sincerely, earnestly, and honestly. Many times I have seen Christians entertain questions that were supposed to challenge them, but it became apparent that it was a charade, a pointless game because they only responded with platitudes, clichés, copied-and-pasted scripture, pre-packaged talking points from Christian websites, or fallacious arguments that were debunked centuries ago. These responses would not satisfy a fifth-grader who was willing to be intellectually honest. They only sound good to someone who isn’t really thinking deeply about it. A series of five posts on this blog in which Lee Strobel responded to our questions was a disappointing example.
Sadly, many people are so ardent in their pursuit of what they call “Divine Truth” that they have lost touch with simple honesty. They approach “challenging questions” with a pre-decided answer, and succeed in avoiding anything implied by those questions that undermine that answer. They come away thinking that the best challenge that atheists could throw at them bounced off their faith, when actually it merely bounced off their well-defended minds. If the exercise was supposed to strengthen their faith, it did not. It only strengthened their assumption that their faith is strong; it only strengthened their faith in their faith.
To be clear, I’m not saying that people of faith must have skirted or glossed over such a question if they emerge with their faith still in tact. Of course it could be possible that they have carefully and honestly pondered it; I’ve just never witnessed that. I’m saying that letting the questions really soak deeply into your mind is by far the bigger challenge than the questions themselves.
So here are my questions about handling such questions:
When considering questions about your religion, do you have lower standards for evidence and sound argument than the standards you use when buying a used car, or sitting on a jury, or considering a religion different from yours? If such standards don’t apply to questions about your religion, why not?
Are you completely unconditional about the answers to which these questions may lead you, or are certain answers off-limits, and you’ll abort the questioning if that is where it seems to be leading?
Are you willing to be never fully satisfied with any answers, never rest on the laurels of an answer that soothes your doubt, but might still be false?
The worst atrocities in history have been committed by people who rendered themselves incapable of doubt. Absolute certainty was their addiction, and “absolute truth” was their drug. Can you see that doubt is not an enemy, and become comfortable with it as a good and constant friend who keeps you honest, humble and human?
Wayne, I wish you well in your effort to help your group become more thoughtful, mindful, truthful and yes, doubtful in not just the practice of their faith, but also their daily lives.
Now to our readers: I thank you beforehand for your help. Please offer your challenging questions in the spirit of respectful treatment, just as you would want questions to be asked of you by Christians.
A clarification: the link directly below in the little white box is for sending Richard questions for advice. To offer your challenging questions to Wayne, click on the post’s title or the word “comments,” and go to the bottom of the post’s separate page, where you’ll find a box for submitting comments. Thank you for your very insightful questions!