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What Do You Want to Ask Believers? What Do You Want to Ask Atheists?

Question marks
If you’re an atheist, or some other flavor of non-believer, what’s the question you most want to ask religious believers?

And if you’re a religious believer, what’s the question you most want to ask atheists?

I don’t generally interrogate religious believers about their beliefs. (Except in this blog, of course.) I just think it’s rude. Not the fake, fucked-up, “the etiquette restrictions on questioning religion are a major part of how religion protects itself from ever being questioned” sort of rude, either. IMO, it’s the genuine, serious, “according to my own morals and standards” sort of rude.

Argue
I mean, if someone comes into my blog, where one of the main points is to question and debate and critique religion, that’s different. People are free to visit my blog as they like, and to participate in the conversation as much or as little as they like, and to leave as they like. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and all that. But at a party or some other in-person social situation, I think it’s obnoxious to essentially corner people so I can proseletyze at them. Or not even to proseletyze. Even just to ask difficult and intensely personal questions. I wouldn’t do that about politics, I wouldn’t do that about sex, I wouldn’t do that about money, and I’m not going to do it about religion.

But it’s also true that, whenever I meet someone who tells me they’re a Christian, or a Wiccan, or an astrologer, or whatever, I find myself bursting with questions that I don’t feel I can ask. I find myself making idle chit-chat about movies or restaurants… while I’m practically wriggling and jumping up and down with the effort to not ask the one question I most want to ask them.

I have a lot of these questions. But there’s always one big one. For me, whenever I meet someone who tells me they’re a Christian, or a Wiccan, or an astrologer, or whatever, the big question I want to ask is, “Why?”

WhyWhy do you believe what you believe?

It’s a hard question to ask without sounding incredulous. It’s hard to ask it in a way that’s genuinely curious, without coming across like you’re trying to pick a fight. (Heck, speaking for myself, it would be hard to ask it without, in fact, trying to pick a fight.) It’s hard to ask it without it coming out like, “Why on earth would anyone believe that?” In other words: It’s a hard question to ask without sounding like a jerk.

(The second- biggest question I want to ask, btw, is, “Do you really believe that?” Mostly with Wiccans and Neo-Pagans and such. I always want to ask them: “Do you really believe that casting spells works, in some supernatural way? Do you really believe in gods and goddesses and the spirits of the four directions? Or is this all just some metaphor, a way of framing your own thoughts that you find beautiful and useful?” But that’s really a question that you can’t ask without sounding like a jerk.)

I’m betting that a lot of the other non-believers in this blog have questions they’d like to ask believers but don’t feel like they can. And I’m betting that the believers who read this blog have questions they’d like to ask atheists.

So I’m curious: What are your questions? If you’re a non-believer, what do you want to ask believers? And if you’re a religious believer, what do you want to ask atheists?

Comments

  1. Ephemeriis says

    Question 1: Really? You honestly believe that? You aren’t just saying that because it’s what your parents believe, or what you’ve been raised into? You’ve actually given it some real consideration and you actually believe in it?

    Question 2: Why? What convinced you? Why not believe in something else? Why this particular belief?

  2. says

    If I’m feeling in an argumentative mood, the question I usually like to ask is, “What research did you do to convince yourself that other religious beliefs were untrue before you chose this one?”

  3. John B Hodges says

    Back when I was a religious believer, I would have said I believed in the Perennial Philosophy (as in, the book of that title by Aldous Huxley)- that every religion had an outer hull of dogma and ritual and an inner core of mysticism, and the inner core of all of them was pretty much the same. So I was a Universalist, in the sense that I believed the outer parts of all religions were false/metaphorical/fictional/partial, and the inner parts of all religions were true.
    I lost faith in the perennial Philosophy when I decided that my Guru was faking it, and after several years of searching I decided there just weren’t any other paths/religions that could give any solid evidence that they were true.

  4. Indigo says

    Why do you believe in this religion, while taking as read that every other faith in the world is clearly and a priori wrong? (Obviously this applies only to certain religious believers; with others I wonder the next question.)
    If all paths are equally legitimate ways to spiritual enlightenment, aren’t you saying that religiously-motivated wars, pogroms and other atrocities are an acceptable expression of faith?
    If God works in mysterious ways that we cannot begin to understand, how can you claim to have absolute certain knowledge of what he wants us to do?
    Again, if God works in mysterious ways to unclear ends, why do you question his decision to make me an atheist? (Again, only a subset of theists need answer, but since they’re an especially vocal one, they should be the ones most prepared to.)
    Similarly, isn’t it a little arrogant to presume that Almighty God needs your assistance in getting me to see the light? Surely if there’s a way to make me change my mind and it mattters that I do so, God knows where to find me, as it were.
    Some of these probably sound kind of snarky, but I really do wonder about the answers to them.

  5. says

    None of the questions I actually want to ask would seem to be anything but extremely rude.
    If I’m talking to a fairly liberal Christian (or liberal anything else, for that matter), I feel I already understand the mindset pretty well, so there’s not much to ask. [I think their belief is wrong but I can understand where they're coming from.]
    The ones I don’t understand (and so would perhaps gain a little from being able to hold a proper conversation with) tend to be simultaneously hypersensitive to any kind of actual questioning that goes beyond an opportunity to try to convert me and at the same time completely unaware of their own insensitivity going the other way (“Youhavenomorals youregoingtohell youbringupchildrentohavenomorals… and why are you atheists always so angry?”). Not to speak of the ones who run for the hills once they’re aware you’re an atheist, like you might sneeze athy all over them and they could catch it.
    It’s no fun having a conversation that can only end with one or the other of us trying to get away.
    I’ve heard all the proselytization I can stomach (in fact a good way beyond it), so I don’t see there’s anything more to gain.
    I mean I want to ask “You believe that? Are you completely out of your gourd or just trying to be funny?” and “Why do your actions belie your claimed beliefs?” and a whole pile of other stuff – but they would be pretty jerky things to say to someone who is hypersensitive about their beliefs, and I’m not usually in the business of being a jerk unless I have a reason to.
    And in any case, when a less confrontational version of similar questions have been posed, I have never seen or heard an answer that made the slightest bit of sense. I have given up hoping for any kind of rapport with the sort of theists I don’t already understand.
    I guess that makes me some kind of jerk.

  6. says

    My feelings are very different from efrique’s.
    I would like to ask moderate/liberal christians (those who believe in hell:
    How can you justify “tolerating” the beliefs of your non-christian friends, when they are risking eternal torment? If you really care about them, shouldn’t that be your top priority?
    To moderate/liberal christians who do not believe in hell: Why not? Jesus clearly believed in it, and talked about it. What is your justification for ignoring this part of his teachings?

  7. says

    Question 1: How? How can you look at anything mankind has discovered about the universe in the last 400 years and still believe in a god. It’s just not the conclusion of any rational functioning mind.
    Question 2: Did you pick the right one? Are you sure you shouldn’t be Buddhist/Jewish/Wiccan/Hindu?

  8. Andy says

    I think one of the hardest questions you can ask anyone (atheists, believers, anyone) regarding to his/her religious beliefs is:
    ¿What would it take to change your mind on that subject, to realize that you were wrong?

  9. says

    Question of anyone (atheist, humanist, theist, anarchist, protist, etc): How do your beliefs affect your actions?
    While beliefs themselves are of philosophical interest to me, the only really important thing to me – the thing that will set me for or against you – is what you choose to do with your beliefs. Will you use them to motivate caring and thoughtful deeds? To promote freedom and an open society? Or will you use them to justify bigotry, to suppress people you disagree with, to attack scientific knowledge?

  10. Ainuvande says

    “How did you find God?”
    “How did you know it was God when you found it?”
    “If you were raised in this religion, have you thought about it that way? Have you questioned your god and your faith?”
    “Why did you pick this faith?”
    “Why do you perform certian rituals and hold certian beliefs? What makes them intrinsic to your religion? Why are they important to you?”
    Being a fairly blunt and inquisitive person, I have actually demolished two relationships and a handful of friendships this way.

  11. says

    For believers and non-believers alike:
    The perrential “What could convince you that you’re wrong?”
    How certain are you really? How often do you entertain the chance you might be wrong–dead wrong?
    If you found out that you were, in fact wrong, despite your best rational thought or “gut feeling,” how would you really feel? How would this practically affect your life–would your morals, ethics, aesthetics really be any different?

  12. absent sway says

    At my most devout, I would have answered along these lines (I’m not claiming these answers are rational):
    Do you really believe that? Yes. I have felt the presence of God, know people whose lives were changed because of finding faith, and have had enough prayers answered and experienced enough peace of mind that I trust the difficult stuff will all make sense somehow in time.
    Why/What research? That’s a good question and I acknowledge that being raised in it made it a natural starting point for me but that doesn’t necessarily make its claims wrong. I have read a bit about other religions and ideas and find them interesting but not compelling enough to change what’s working for me.
    Why do you reject other religions?
    I think all religions have something to offer but I feel that truth is revealed most fully in Christ. The Bible says to seek and you will find; I strongly believe that God will reveal himself to those who are sincere in every religion, eventually bringing them to knowledge of Christ. I don’t so much reject other religions as practice my own, which excludes the others.
    If God is mysterious then how can you claim to know what’s up with him? I try not to claim anything other than what God has revealed in the Bible. I understand that if you don’t believe the Bible you might easily come to different conclusions, and that even Christians disagree about some things it says. Obviously we should be patient with each other and pray for guidance.
    Isn’t it arrogant to think God needs your assistance to bring me to him? The Bible instructs us to share the good news so I am responsible for sharing it; beyond that, it is up to God to work in people’s hearts and I trust he will do so in his time. It is a sin on my part if I have an arrogant attitude about this.
    What do you believe? In a nutshell, I believe that God is holy/perfect and that our sin separates us from him but since he is also loving he has provided a way for us to be redeemed through Jesus. Talks of predestination, the morality of sacrifice for another, the existence of evil, etc. could go on for hours and I love to have such conversations. It’s difficult to make sense of such paradoxes as present themselves, but I try and the rest is what faith is for. My experience, in brief, is that I am inspired to strive to live a moral life and moved with great love for my fellow humans.
    Why do your actions belie your claimed beliefs? God gave me free will and sometimes I still misuse it. I strive to be responsible for my actions and make wise choices, though, and will sincerely apologize and attempt to make restoration if I wrong you.
    How can you let your friends risk eternal torment? I encourage them to seek God and share my experience and beliefs whenever I can within reason (trying not to bombard or offend them, though, since it’s their choice–difficult balance). I pray for their salvation constantly, increasingly to the point of tears as the years go by. I don’t want to be in heaven without them and I trust that somehow God will intervene, will know and love them even more than I do–only trust in God makes this tolerable and it is the greatest challenge to my faith.
    How? It’s helpful to think of religion and science as nonoverlapping magisteria
    Did you pick the right one? Obviously I think so :) I try to keep an open mind about recognizing elements of truth in other traditions, though.
    What would it take to change your mind? Something along the lines of the discovery of Jesus’ body. (The full answer to this must include some other elements, though, since it seems I’ve changed my mind–shaking my confidence in the Bible was a big one)
    How do your beliefs affect your actions? Profoundly. I view everything in my life in light of sin, salvation, and eternity. Maybe not right away or all at the same time, but it’s pretty much entwined with everything and I seek for it to be more so every day. In the beginning they motivated me to be overly attentive and judgmental about others’ actions and opinions but that was spiritual immaturity and over time I have been increasing in the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control). I have also been learning more about the need for Christians to stand up for the poor and disadvantaged, and inspired to pursue social justice and urban ministry.
    How did you find God? I guess you could say I became acquainted with him over time, through the teachings of my community and the searching of my heart
    How did you know it was God? I guess it’s fair to say that I trusted my feelings of transcendence and elevation on this one, or didn’t know what else to attribute the experience to, or didn’t feel the need to explain it with anything else, initially. Also, complete trust in the Bible as a source of revelation.
    If you were raised in it, have you thought about it in this way? Yes, and I have attempted to make it my own. If it wasn’t working or seeming right, I would have abandoned it by now.
    Why did you pick this faith? This was my natural starting place and although I briefly explored other options, I wanted to give this one a good long try before moving on–turns out I like it and it seems convincing.
    Why do you perform certain rituals and hold certain beliefs? I trust the Bible more than church and things that seem more like they are just tradition-based instead of what I take to be mandated/valued by God, I take less seriously or disregard. There is room for a lot of disagreement among Christians about these sorts of things and I do my best to make sense of what is most important, what is essential, and do those things, and keep an open mind to the rest (for instance, I grew up in a congregation that was against speaking in tongues but have become more open to the concept because of reading more about it in the Bible).

  13. says

    Actually, I do not really find myself bursting with questions at all. I’m not sure why, really. Maybe it’s because I’m just really uncomfortable talking about it in person. I’m usually curious as to what religion people are, and where they stand in the various religious spectra. But I feel like I’ve already heard all the reasons why people believe. It’s a little painful to hear friends struggle to articulate their arguments when I can easily recognize it as soon as they’ve started.
    On the flip side, I wish people would ask me more questions. Don’t ask me why I don’t believe, because the answer to that is rather boring, and dissatisfying to all parties. Ask what I believe, what I don’t believe, what I used to believe, and how I changed from that.
    Or we can talk about something completely different. How did finals go for you? I can feel comfortable with that line of discussion.

  14. Pig says

    Okay, here is one for non-believers:
    If someone is stronger than you, and disagreeing with them will lead them to doing very nasty things to you, does this automatically grant them the authority to tell you what to do?

  15. Zipi says

    Why have you chosen your particular branch of religion as opposed to a different one? Have you actually studied them, and what evidence does your branch offer that makes it different from any other branch? Actually, you have studied then, right? If you would not buy a house without shopping around, I assume you would not choose the fate of your eternal soul without shopping around.
    And, of course, do you really believe in that or have you conviniently avoided giving it much thought just in case?

  16. Eclectic says

    Pig: Well, it depends what you mean by “authority”. It gives them some power, but authority really exists when it is generally acceded to. You don’t say whether that is the case or not. Gandhi took away the Raj’s authority by refusing to acknowledge it, even though they could and did put him in gaol.
    For liberal christians: What are the articles of faith of your denomination? Do you even know what they are? Have you actually thought about whether you believe them, or are you just politely not disbelieving? (I promise I’ll be polite and not push this too far; I’m just really curious how much christians actually know and reflect on their christianity.)
    For biblical literalists: Which biblical text do you consider authoritative? For example, in the instances where the masoretic text and the septuagint disagree, which you follow?
    For all: what, exactly, happens in a church service? For example, if a service is scheduled for 9:00, when do people arrive, when do they sit down, and what happens in between?

  17. Pig says

    Eclectic
    Well, you look at what gives God his authority in Christian myth, it all comes down to do what he says or he will put you in hell.
    Resisting him is futile, because he is all powerful and he will win.
    So whatever he says, you had better do, or he will punish you and what is worse, he will go after your kids too (Unto the fourth generation, unless what you did was have a kid out of wedlock, then it is unto the tenth.)
    Now, my question is, does the might of this God mean that it gets to define what is moral, good or true?

  18. vel says

    I’m an atheist. So, theists,
    question 1: Why is everyone else wrong?
    question 2: Can you prove you are right?

  19. clytia says

    for christians, no matter how liberal (or perhaps especially the liberals, since as someone mentioned, questioning fundamentalists is inherently futile, as they are always right and trying to convert you. no matter what you/they say):
    - no matter how much of (or what exactly) of the bible you think should be taken as “law” even nowadays, how the hell can you possibly believe in (as a positive being), support, pray to, worship, etc a “god” who (whether now, or only back in the days) supported and even commanded the murder (sorry, execution) of people simply because they disobeyed their parents/fucked someone of the same sex/fucked someone they weren’t married to… i can’t remember what all the other death penalties were for.
    on second thought, from what i know, that question ought to be directed to jews and muslims too.
    i find it easier to simply avoid people of any form of belief, rather than getting into that kind of discussion

  20. Adviser Moppet says

    For theists,
    Have you actually considered, really sat down and seriously considered the possibilty that you might be wrong? That all the money, time and effort following pointless rules and engaging in useless prayer was wasted?

  21. says

    “(Heck, speaking for myself, it would be hard to ask it without, in fact, trying to pick a fight.)”
    I have a very hard time with this now. I’ve been around religious people and talked to them enough that I’m running out of patience with their standard answers to the standard questions above.

  22. says

    It has always seemed to me that the main questions religionists should be asked, never are. I mean what’s up with heaven? Seeing how the main point of the “whole religious thing” is to get there, but why is it that no one seems to know that much about it?
    Questions for the heaven believers:
    Where is heaven physically located?
    What’s it like there?
    Do they have weather in heaven?
    Do they have food? Candy? Beer or wine?
    Once you get to heaven and remain there forever and ever, what will you do there? Will god give the heaven people jobs?
    Or will all of you just sing praises in the heavenly choir all the time, and that’s your job? Forever and ever just singing?
    Will it always have to be the same songs? No hip-hop, no blues, no R&B, no Top 40? Just songs about HIM?
    Will these songs be accompanied with musical instruments? If so, does that mean that Church of Christ people won’t go to heaven, or will god create a segregated heaven for the non-musical instrument people?
    And will all those people born before Jesus came on the scene, be in heaven with you as well? Or will they have to go to hell so god can “stick to his rules?” Or, will he give them a do-over or just grade them on the curve?
    And about those heavenly prizes the winners get. You know what I mean, “the mansions.” Does it come with a Jacuzzi? And if you live in a mansion in heaven, who cleans it up?
    And if you have to clean your own mansion in heaven, it that really heaven? I mean with streets made of gold and everything, a self-cleaning mansion doesn’t seem like asking a lot, does it?
    And won’t everyone in heaven be single like the bible says? No wives and no husbands, no girlfriends or boyfriends? (I guess we can tell what else won’t be going-on in heaven). So why does anyone need a mansion in heaven anyway, if everyone will be single?
    When you get to heaven, will you be depressed and saddened by the fact that some (or many) of your relatives and friends didn’t make it?
    How will you feel about the idea of living in this wonderful place called heaven, while the god that you love so much has sent your favorite aunt, uncle, or your mom or dad, or your sister or brother to hell where they are tortured and burned endlessly and must live in unending pain and anguish? Forever?
    Will god make you forget them so you can have a wonderful heaven experience?

  23. Dario says

    Unfortunately I am not as eloquent as the writer I am about to post a link to but I thought he has a very interesting point.
    Irrational beliefs (and I count religion there) often have an emotional component. Because this component is so often unconscious any discussion centred on arguments of fact are fruitless because they don’t address the underlying emotional issue. Ergo – asking factual questions won’t get anywhere near the issue.
    Greta – not sure if you have read this guy before but I think it’s a great complementary argument to the one’s you make about religion/belief.
    http://tacit.livejournal.com/269020.html

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