A while back, I came to a conclusion that seems (to me) quite profound: that religion is a live-action role-playing game, an adult version of the old “the floor is lava!” game some of us played when we were young. God, angels, demons, god-hating atheists, etc, are all non-player characters in this game, and prayer and superstition create the link between things in the real world and things as they exist in the mind of the believer. It’s degenerate play, in the sense that participants have lost the crucial ability to distinguish between the fantasy and the reality, but it’s still basically a game of pretend.
That’s kind of cool, and it explains a lot, but then I have to ask, “So what?” What good does it do us to understand this? If this is going to be more than just something that’s nice to know, we need some way to apply it to our interactions with religion. And I think one of those ways is that it tells us how we ought to discuss religion with believers.
The thing about “let’s pretend” games is that part of the challenge (and thus part of the fun) is spontaneously figuring out ways to make your circumstances and experience fit into the game. Prayer is one way believers do this, using “intercessions” to bring real-world situations into the fantasy world of the supernatural, so that whenever the situation works out (good or bad), the believer can pretend that God had something to do with the outcome.
Superstition works the same way, without the waiting. You just pick some real-world event or condition, and give God credit for it. It’s purely an exercise of the imagination, since that’s where the connection to God happens, and you can make that connection be whatever you like. The challenge is finding some way to connect God to things in a way that makes him look good, and therefore it’s fun and rewarding every time you succeed.
If we understand this, we can understand why rhetorical questions are counterproductive when trying to reason with believers about religion. Questions like, “If God is Almighty and All-Good, why is there evil?” might be intended to get Christians to see inconsistencies in their beliefs, but that’s not how a believer is going to perceive it. To a believer, such questions are an invitation to play the fun part of the game, a challenge to incorporate something from the real world into their pretend world. In effect, it’s as if you said, “Let’s play YOUR game according to YOUR rules!” The believer is going to say, “Awesome, I’d love to!” and all you’ve done is encourage the believer have more fun playing.
A better response is simply to state what the contradiction is. “If God is, by nature, a union of three distinct male persons, then He’s a same-sex union by nature, and if He’s a same-sex union by nature, then He’s not going to create a universe in which same-sex unions are sinful and perverted and disgusting, because that would be blaspheming His own nature.” That’s a lot harder for believers to deal with, because you’re not inviting them to play their favorite game, you’re exposing the difference between their faith and the real world.
They’ll still try to maintain their game, of course, but it won’t be as much fun. When you ask a rhetorical question and then listen to their answer, it’s more fun for them because you’re essentially participating in their game at that point, and getting other people to participate is what religion is all about. But when you just state the inconsistency, you’re not giving them that. You’re standing with your feet on the ground, looking in on a weird little world that can’t stand up on its own, and pointing out the flaws.
This approach might seem confrontational, but in fact it’s easier to have a polite conversation if you stick to stating what you believe, and what inconsistencies you observe in religious dogmas. Rhetorical questions often have a side-effect of putting the other person on the defensive, and provoking answers that reflect hostility and stubbornness rather than reason. If we calmly state our own beliefs, however, then both parties are on a more equal footing, emotionally, since neither one becomes “the prosecutor.”
Obviously, this is not a magical answer. It’s not going to instantly convert anyone, nor does it mean that there will never be any circumstances in which a rhetorical question might be effective. But I think it does mean that we should be making a conscious effort to avoid questioning why people believe what they do, and to emphasize the affirmative strengths of our skeptical reasons for rejecting religion. We should tell, not ask, and this will tend to make our dialogs more successful.