In his Hubpages article, “40 Questions to ask a Christian,” atheist Thomas Swan suggests that – in impromptu arguments between Christians and atheists (as opposed to structured debates) - the best tactic an atheist can take is to ask difficult questions; forcing the Christian to think through their position.
Swan doesn’t elaborate on the tactic except to say that, “Ultimately, thought is what an atheist should be trying to elicit. By asking the right questions, one can determine the direction that such thought takes.”
Of course, it’s admirable to encourage anyone – Christian, politician or salesman – to think through their worldviews and positions in life, but based on the phrasing, it appears that Swan is more concerned with taking the reigns of the conversation so that they – the atheist – are in charge of the direction the conversation takes.
This honestly sounds a bit like the atheist version of presuppositionalism – a Christian Apologetics tact which also relies on asking questions in order to direct the conversation. Under a presuppositional tactic, the Christian questions the standards and laws that the person assumes when making an argument. Asking things such as, “What makes such-and-such ‘wrong’?” will theoretically cause the person to admit that there exist transcendent standards – such as logic, justice, reason, beauty, love, etc. that people operate of off when they think or speak. If transcendent standards exist, they must be based in some transcendent source.
Instead of asking questions to backtrack along a person’s line of reasoning, Swan’s tactic seems more to be: ask a hypothetical question that places the Christian in circumstances where their worldview does not work. The Christian is forced to realize that Christianity, as a worldview, must necessarily fail under certain circumstances.
The problem – or genius, depending on which side you’re coming from – with hypothetical questions is that they stack the deck against the other person. The person to whom the question is directed is forced to assume the rules of the questioner in order to give an honest answer.
For instance, Christians are sometimes found asking atheists, “If you die and find out God is real, what are you going to tell him?” It’s a loaded question, because the atheist has to play by the rules of the question, and is trapped in the corner of imagining she was wrong. She isn’t allowed by the question to argue for the truth of atheism, just imagine its failure.
This is a pretty common tactic in the questions posed by Swan. He asks the Christian to imagine they exist under different circumstances, and then give some kind of honest answer to this entirely hypothetical situation.
Consequently, the person addressing the question has three options: 1.) evade the question with answers that do not fully operate within the parameters of the hypothetical 2.) Admit that Swan is right: if they were placed in the scenario he describes, they would be forced to function by the rules he lays out or 3.) Question the question.
Perhaps more ingenious still is that Swan's questions almost always demand a yes/no answer. The genius of this tactic is that one can trap the answerer in a false dilemma, such that either answer is condemning to the questioner. Much like the classic example "Have you stopped beating your wife?": answer "yes," and you are more or less admitting to have beaten your wife in the past. Answer "no" and you are admitting that you are currently beating your wife. If you are not a wife-beater, the question does not offer you the option of explaining this.
These tactics: hypothetical scenarios and false dilemmas – are worth looking out for in the questions in this series.
In this document, members of The Mentionables will examine Swan’s questions both Apologetically and tactically. Questions in this series may include answers from more than one Mentionable so as to give the reader a well-rounded catalog of responses from which to operate.
The value of the series is that a number of the questions are actually being used regularly – typically in online exchanges, and sometimes even in formal debates. Almost always in Atheist Memes that circulate on the web.
Having these Q's and A's will provide the reader with a handy catalog to reference when these questions arise. Read and absorb the answers, and it will make navigating exchanges about one's faith that much easier.
To atheist readers, it is worthwhile to see the Christian side of the equation – whether to consider the worldview in a fair and robust manner, or to avoid asking questions that already have solid answers.
To begin, the reader will note that the questions have been broken up into categories labeled "Regarding X." These are Swan's categories that he assigned to the questions in the article "40 Questions to Ask Christians."
Asking Difficult Questions
In this series, Swan is setting out to furnish atheists and agnostics with a list of questions that he believes will do a better job dismantling Christian dogmatism than direct approaches will. This project is similar to other attempts at Socratic tactics like that of Peter Boghossian and his “street epistemology.” The problem here is that like many modern unbelievers, Swan doesn’t appear to have taken the time to understand the views which he trying to dislodge from people. While I am glad that he admits parties on all sides of these discussions (ostensibly unbelievers included) can get bogged down by concerns of ego, he then goes on to poison the well by saying that Christians believe themselves to have wisdom that he clearly doesn’t think they have (here ignoring the difference between wisdom and knowledge/true belief) and that they have not thought about their beliefs until the noble atheist gives them the opportunity to do so.
This project of eliciting thought has been one of the goals of my ministry from the beginning and to be frank, I have found the “brights” to be rather obstinate against thinking outside of their own naturalistic worldview of considering the challenges posed by those who stand in opposition to it. So what Swan really is attacking is not historic orthodox Christianity which has been held to and defended by some of the greatest minds in history, but rather to a kind of intellectual bottom of the barrel, fundamentalistic, hyper-literal, anti-intellectual, legalistic “evangelical” (and I use the term in the most broadly cultural sense). To that end, most Christians who would be interested in having these discussions would themselves likely want those people to think more robustly about their views before they speak in public. It has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of Christianity, but with the anti-intellectual trappings of a very narrow sliver of Christendom on present in the late modern Western secularized world. So as a Christian who takes my beliefs seriously, I can agree with Swan – that marginal set of Christians should engage in reasonable reflection on their beliefs more – but I think that can lead them to even deeper understandings and trust in the historic Christian faith, not toward a problematic and reflexively destructive naturalistic worldview like that of the modern atheist and agnostic.
So let us explore the questions that he poses. My answers will be intentionally brief and will often be answers “in the right direction,” pointing toward where I think a full answer can be found.