A student at a small Bible college asked the following “10” questions, with the aim of “being able to have open and honest conversations with people from different religions or with no religion at all.”
Some of my readers know all of the following about me, but others may not, so I’m giving my answers here. (Note that there are actually 12 questions; a few are bundled together.)
• Have you ever been to church?
By age 23, I had attended church services more often than many Christians will in their entire lives: three times a week for most of those years; daily during summer camps, revivals, and other special events, and an average of nine services a week during my nearly four years in Bible college.
• Do you have any Christian friends or family members? If so, what do you think of their faith?
This is two questions, so…
1. Almost everyone I have ever known identifies as Christian. I can count the number of atheists I’ve met on the fingers of one hand, and the same is true for Muslims, Buddhists, and other faiths.
2. “Faith” has multiple definitions. I’m not sure whether this question refers to “belief without evidence” or “religion”. Regarding the former, we all have to take some things on faith. However, when it comes to the single most important thing in the universe (from a religious perspective), this is something for which I would require evidence.
As for the latter, I eventually discovered that it wasn’t actually one large thing, but rather a number of separate things. Upon lengthy reflection, almost every Christian I’ve ever met (including my former self) had his or her own version of Christianity that differs in lesser or greater degrees from all others. They disagree on God’s attributes, God’s plan, which parts of the Bible are entirely true, how involved God is in today’s world, which of his ancient rules we’re still supposed to be bound by, doctrines, etc. In almost every case I’ve known, they were born into Christian families (or at least raised in a mostly-Christian populace) so that the foundations of their faith were built in early childhood — it wasn’t something they “discovered” later in life and suddenly became convinced of.
• What do you think of Christians?
This is like asking “What do you think of music?” or “What do you think of technology?” Without context or qualification, the question doesn’t make sense to me.
Like most demographics, Christians aren’t a monolithic, homogeneous group of people. Their personalities, education, behavior, and beliefs run the gamut of human possibilities. Because of this, it is difficult to describe them — and what I think about them — as a group. They range from liberal to conservative, rich to poor, kind to despicable, educated to ignorant, intelligent to stupid. Most seem to struggle with the same doubts that I did; many of them have found a way to overcome those doubts while others ignore them or continue to struggle.
• What do you think of Jesus?
Unlike many atheists, I won’t claim “Jesus never existed”, because it’s known that several men were named “Jesus” (our English approximation of the Hebrew “Yeshua”) lived around the time in question. But what is in question is what any of these men named Jesus said or did.
Very little is actually known (in a verified, historic sense) about any particular Jesus. Referring specifically to the Jesus of Christian stories, we depend on writings composed many years after he is said to have died. The Gospel of Mark, for example, is typically considered the earliest of the Gospels, yet it was composed (it is thought) some time in the 60s CE. It does not say who wrote it, or where the information came from, and appears to be written for an audience of people who already believe its startling claims.
If I had to guess, based on a wide variety of claims about this Jesus, I would say: there was likely a rabbi or itinerant Jewish teacher around that time whose words and teachings were profound enough or unique enough that he gathered a substantial following. Oral stories of his life were passed on for a couple of generations. By the time they were written, a cult had built up around his name.
Based on things he is supposed to have said, he seems like a fairly thoughtful person for his time, but also unhinged on occasion (for example: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”). But there is simply no way to know how much of the mythology surrounding Jesus’ life is based on factual events.
• What do you think of the Bible?
I once thought the Bible was the literal word of God, a complete guide for life. But then I read it, repeatedly. It’s fairly racy at times — stuff you wouldn’t let your kids watch on TV, including murder, suicide, rape, genocide, dismemberment, slavery, and so on, as well as rules for doing each of these properly. It’s contradictory, historically and scientifically inaccurate, and describes a very monstrous being as “god”. I would encourage every Christian to read it from front to back, though few of them will ever do so.
• Has anyone ever preached to you personally?
See my answer to the first question. Also, I’ve preached to others countless times.
• How would you feel if someone tried to persuade you to believe in Jesus? Would it make a difference if that person were a stranger or if they were close to you?
Again, this is two questions:
1. As already noted, it seems reasonable to believe that Jesus existed. Unless you meant “believe that Jesus is the Son of God”, in which case they would have a very hard time convincing me someone is the son of a nonexistent being. (Especially if they also claimed that “Jesus IS God”, which by definition means that he’s not God’s son.)
2. Yes, it would make a difference, regardless of topic. With a stranger, I can simply walk away to avoid wasting everyone’s time. Those “close to me” are the ones responsible for me being religious in the first place; there’s probably little they can say or do to re-convince me of something so ridiculous.
• What are your biggest objections to Christianity?
I don’t have any “objections” to any religious beliefs; I only object to behavior or attempts at thought-control. Where Christianity (or other religions) wedge themselves into secular law, they become a problem. When Christians (or members of other religions) attempt to enforce their beliefs/practices on others, they have overstepped their bounds.
You could go through life believing that a horde of magical twinkling thimbles controls time and space, and as long as you don’t force others to believe or force others to obey the thimbles’ rules, then we’re fine.
• Hypothetically speaking, if the claims of the Christian faith were proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt, would you become a Christian?
First, there are very few universally agreed-upon “claims of the Christian faith”. I assume the questioner meant her particular brand of Christianity. Second, it would depend on what those claims are. If it’s the claim that the entire Bible is literally true, then that can’t ever be proven, since the book is self-contradictory in several places. If it’s the claim that YHWH is a real being, then I would resist such a genocidal monster if at all possible. If it’s the claim that prayer can heal all diseases, I would still wonder why Christian hospitals have doctors instead of prayer circles, because the latter would be cheaper by far. If it’s the claim of “original sin”, we already know from genetics that it isn’t true — the human race’s smallest population bottleneck was around 10,000 people, not two. And so on.
• Describe your beliefs about God, salvation, the afterlife, etc.
I lack belief in God, salvation, and the afterlife. I admit that I sometimes wish for an afterlife to be true, because this life seems so short — I’m already halfway through it. As for God, there are very few god claims I’ve heard of that I wish were true. Salvation is a sub-claim of many god claims, and depends on one of them to be true.
• Final Thoughts
These questions are similar to other lists that Christians often pose, though the writer of this list at least made an attempt to be curious instead of preachy. Often, when Christians speak to atheists, they seem unaware that many (most?) atheists in the U.S. are former Christians. Yes, there are some who were raised without religion, and others were raised in Islam or other faiths, but many of us were Christians at one time or another.
Often, we are approached (whether face-to-face or online) as if we must have crawled out from under pre-Biblical rocks and never heard the story, never grappled with fading beliefs, and never considered the consequences of unbelief. This is a weird, strange assumption to make in a culture as steeped in Christianity as U.S. culture is.