Thinking Out Loud

July 12, 2012

To My Skeptic Friend

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:38 am

Dear __________,

Here’s an idea.

There’s nothing I can say or do today that will convince you that God exists, that the Bible can be trusted, or that Jesus has a legitimate claim to be God. But humor me for a moment.

All I’m asking today is that you begin with a God-exists hypothesis. Not the Bible. Not Jesus. Just that there is a God, in the more or less traditional way that’s understood.

Now then, ask all your questions, and frame your answers along the lines of the hypothesis. In other words, “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” becomes, “If there is a God, why does he permit so much evil and suffering in the world?”

And so on.

What possible answers might you come up with to your various questions? Maybe some fairly crazy ones!

I’m not saying assume anything or commit to anything. I’m just saying take your toughest questions, your philosophical questions, your metaphysical questions, your ethical questions; and instead of framing them within a vacuum, frame them within the hypothesis.

Oh yeah, one more thing: For 48 hours. Do this for a couple of days, not a couple of minutes.

You might even want to say this — don’t think of it as a prayer, but more as a role play to get you in the right head space — “God, I don’t believe you exist, but for the next couple of days, I want to see how the world adds up if I were to believe you’re really out there.”

Think of this ‘let’s pretend’ game as meeting me halfway.



  1. And for those of us who have done this? Not for 2 days, but for months and even years, and yet remain atheists and skeptics? What then?

    Comment by NotAScientist — July 12, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    • I’m not proposing some kind of blanket solution, like the ‘patch’ you download so your computer can run a different kind of software. I’m just tossing this out there because for some people the “God is not” or “Anything But God” dynamic is written in stone; and I think allowing the hypothesis as a possibility is a different approach.

      But other people can’t see past that position because of things that churches and religions do; and for them a book like The End of Religion by Bruxy Cavey might be a route to try. Other people have been hurt because of circumstances, and a book like Where is God When It Hurts by Philip Yancey might be helpful. Other people are bound by the ‘logic’ and ‘sensibility’ of atheism, and for them C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity presents allegories and analogies that offer a different perspective. Still others have questions arising from a political, philosophical or anthropological worldview, and various books, CDs, and DVDs by Ravi Zacharias address those questions.

      I’m just saying, ‘Stay open to various possibilities.’ Even to my Christian friends, I say, “Take a piece of paper and write down what you believe; all your various beliefs and doctrines and how they fit into some kind of working theology or explanation for what is seen or expeirenced. But write them down in pencil — not pen — because there are things you are going to want to adjust and some things you might want to erase entirely and replace with something else.”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 12, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  2. Reblogged this on GoodOleWoody's Blog and Website.

    Comment by goodolewoody — July 12, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  3. “All I’m asking today is that you begin with a God-exists hypothesis. Not the Bible. Not Jesus. Just that there is a God, in the more or less traditional way that’s understood.”

    I’d need you to be more specific in defining this “god hypothesis”. There are thousands of different religions, and they all have different ideas about what their god is, or is not. Before I could even try a hypothetical “god exists” I’d need a meaningful definition to work with.

    And, most non-believers were once believers who changed their minds. I know I am. We tried the “god exists” hypothesis for years and years, and in the end it didn’t work for us. I don’t see that trying it just one more time, for a couple more days, is going to change anything.

    Comment by ubi dubium — July 16, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    • I guess I was somewhat non-specific for a reason.

      On the one hand, in the context of the rest of this blog, it’s rather obvious who God is to me; but I chose not to go that route.

      So on the other hand — and this was written to someone who is at a specific point in their journey — I didn’t put a label on it; I’m just saying if we ‘pretend’ for a moment that God exists, then how do we answer the tough questions in the light of that existence. And we’d probably use “he” (even thought I know that grates) in the sense of, “Well perhaps he chooses not to interfere because that would take away our absolute freedom;” or the opposite, “Perhaps he is acutely aware of our suffering and pain and does in fact step into scenes in his play in order to execute what some call miracles.

      To that end I find analogies like this one from C. S. Lewis helpful:

      Ultimately, for me, for the very reason you state, there needs to a progression from the G-word to the J-word. E. Stanley Jones said,

      When we begin with God, we begin our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God. Rather, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Jesus Christ.

      You can talk about God all night, but if you’ve got house guests, and it’s getting late, and you want to clear the room, start talking about Jesus. People will reach for their car keys fairly quickly! The G-word discussion doesn’t bother them, but the J-word makes people nervous.

      So as to, “most non-believers were once believers who changed their minds;” I know some would respond to that with the context I’ve just set and say, “Well they may have studied God, and they may have been part of church, and they may have experienced religion; but they never met the Jesus Christ of the Bible.”

      But this exercise was starting much further back from all this, and looking simply at any valid “God exists” hypothesis.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 16, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

      • It’s obvious who god is to you, but no matter what your opinions are about god, there are many people who probably disagree with you quite a bit. For instance, is god benevolent, or harsh and judgmental? Is god involved in the minute day-to-day details of people’s lives, or is god fairly standoffish, letting us mostly make our own mistakes and clean up our own messes? Is information about god only found in a holy book, and if so, which one? Or can things about god be discovered in other ways? Does god only reveal truth to people who are appointed special messengers, like prophets or popes, or does god reveal truth to just anybody? Even people within a single religion might disagree on some of these points. But until we could get a solid agreement on what our “god hypothesis” is, we don’t really have anything to “try out”.

        Conversely, would it be reasonable for a non-believer to challenge you to try out the “god doesn’t exist” hypothesis for a few days? (Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” describes her experience with doing just that, and I recommend it highly. It’s warm and funny and sincere. You can find it on YouTube, I think.)

        Comment by ubi dubium — July 17, 2012 @ 9:08 am

      • I would have no problem being challenged with the “god doesn’t exist” hypothesis. It would be a similar exercise; I would be trying to see how that worldview fits the conditions and evidence I see around me, and the cosmological, philosophical and moral questions I might raise. “If there is no god, then…” I don’t think any Christian should be afraid of that.

        I guess the only way around the non-specifics here would be for me to say, “Okay, let’s try the Christian God, the God of the Bible.” But I know some will say, “We tried that;” at which point I can only loop back to what I said yesterday, “Then let’s try seeing God through Jesus.”

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 17, 2012 @ 9:24 am

      • Using the “christian god of the bible” does not work because the bible is not consistent on its description of “god”. Any of the descriptions I had listed above could be justified by some quote from the bible. And parts of the bible disagree with other parts about the nature of this “god”. Does god always allow people free choice or does god sometimes change their minds for them? (Ask Pharaoh about this one.) Can god do anything? (see Judges 1:19) Does god punish children for the sins of their parents or not? Does god smite those who disobey while they are on earth (OT) or punish those who do not believe correctly after they die (NT)? Is human sacrifice bad (Abraham), allowed (Jephtha) or necessary (Jesus)? Is killing forbidden by god (ten commandments) or required by god (Joshua, Gideon, and much of the rest of the OT)? Does god play favorites (OT) or love everybody (NT)? Love thy neighbor (NT) or slaughter your enemies (OT)? The god of the OT and the god of the NT seem really different. I’ve read it twice through in different translations, and can’t get one single coherent description of a “god” that fits all of the bible.

        And “Try seeing god through Jesus” doesn’t pin it down any better. Jesus as described in the gospels? (Written many years after the fact in Greek, about a rabbi who spoke Aramaic, with original manuscripts long lost.) Or Jesus as described by Paul and those writing under his name? (Paul never met Jesus, and preached a mystery-religion “christ”.) Or Jesus as preached by a specific modern-day church? And which church, Catholic, Evangelical, Methodist, Mormon, Holy-roller Charismatic, Jehovah’s Witness, Westboro Baptist or ten thousand others? They all claim to know exactly who Jesus was, and what he wanted, and how people should behave and believe, and they all disagree with each other. You may know exactly what you mean when you say “Jesus” but I can’t tell unless you are a lot more specific than that.

        Comment by ubi dubium — July 17, 2012 @ 11:37 am

      • You really know your Bible. Still, I think there nuances to God that are hard to pin down. It’s like taking someone from the far east, and trying to explain the differences between rock and country music. They both use guitars and drums and they both tell stories about heartache and love lost. So it’s not surprising the person doesn’t get the difference between the genres. Raised in a completely different tradition, their ears aren’t programmed to hear the distinctives.

        So there’s that, and then there’s the issue of mystery. I know it sounds like a cop-out to shrug and say, “Well, there are some things about God we just can’t understand;” but the problem is not that most Christian denominations fall back on the whole “realm of mystery,” but that too many denominations ignore the mystery of God altogether, and try to state everything as a series of logical propositions.

        But right up there with, “If God is there, why is there so much suffering?” is the question, “Why is the God of the First Covenant so different from the God of the Second Covenant?” It seems like a good cop / bad cop thing all rolled into the one person. (Or deity.) And that’s an aspect of theodicy (the study that deals with explaining the ways of God to man) I’m not well versed in, but I do know people who are able to address that. Essentially, the justice that God demands has a head-on collision with the mercy and love of God with the coming of Christ, the incarnation of God in human form. (And I’m sure incarnation makes the top ten of any skeptic’s problem list!)

        In my teen years, I wrestled with why God allowed that system to persist over thousands of years involving multitudes of people, but then I heard a statistic that over half of the people who ever lived are alive today. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it does provide the perspective that the years of the First Covenant were like a giant demonstration project that ultimately didn’t work, because the sacrifices were never adequate to atone for the sins of the people and thereby satisfy God’s justice. So a new way was needed that now benefits a far greater number.

        …BTW, I don’t consider Mormons or JWs part of the broader family of Christian, I think those two groups are a bit of aberration. And we might as well toss Westboro Baptist in there as well. But Catholics, Methodists, Charismatics, Evangelicals, etc. have far more they agree on than the things that make each unique; and their doctrines of God, Jesus, sin, salvation, etc., are probably more similar than they are different. We just tend to focus on the differences.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 17, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

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