Thursday, December 22, 2016

Starting God Conversations: State it Back to Them

Certainly we've all heard the bromide that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation. It's been around for quite some time. In Thomas E. Hill's 1884 book on how to communicate properly in social and business settings, under the section entitled "Etiquette of Conversation" he warns his readers against such exchanges because "to discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result."1

Most people would be inclined to agree with this. Even evangelical Christians wince at sharing their faith. Many times they can remember striking up a conversation with a friend or family member, hopeful that they'll get to share the Gospel, only to have it degenerate into a tense, loud, back and forth where there's more heat than light exchanged.

But it doesn't have to be that way. With respect to Mr. Hill, conversations about faith don't have to be disagreeable even when the participants disagree. I've had many extended conversations with atheists who have actually thanked me for discussing those issues with them. Previously, I explained how Christians can easily and graciously start God conversations by taking the" class photo" approach. Today, I'd like to continue in that vein by discussing a second step that will help keep the level of discourse high and the hurt feelings at a minimum.

Making sure you understand

Atheist Peter Boghossian likes to tell Christians their faith is "belief without evidence" or "pretending to know something you don't know." 2 But this isn't what faith is and it isn't the faith the Bible describes. In telling Christians what they believe and misrepresenting their understanding of their own belief, Boghossian has created a caricature of the Christian understanding of faith. He's set up a straw man that is easy to knock down. Of course, being told that you are pretending to know something you don't know is actually insulting and it shows the other person isn't interested in really knowing what you believe or why you believe it.

But atheists aren't the only ones who are guilty of such moves. Christians can be equally as culpable. It's easy to dismiss atheists as people who only want to live without any rules or some similar charge. Unless they've told you, you don't really know what they believe about the point in question.

This means you need to ask them not only what they believe but why they believe it. In fact, asking probably isn't enough, since we tend to interpret what we hear through our own viewpoints and experiences. The best thing to do is repeat their beliefs back to them using different wording and perhaps even an example. Make their argument as if you held the same view they did use phrases like "Do you mean..." and "So you believe X because you think Y is true."

By repeating their argument back to them, you'll find out a few very positive things happen:
  • First, the other person will feel as though they're heard. They know you're listening to them.
  • Second, it shows you care about them. You aren't simply trying to "put another notch on your Bible" but are truly trying to understand where he or she is coming from.
  • Third, if you can accurately represent someone's views before you've made your case, it will removes a lot of his or her objections to your stance as being uninformed.
  • Lastly, it helps you know where you need to focus your attention in the discussion. I've previously written how asking questions of a Jehovah's Witness radically changed the direction of our conversation.
So, don't be afraid to ask about a person's beliefs and the reasons they hold them. Repeat them back. If you've misunderstood, then they will most likely correct you. But make sure you get their position right before you attempt to tell then why your position makes more sense. To do otherwise is simply insulting.


1. Hill, Thomas E. Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms: A Guide to Correct Writing. Chicago: Hill Standard Book, 1884. Print. 151.
2. Boghossian, Peter G. A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013. Print. 23-24.


  1. Hebrews 11:1 famously describes faith as "assurance about what we do not see." In John 20, Jesus scolds the Apostle Thomas for demanding evidence before he will believe that Jesus was resurrected, culminating in the famous one-liner, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." So, it would seem that belief without evidence is lauded as a virtue in the New Testament.

    No doubt you want to interpret these passages differently than I have done, and than how many others have done along with me. That's fine. But surely you cannot fault others for interpreting them as saying that faith is belief without evidence, and that this is a virtue.

    1. Here is the thing... Jesus still showed Himself to Thomas before "scolding" him. Moreover, the 12 in particular had repeatedly been witnesses to the miracles that Jesus had done before. Thomas knew what Jesus had promised regarding his death and resurrection. It was therefore not for lack of "blind faith" that Thomas was "scolded", but for not accepting the evidence he already had. Similarly, Hebrews refer back to the generation who were saved from Egypt by the powerful works of the LORD and yet, did not believe in Him being able to lead them into the promised land, not believing in Him, even after having seen and heard Him on Sinai. Yes, they did not (yet) see Him giving them the promised land, just as Christians are not seeing the promised age to come yet. But not seeing the fulfillment yet, and still having faith in Him (based on past evidence) is what the Bible is referring to. This, simply read in context, is not "blind faith".

  2. I do not believe in "blind faith" because every single person believes in something. The only time it's "blind" is when the person does not understand why they believe what they believe, such as someone who grew up with parents who taught them an ideology and they just went along, never questioning it themselves.

    If we are Christians, we have faith in Jesus Christ to save us from death and to play a role in our lives to conform our thinking and behaviors to be more like His.