Should we try to reason with unreasonable Christians?

Q. In conversations with the average Christian, it appears that they are quite prone to “conspiracy-theory” type reasoning and that distrust of science is fairly ubiquitous. There is an uncanny ability to “explain away” anything that challenges their views by claiming it is caused by the corrosive effects of secularism, demon activity, atheism, hedonism, the fallibility of human reasoning, the effects of the fall on rationality, the “tentative nature” of science, etc. Do you know of a good way to reason with these types, and in the end, is it even worth it?

First, I sincerely hope that what you say is not actually true of the “average Christian.”  I’d like to think that the average or typical Christian is someone who takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who emulates the Bereans, whom the New Testament praises for “searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (That is, rather than uncritically accepting dogmatic teaching.)  I see this as the norm, and feel that taking an open-minded, logical, inquisitive stance is perfectly compatible with being a person of faith.

That much said, I have to admit that over the years I’ve encountered people who’ve appealed to all of the various considerations you list to explain away beliefs different from the ones they were holding at the time.  So what’s to be done when people clearly are not open-minded, and perhaps not even rational, in the way they engage other beliefs that are nevertheless within the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy?

One question I find helpful to ask is, “What do they think is at stake in the issue?”  For example, people are sometimes encouraged to believe that if God didn’t actually create the universe in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago, then nothing the Bible says about anything is trustworthy.  (The old “if you can’t trust what it says on the first page, you can’t trust anything else in the book” argument.)  And I personally would be very resistant to any claim whose implications I thought were that I couldn’t trust anything in the Bible. This is because I know for a fact that I can trust everything in the Bible, so long as I understand and interpret it properly.

The key is to make sure that I’m doing that.  But this already shifts the issue from the Bible’s reliability and trustworthiness to its interpretation.  Maybe the person I’m speaking with isn’t prepared to make that shift.  Maybe they think its trustworthiness is truly at stake.  In that case, I find it helpful to suggest that there are many things that Christians of good will, equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures, can disagree about, and to demonstrate that Christians have in fact disagreed about such things over the whole course of church history.  (Long before the corrosive effects of secular humanism set in, that is.)

For example, I might observe that we can find a disagreement in the 4th century between Ambrose and Augustine as to whether the “days” in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods.  (Ambrose said they were, while Augustine maintained they weren’t.)

This will not persuade the person who believes that the truth of the entire Bible rests on one answer to this question.  But in this conversation and others, I may be giving them an island to step onto if, at some time in the future, their ship starts leaking and taking on water. This, I think, is much better than leaving them no option other than having their entire faith go down with the ship (the current dogmatic package) if it ever sinks.

And if I maintain good will (that is, if I don’t lose my cool) and approach the question humbly and open-mindedly, searching the Scriptures with them, then I’m actually demonstrating how Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority of the Bible, can disagree on questions like this.  That makes things a little less high-stakes.

Don’t underestimate the value that such a demonstration will have on anyone else who might be watching the two of you talk, listening to your conversation.  You will likely have an audience larger than one.  And the discussion can also help you be more “fully persuaded in your own mind.”  It never hurts for us to have our own ideas challenged and to have the occasion to ground them even more firmly on a reasonable basis, at least to our own satisfaction.

So, as I said, if your goal is to persuade on the spot, that isn’t going to happen in the face of irrationality and conspiracy theory.  But if your goal is to provide the person with information and tools that may be useful to them farther down the road, then I think you have every chance of doing that.  I suspect that many of us start out holding our beliefs more dogmatically when we first become Christians, because we know we have received a “great salvation” and we simply don’t find anything credible that we think undermines it.  But then, hopefully, we will discover how great that salvation truly is, how many different perspectives it accommodates and even requires if we are even to begin to understand everything God is and all that God has done.  And then the adventure begins.

Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine's mentor and friend.)
Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine’s mentor and friend.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Should we try to reason with unreasonable Christians?”

  1. Great article! I especially liked how you mentioned the importance of keeping in mind what they think is at stake. That can certainly help in giving additional grace to their apparent irrationality. I also liked the idea of trying to give someone an island to step onto in the future if needed. Thanks a lot for your insight!

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