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I am new to this stack exchange, and it may appear strange that my very first post is one on meta. However, I want to make sure that my presence will not be a pointless source of frustration. I am an atheist, but I am also curious about religions (not specifically the Christian one, but I will of course not ask questions about other religions here), and often seek to understand how they can fit a logical framework.

Other meta posts seem to have a general agreement that atheist questions asked in “good faith” (no pun intended) are welcome. However, humans are complicated creatures, and people easily feel attacked when someone seems to question something that is sacred to them. Therefore I would like to ask some guidance on how I can peacefully participate to this website through questions and comments.

Here are a few points that could be problems:

  • My questions would sometimes “challenge” either the very existence of God, or other important elements of the religion. The goal is obviously not to try to “convert” anyone to atheism, but simply to understand the answers of Christians to some apparent logical problems in the dogma. I understand however that, in my personal experience, it often makes people feel defensive. Questions could revolve around specific takes on topics such as the problem of evil, the coherence of ethical questions in the Bible, etc…
  • My questions would not be specifically addressed to one community. Virtually everything I would ask would be very general, and fall under the overview category?
  • I tend to consider some arguments such as “god’s plan are beyond our understanding, and you cannot apply your limited logic” or “you have to believe first to understand” as non-answers, as they shut down the possibility of critical thinking from a non-believer. This may feel frustrating to some posters.
  • I have very little knowledge of theology. In other stack exchanges that I am more familiar with, “layman” questions are accepted but I am not sure if this is the case here.
  • English is not my native language, as you might have noticed by now. I understand the particular importance of careful phrasing when discussing sensitive topics with sensitive people (which, statistically, this website must have). However, my clumsy English might not allow me all the necessary oral precautions
  • I am not especially sensitive myself, but I would be put off by people actively trying to convert me, or warning me about the eternal damnation that awaits me (which is a warning I never heard spoken seriously when discussing irl, but which comes up often online)
  • I would be very grateful to get logical answers to my questions, helping me understand the Christian viewpoint. I am however likely to come up with counter arguments. This could lead to an endless debate, which, especially online, is cumbersome and almost always pointless. To mitigate the problem, I was thinking of the following general “plan”: asking a question -> getting an answer -> posting a comment to it to expose my counter arguments (if any) -> invite counter-counter arguments but mentioning that I will not answer them to avoid an endless discussion. Do you think it is wise?

Here are a few stuff that play in my favour:

  • I come in peace.
  • It’s a great occasion to showcase the tolerance of Christians.
  • If people that answer my questions are likely to have already heard a version of it before, other readers might benefit from both the question of an outsider and the answers of their peers.
  • I think that’s it. I’m not selling this well, am I?  

I would be glad to know if you have any suggestions to mitigate the problems mentioned. If, in your honest opinion, you think that, in practice, no good will come out of this, by all means, let me know.

EDIT: Would you recommend that I specify that I am not a believer when asking a question? I don't want to be misleading, but I aslo don;t want it to be read as provocative (or cause people to not go further in the question)

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  • Hi Barbaud, You might find my answer helpful, about a creator making evil and knowingly and intentionally creating sinners who will later be damned, as Calvinists (sometimes “neo-Calvinists”) are usually credited with maintaining. If that can be reconciled in any way, which it can (whether satisfactorily is up to the reader), then the softer views become easier.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 5 at 20:16
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    You wouldn't be the first atheist on the site.
    – TRiG
    Sep 6 at 21:09
  • I would say welcome. I am in agreement with most of the answers below. I would add A. if someone is offended, in many cases it's an immaturity on their part. B. If the rest of your tone and thoroughness is similar to this question you should be fine. The site certainly values thoroughness.
    – nickalh
    Sep 16 at 6:05
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First, thank you for your considerateness. I'm relatively new here myself, only started to be active in the past 2-3 years. I'm also not a native English speaker and still need improvement. Like you, I also ask philosophical questions to Christianity in general.

You plan to ask questions which

... simply to understand the answers of Christians to some apparent logical problems in the dogma. ... Questions could revolve around specific takes on topics such as the problem of evil, the coherence of ethical questions in the Bible, etc…

Clarification from your comments:

  • By "problem of evil", I wanted to refer to the theological (?) question which can be very roughly stated as: how can a benevolent god and evil coexist? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil . Is it considered off topic? I understand that the problem itself is too broad and already well discussed, but would a specific question regarding a doubt on one of the "classical" answers be ok?
  • b) I understand that the comments are here to address the quality of the answer. But if the answer contains logical arguments, can't it be considered discussing its quality to point out potential flaws in the reasonning or omitted arguments? (which is what I meant by counter arguments)

Here are some tips to make your questions more acceptable to the purpose of C.SE:

  1. For the problem of evil and how to reconcile it with an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God, the Christian defense is called Theodicy. Here is a good article that gives you an overview of what Christianity has attempted for 2000 years: Theodicy: A Brief Overview. As you can see, there is no single right answer. This site seems to prefer questions that CAN have a single right answer, which does NOT have to be the truth.

    • "Right answer" here means what a theological tradition is able to give, based on a particular interpretation of the Bible and additional source of authority (such as the Catholic Magisterium).
    • But there are many questions that no theological tradition can answer, since there is not enough data coming from revelation. These questions will usually be closed, and are usually referred to another stack exchange: Philosophy.SE.
  2. You can try by narrowing the scope of the question to

    • a theological tradition (Catholicism, Lutheran, etc.)
    • a theologian (Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis)
    • a particular type of theology (Open Theism, Augustinian, Thomistic)
    • ask for citations by the early church fathers

    The goal is to make the question so it is not opinion based, but can have a single right answer.

  3. Question about dogma is certainly acceptable. Just be sure to provide enough citation that can point out:

    • The source of the dogma, i.e. whether it is the Catholic church, the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther, etc.
    • A summary of the dogma in question
    • The clarification you desire
  4. Once there is an answer, yes, feel free to comment below the answer to point out flaws, whether

    • the answer has a logical fallacy
    • the answer didn't address the question adequately
    • the answer can be improved with more details
    • the answer needs to be backed up by a citation
    • etc.

I look forward to your questions. Welcome to C.SE.

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  • Thanks for the tips! Yes, as I mentionned in a comment, I did not plan to ask about the problem of evil in its very general form, which would be pointless, but a more specific question on that them (like maybe a specific example which I feel is not properly treated by my knowledge of the Chritian answers). I think honestly, the best way to figure out if it can work is to start respectfully asking a question and see if it triggers negative reactions. Would you recommend that I specifiy that I am not a believer in the question itself? Sep 3 at 17:17
  • @BarbaudJulien The more specific the scope, the better it is, as what seems most important to the site is objectivity, even though the larger issue you're grappling with is subjective. No, I think it's rather irrelevant to mention you're not a believer, since it does not contribute at all to the answer. Don't worry about getting it perfect the first time, the mods and the community will help you refine the question. Don't be afraid of negative comments, the mods here do a good job in maintaining a respectable and constructive environment. Sep 3 at 17:21
  • @BarbaudJulien If you're in IT (as I am) look at it this way: you try to write a program, and you have question about an OS, an API, a cloud service, a language, etc. StackOverflow doesn't care about whether you hate Windows or Linux, AWS or Azure, Apple or Google. SO doesn't care about your program, only the small snippets you're having problem with. Similarly, in C.SE we all have our preferred belief systems and try to construct them. We don't need to justify them. We only want answer for an issue within a specific theological tradition we have chosen, so it's an objective question. Sep 3 at 17:31
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Thanks for setting out your question so well (I would not have known you weren't a native English speaker if you hadn't mentioned it).

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Overview questions can be very difficult to answer well, because they require the poster to deal with multiple (sometimes very different) viewpoints in one answer. It may take a while to get a good answer to them.

  • Most questions in religion are subject to logical analysis (someone said "Theology is the part of religion that requires thought"). But not all of them are. There are a few things that are just there; that we believe because God said so and we trust Him.

  • General stuff like the problem of evil counts as "general philosophy" and is typically off-topic. You'll have to find a way to ask about specific Christian approaches.

  • You should keep the comments for discussing the quality of someone's answer, not for proposing counter-arguments. That way we can keep a purely question/answer approach.

  • If you want basic information about the various belief sets of Christianity, we'll do our best to try and point you to sources.

I hope you post a good number of questions - it's good for people to have to explain their beliefs.

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  • Thanks! That raises 2 questions a) sorry, maybe I haven't been clear. By "problem of evil", I wanted to refer to the theological (?) question which can be very roughly stated as: how can a benevolent god and evil coexist? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil . Is it considered off topic? I understand that the problem itself is too broad and already well discussed, but would a specific question regarding a doubt on one of the "classical" answers be ok? Sep 3 at 12:02
  • b) I understand that the comments are here to address the quality of the answer. But if the answer contains logical arguments, can't it be considered discussing its quality to point out potential flaws in the reasonning or omitted arguments? (which is what I meant by counter arguments) Sep 3 at 12:04
  • As far as the first point, if you could demonstrate that a particular approach to the problem of evil was held by a prominent Christian group or thinker, that would be on topic. As to your second, if the arguments are made by the poster, that's reasonable - but if the arguments are made by another person or group and just reported by the poster, then the problem is with the position reported in the answer, not with the answer itself. Sep 3 at 20:44
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Your case as a curious atheist seeking knowledge about Christianity on this particular site is well stated. I had to smile when you wrote, "I want to make sure that my presence will not be a pointless source of frustration." I wondered, "Frustrating to whom? You, or others on here?" Hopefully, you will be able to avoid either, or both!

Now, a problem with your approach, as you view it, is that this Christianity site is NOT a debate site, nor even a discussion site. Other sites on Stack do accommodate those things, but that should not enter into the Christianity site. It is for a person to ask a question (or two, but never a raft of questions in one go), for anyone who wishes to post their answer, and for the PO to then choose a best answer (if there is one; it can be left open for years if you wish, in the hope that someone will come across it and give another answer.)

Comments are only for suggesting an improvement to a question or an answer. But many people use comments to launch into their own opinions, or counter-arguments, or even going off into tangents that are not directly related to the actual question. This is why wording the question requires time and care - to discourage all of that by being crystal clear to what is asked, and perhaps also what is not being asked. It's actually harder to post questions than answers!

You are correct to say that it's wrong to use this site to try to convert (or de-convert) anyone, or to use it as a platform for your own particular faith beliefs (or non-faith lack of belief). You are free to either declare yourself as an atheist, or not, but whatever you do, try to be objective. You are, indeed sensitive to believers' feelings, as I noticed when I answered one of your questions (before spotting this one!) Now I understand better where you're coming from, and would assure you that your comments to my answer have not upset me, or in any way annoyed me. You make fair comment, but now that I know you are an atheist, that explains a lot!

I hope these points help you. They are offered in addition to the points already made by other answerers. Just one final word that might (or might not) help you; the Christian faith requires faith in God and Christ in order to make deep and meaningful sense of Christianity. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" goes an old saying. So, if you are sniffing around the 'kitchen' and are critical of some practices or items that are 'cooked', ready for eating, you really need to take a (spiritual) 'bite' before you can finally decide if it's good or unpalatable!

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    Thank you for passing by here! I am actually gradually coming to the realization that this stack exchange might not be the ideal platform for what I seek indeed. I am more used to scientific stack exchange, where a form of "debate" of the logic of an answer is common, and well accepted, usually leading to explanations in comment or re-writing of the answer. I do notice that this is not the practice here, and the site is more aimed at giving a "canonical" answer so to speak, without necessarily seeking to justify it ab initio. I might need to find another place to ask my strange questions! Sep 6 at 17:12

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