In an article in the Huffington Post, Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman sets up an interesting conversation concerning the belief in god and the barriers it constructs between people. Mitelman argues that the question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question to ask in the first place. There are several reasons for this, he argues.
After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give: “Yes, I do,” “No, I don’t” or “I’m not sure.”
Although these three responses are generally followed by further explanation, particularly among friend or colleagues, this explanation isn’t usually an easy or comfortable one. Mitelman points out this fact:
In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, “Do you believe in God?” are the ones who hope the answer is “yes,” while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say “no” or “I’m not sure.” When you’re asking a question with an expected answer — and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be — there’s no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks “Do you believe in God?” it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.
I find Mitelman to have an excellent point here. The majority of non-believers seem to lack belief out of apathy or lack of experience, and therefore don’t find the question to be suitable or even interesting for that matter. People who do often ask this question, as Mitelman points out, are those looking for others of a similar theistic rank. This makes the conversation between the atheist and theist pretty awkward at best, especially when these two parties aren’t already familiar.
Mitelman suggests two alternatives to the question “Do you believe in God?” which I think are valid.
1. How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?
2. When have we felt moments of deep connection?
You’re obviously not going to casually pose on of these questions to an acquaintance or unfamiliar coworker, but that’s not the point Mitelman seems to be getting at. Mitelman is not suggesting that we avoid stepping on others’ toes, but rather that we give ourselves the opportunity to have open, honest, and unguarded dialogue with another human being. Too often we have predetermined conceptions of the people around us, robbing ourselves of an honest interaction, which is sad.
These alternative questions suggested my Mitelman would surely prompt more thoughtful, interesting responses than “Do you believe in God?” Asking someone about when they felt an extremely deep, personal connection when another person is one I find to be particularly interesting.