On Letters to a Skeptic

The father grew up with church being part of his life. Over time, he withdrew, so the son grew up without church. While attending during college, church become part of the son’s life. In time, he became a pastor and a professor.

As one would expect, father and son would have religious discussions, and many went nowhere. Eventually, the son invited his father into an honest dialogue through written letters – and the father agree. Their format was simple – the father asks a question, then the son answers. As with any meaningful dialogue, answer lead to more questions.

Letters to a Skeptic (Gregory Boyd and Edward Boyd) is the collection of letters of such a journey. The father (Ed) asks good questions, and provides thoughts around his questions. Ed’s responses to his son Leters2aSkepticCover(Greg) are also direct, poignant, and relevant. Greg’s replies are respectful and (generally) easy for a layman to understand. However, the responses are also debatable within the Christian community because one size does not fit all.

The father’s questions are good, such as;

  • Why has Christianity done so much harm?
  • Why is the world so full of suffering?
  • Does God know the future?
  • Is you God all-powerful?
  • Why does God create earthquakes and famines?
  • Are the Gospels full of contradictions?
  • Isn’t the Bible full of myths and God’s vengeance?
  • Do all non-Christians go to Hell?

Given the content and the situation/circumstances of the characters involved, one would think this is a book for any atheist or agnostic – or even as a toolbox for Christians when discussing religion with atheists and agnostics. Although this may be applicable to somebody in some circumstances, I see Letters to a Skeptic as an excellent read for Christians – especially in a discussion format. (Note: I read this book this book and participated in a discussion group. The book also provides discussion questions to consider.)

The discussion between father and son is sincere, respectful, and thought-provoking. Every Christian won’t agree with every point made by the son or the father – let alone by others in a discussion group. After all, theological disagreements exist with Christianity.

This book enhanced my Christian perspective, it also caused me to question the thoughts said by others – yes, the others in my own church – and that’s OK. In the end, reading and discussing Letters to a Skeptic was worthwhile – therefore, I recommend this book for those who might be interested in learning more.

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75 thoughts on “On Letters to a Skeptic

  1. My grandfather was a Jehovah’s Witness. My father hated it and would have nothing to do with religion. We were brought up without religion, for which I am very grateful. I did look into religion because I really loved and respected my grandfather and he lived by his religious beliefs, but I could not accept what I was being told.

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    • Vanessa,
      Although they had disagreements over time, I got the impression the father & son had a good relationship all along. I think the son suggested letters as a way to foster a respectful discussion. And yes … this is a good book for discussion.

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  2. I agree with all of your commenters – sounds like a great recommendation! And I really respect and appreciate your perspective on asking questions, debating, and discussion. That’s the only way anyone can even begin to understand anyone else on theological topics or anything else. Thanks, Frank 🙂

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  3. This book sounds a very thought provoking read Frank, And opening such dialogue is good for any discussion which opens the mind for us to such ask questions each of us have posed in our time.. Many thanks for sharing Frank.
    Sue 🙂

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    • Sue,
      Great point about opening minds … and as you know, thoughtful discussions require listening and thinking about about the other is saying … and giving them a chance to say it. As I like to say, there is a difference between right vs wrong and agree vs disagree.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Although I was raised in a kind and loving, but non-religious, family, as an adolescent I felt the need of an ethical structure in my life and, on my own, became involved with generic brand of protestantism. I struggled with this for the next four decades but my skepticism won the day. That occurred when I retired and had more time to think it through. Blogging came later, but it only confirmed my decision.

    My problem with religion is that it doesn’t stand up to reason. The evidence would not pass even the simplest judicial tests such as chain of evidence and eyewitness testimony. The provenance of the NT, with some exceptions like Paul and the early churches, is from anonymous men and the OT is altogether fuzzy and incoherent. It was compiled and edited by other anonymous men in secret committee. Further, there is no evidence that prayers are answered or that the results are any different from random events. Bad things happen to good people. All the time.

    Then there is science and the reality of evolution. How the Earth came to be and how life came to evolve is now well known to those willing to understand. I recognize how some, like you, Frank, can reconcile with that, but to me it makes no sense. The human sense of self, the awareness of identity, rejects the concept of death and provides a powerful motivation for believing in a soul that continues beyond the grave, but there’s no evidence that it does. I have, I think, experienced what death is like. When I had colonoscopies I was given anesthetics, probably like propofol, which rendered me not just unconscious but mentally nonfunctioning. I went to sleep and woke up, but there was no sense of “being” in between. It’s a blank. I think death is similar.

    I certainly grant that much good is done in the name of Christianity, but I think that if it were not extant, similar institutions would likely fulfill the same function as a matter of civilized culture. I consider myself a good person. I have ethics and standards and am protective and loving to my family. I rescue turtles from curbs and even step over insects. I am respectful of the environment and generous to the needy. I have become a progressive Democrat. None of this derives from the Bible, at least directly. What amalgamation of education and instinct makes me this way is beyond me, but I know it is not intellectual parsing of two-thousand-year-old writings.

    I applaud your church group for discussing the book, but am surprised it would do so. To raise questions about the foundations of religious belief is to discover that they are insubstantial. Everything about it rests on an initial decision to embrace the belief itself.

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” – Epicurus circa 300 BCE

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    • Jim,
      As you well know, I’ve never questioned your personal belief system … and I will continue to take the high road. From your thoughtful points, it seems to me (and I may be mistakenly doing go), you have a one-size fits approach to Christianity.

      For instance, although the loud fundamental right thinks the speak for all of Christianity, I confidently believe that the majority of Christians (when categorized by denominations) has no conflict with evolution … (although individuals may not know).

      Not all congregations are open enough to discuss numerous issues, but many are … once again, fitting outside of the stereotype held by some.

      Good and evil was a discussion point from the book. And I can honestly say that I wanted to bang my head against the wall from some comments made by members within the same congregation. Maybe just don’t know better … maybe I simply disagree with them.

      Faith is a non-evidence based trust … and outside of the realm of science … and prayers are a way for the faithful to speak to God. Do individuals (in my opinion) misuse prayers for selfish reasons? Absolutely.

      Also … keep in mind that I suggested this was a book for Christians to deepen their understanding … and I don’t see it as a book attacking agnostics and atheists.

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        • Cynthia,
          The message is some atheists comes with the same fervor of which some condemn the faithful. But certainly not all, and I’m not sure I can say most.

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      • I understood from the beginning, Frank, that the book is not attacking agnostics and atheists but rather about communication. One of my sons is growing more religious with time and I’m content to let that alone. His church, like many, has many social benefits and promotes the Golden Rule while ignoring much of scripture that makes no sense. Fine.

        And I also understand Cynthia’s point that agnostics and atheists do sometimes promote their point of view aggressively. It’s true, but also true, as you allow, that the majority of such probably do not. I don’t see it as some kind of cause at all, but since it is a matter of life hereafter or death hereafter I have always been interested in how others deal with the conundrum.

        My fundamental (pun intended) problem with religious discussions is that they are, by definition, pointless because the religious have already decided the issue and cannot be dissuaded by reason. As you say, discussion may “deepen their understanding”, but it will not resolve any dissonance with reality.

        I would be content to leave the subject entirely alone if it were not that most religion is so convinced that each has the sole answer, that proselytization and conflict are rampant around the world. Religion is and has always been (in the current era) a principal cause of disharmony among mankind. This has been true since the wars of biblical times, through the middle-age struggles between popes and regents, the crusades, the inquisition, the destruction of Native American culture, the Jewish pogroms, and of late between Sunni’s and Shiites. Not to mention TV evangelists and the Catholic sex scandals.

        Please believe that I mean no disrespect by writing these things. Perhaps I’m still trying to see if I’ve missed something.

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        • Jim,
          1) More important point first – I know you mean no disrespect.

          2) No question that religion is at the heart of much of the discord throughout the world … and yes, in this country too.

          3) Here’s where we disagree – religious discussion are important ESPECIALLY within the religious community – which is what I promoted. For me, the discussions did three things …. got me thinking, validated some of my thoughts, and I was surprised (and even appalled) by some of the comments I heard.

          Meanwhile, even if the congregation I attend came forth in 100% agree and truly practiced what I preach, no way we could rid the world of its problems … and probably couldn’t accomplish that even at the local level.

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    • I was raised in a kind and loving religious family. Catholic teachings and practice were followed closely. I also grew up with strong interest in the natural world of science, reason, and evidence. That part of me has dominated my world view. I taught about science and its methods, and still do, as it is fundamental to my being. More so than any nebulous faith I haven’t practiced most of my life.

      I don’t think you, Jim, are attempting to fit all of christianity into a one-size box. What I hear from you is that the faith and belief systems of religions do not give you answers or satisfaction about the questions of life.

      As for prayer, I appreciate the role it has in the lives of many. The closest I come to prayerful experiences is witnessing the ways nature behaves. As we humans learn more about nature, I am struck more deeply by the awesome role it plays. Is there a god in charge of all of it? I cannot answer that question. The existence or not of a god does not diminish the beauty and glory of the workings of nature in my mind.

      I think it is a good thing for people to discuss the aspects of religious belief and lack of it. Neither makes us better or worse than any other person. We have the ability to know and learn. We should use it to reach better understandings of each other. Removing curtains and walls from around us is always a good thing.

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  5. My siblings and I were all raised Catholic, Frank. As adults, my sister’s Christian, my brother’s agnostic and I’m agnostic, too (although I like to refer to my twelve years of Catholic schooling as atheist training). We’re very different, but the three of us are very close. I think this has a lot to do with loving each other unconditionally and agreeing to respectfully disagree about topics like religion. Reading anything religion-related has no appeal to me, but this sounds like a book, my bro-in-law would be into, so thanks for the Christmas present suggestion.

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  6. I was raised as a Missouri Synod Luthern (very conservative). We were taught in catechism that faith was the cornerstone of belief. We were also challenged to take the secular teachings and writings as guidelines to formulate one’s own beliefs. Even the Bible was not proffered to be divine but was the recipient of guidance so it too should be viewed as a guideline. All in all, I have never had conflicts between science and religion simply because the religious part of me has a personal relationship and science is a pool of knowledge from which to glean some of life’s answers. I don’t see one in conflict with the other, but then I’m a simple person and have set it up that way.

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  7. It’s tough to have frank, rational discussions about theology. Emotions often cloud the discourse and the results can get so, well, messy. As a sociologist, I understand the human and cultural need for a coherent system of beliefs about life, death, and meaning. Because we can ponder these things, we do. Different cultures (and different groups within the same culture sometimes) come up with different answers to the same questions. It’s those different answers to the same questions that often engender such confusion and hatred between people. Amazing, huh?

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    • Lorna,
      Thanks for sharing your perspective because discussions aren’t easy … nor were they meant to be.

      Another part of the difficulty is when someone thinks they know or have convinced themselves when the fact is that don’t know squat …. or they come across from a theological perspective that is counter to their church and they don’t know. …

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  8. Put on my Amazon Wish List, if someone doesn’t buy it for me I will buy it for myself. Sounds like a great format, I love books that take on theology from different perspectives. I come from such a hodge-podge, it is likely why I ended up where I did. Thank you for this one.

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  9. I will certainly put this book on my Amazon list. If I see it’s also on Kindle I’ll pick it up right away. I think I’m quite settled in my own faith, but I would benefit from the “back and forth” which might serve as a bit of help in conversation. It seems that too often these conversations get touchy and I’m not always sure how to avoid that myself. I think there’s a lot to learn from the way others discuss differences in faith experience without feeling a need to take a stance that in essence means they’ve stopped listening. I enjoy your book reviews!

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  10. I think at the end of the day, a lot of confusion, war, and prejudice is brought on by most people being too afraid to listen or be understanding. Someone else may not believe what I believe, but that doesn’t mean I have to be mean or horrible to them because of that you know? No one is perfect and no one is more Godly than the other. All I know is I believe in a higher power that is God and I have faith. Great topic Frank.

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  11. I don’t know what’s more interesting: The book of letters (I love that format and the last one I read was the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (As Always, Julia) or the comments. A book to consider…

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