[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
When you’re dealing with a particular type of non-Christian belief (whether atheism, Islam, Hinduism, or anything else – including those religions that claim to be Christian, but are quite unorthodox), you must invest the time and energy to acquire a certain base of knowledge about their beliefs, in order to discuss your own religious beliefs with each other more effectively.
Learning core beliefs
Each group has its own lingo, authoritative documents, including those that are considered Scripture like the Bible or the Quran, or non-Scriptural works like Confessions of Faith, and core, axiomatic beliefs, and these must be understood in order to communicate with them effectively, even though they may or may not be easily accessible to outsiders. Christianity is like this too, but often when you’re immersed in a culture, you don’t even realize that you have your own set of lingo, etc., that others may not understand right at first. It’s like the cliché, “Do fish know they’re wet?”
If you’re dealing with Muslims, you must read or at least familiarize yourself with the Quran (or at least, a good translation in your mother tongue), and it will be good to read the Hadith and other such materials. If your focus is Mormonism, you need to read or at least be familiar with the Book of Mormon, and the other things they consider “Scripture”. Further, you need to try to understand their culture as much as possible, which means listening to them – not just what they say to you in dialogue, but also what they say to each other, such as in sermons or literature written by Muslims for other Muslims or reading Mormon blogs.
In the mind of a Muslim
Here are a couple of examples to demonstrate the benefit and even necessity of understanding what the other person is saying:
One thing that Muslims sometimes complain about or express disbelief about, when it comes to Christianity and the Bible, is that we don’t know who wrote much of the Bible. This isn’t some sort of “liberal scholar” issue, in which skeptics or others try to claim that Matthew didn’t really write Matthew, but is more about things like, we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews (most people think it was likely Paul, or was a sermon by Paul translated and written by Luke, but there is nothing in the book itself that claims it was written by Paul); and much of the OT is similarly without any claims of authorship.
We can say that Moses wrote the first five books of the OT, but who wrote the rest of the history portions? Many of the Psalms are not attributed to a particular author, etc. Then, even though we do have a claimed author for much of the Bible (all the NT except for Hebrews, and much of the OT), we have no idea of who copied the various manuscripts that are still extant, nor how they got them nor who they got them from, or anything like that. We have much “church history” that lets us identify some names (Polycarp, Irenaeus, etc.) from the post-Apostolic age, but not much.
“So what!” you may be tempted to protest. “Who cares?!” Well, Muslims do.
You see, to them, because so much of their religion is based on oral tradition – the authoritative stories about Mohammed’s life and those of his companions, which provides much of the background and context of understanding the Quran itself – that the chain or “who said what to whom” is vitally important. There are thousands of traditions (hadith) about Mohammed and his companions, and some of them are widely accepted by most (if not all) Muslims, but others are considered “weak” and few accept them as authoritative.
Their strength or weakness (and therefore how widely accepted they are) is dependent on the “isnad” or the chain of “who said what to whom”. The earlier the tradition can be traced (e.g., all the way back to someone who lived at the time of Mohammed) and the more trustworthy the “chain of transmission”, all the different narrators until the oral tradition was finally written down, the “stronger” the Hadith or tradition is.
The Bible is completely lacking this “chain of transmission”. That means nothing to Christians, but is a big sticking point with many Muslims, because they view Christian Scriptures as having little or no validity because we don’t know who wrote what when, how trustworthy they were, etc. This disconnect between the two viewpoints means that Christians are often at a loss for how to deal with the Muslim complaints or concerns about it. Unless you deal with Muslims on a regular basis, you may never have even thought of such an issue! But you will need to be prepared to give an answer at some point.
In the mind of a Mormon
The second example is one that I have witnessed – much to my surprise and chagrin – in a Mormon Facebook group. [The membership is not limited to members of the LDS Church, which is why I was able to see it, but the group itself is a “by Mormons, for Mormons” group, so is primarily “Mormons talking to other Mormons about issues related to Mormonism”.] The person, whom I’d seen and interacted with in other groups that exist to bring Christians and Mormons together for discussion (and I had even seen the discussion he was referring to), posted his amazement and disappointment that (paraphrase) “all it seemed that Christians wanted to do was to talk about evidence,” and “what a pity it was that they had no testimony.”
I trust you can see from the example, how important a “testimony” is to Mormons, and what little weight evidence has with them – even if most people would think that evidence is far weightier than some sort of personal experience. As with the Muslims, Mormons place great emphasis on experience rather than evidence, because it’s what they have.
The amount of evidence in favor of the Bible and Christianity is overwhelming by itself. However, when compared with the evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon and Mormonism, there really is no comparison. There is well-documented history of both the Bible and the beliefs of Christianity, plus the Bible has been shown to be accurate in hundreds of separate facts (including the existence in the right locations of various ancient towns, accurate customs, the existence in the right order of various kings, etc., etc.), plus we have thousands of manuscripts throughout the centuries, confirming the NT (some dating back to within a hundred years or possibly less of the originals), and the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated to a few centuries before Christ.
Compare that to the best evidence that exists in favor of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, and Mormons grasp desperately at straws – an inscription somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula that includes NHM (which could have several meanings, depending on the context), but which they insist is a place name for the BOM land “Nahom”, and a few other things that are mostly along the lines of, “well, it might be this,” or “it doesn’t contradict what the BOM says about that” (for instance, every discovery of some ancient structure or city in the Americas is heralded as proof of the BOM because “the BOM talks about large cities or populous cultures”, even when there is nothing in the discovery that in any way confirms anything else in the BOM, such as culture, customs, money, you name it).
Since they have no evidence, they naturally place little or no value on evidence. Since all they have is their “testimony” (sometimes called a “burning in the bosom”), they place great value on that.
Learn to “speak their language”, as it were. Give your testimony–look online for the standard LDS “testimony” if you need an outline or an idea of what they consider a testimony to be and to contain. Testify that you believe the Bible to be true, because God has revealed to you that it is true, and that you have prayed about the Book of Mormon and God has revealed to you that it is not true. [They may not accept that and will probably simply say that you “weren’t sincere enough” when you prayed. But that’s to be expected.]
Walking in their shoes
These are just a couple of examples for a couple of religions, but, really, the principles apply to every religious discussion. You should strive to be able to understand the other person’s religion so well that you can role-play a true believer of that religion. Of course, it won’t happen overnight; it may even take years before you feel secure enough to do that, (it largely depends on how easily you retain information and how much time you devote to learning and understanding their viewpoints), but it should be your goal. If you can’t, you don’t know it well enough yet.
This is not to say that you must have role-play down pat before you can approach a member of that group. Not remotely! Rather that you need to pay attention while you’re talking with them to really try to understand them and where they’re coming from. Little turns a person off faster than having his views misrepresented by someone else. Little is more effective than being able to articulate “the other side” so well that even members of “the other side” agree that you have accurately represented them.
If you’re having trouble with wanting to understand “the other side”, you should first consider whether you’re in the right field. Maybe you don’t need to be doing Christian apologetics at all, or perhaps you need to focus on a different group. Remember, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” – our fight isn’t with the person who holds the other viewpoint, but rather we are fighting for that person who is bound by “principalities and powers, [and] spiritual wickedness in high places”, and are fighting against that wickedness. If you view the other person as your enemy, you’ve already lost, and you will never be able to get that person to believe.
Secondly, you can consider how you would feel (or how you felt, if you have actually experienced it) if an atheist lampooned, mocked, or misrepresented your belief. Apply the Golden Rule. Before you say (or write) anything, ask yourself, “Would I want this sort of thing said to me? Or would I want it to be said a little nicer, or a little more accurately?”
While it is of course always of primary importance to study the Bible – and like Treasury Department employees being trained in what real money is, training yourself in the Bible is the best way to combat all counterfeit religions – if you’re focusing on a specific religion, it just makes sense to try to understand the main issues related to that religion, and it doesn’t hurt to study and learn specific information that will help you answer those issues.
Bible study may help you understand how Joseph Smith twisted the Scriptures with Mormonism, but Bible study alone can’t help you knowledgeably discuss Joseph Smith’s polygamy, or many other issues.
The Bible is key, and it is foundational to answering so many issues (particularly with Mormonism and other groups that claim to believe the Bible), because they tend to know their pet verses on a particular topic but not much more beyond it; sometimes not even the surrounding verses of their “favorite” verses! So, you can bring up verses they forgot or simply don’t know, which act as a counter-balance to their claims. Was Joseph Smith a false prophet? Well, what does the Bible say about true vs false prophets? Is Mormonism “the restored gospel”?
Well, what does the Bible say about how long the gospel will last? Was Joseph Smith commanded by God to engage in polygamy? What does the Bible say about polygamy? Knowledge of the Bible and of Biblical topics touches on so, so much of Mormonism, but Mormonism goes beyond just what the Bible talks about, so if you’re going to spend any time discussing Mormonism with Mormons (or Islam with Muslims, or any other religion with its believers), you must learn those topics, or you will have zero credibility.
Everybody starts somewhere. Go learn!