We all know that asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is at the heart of most intellectual activity. Questions must be encouraged. We all know this. But are there any questions which may not be asked? Questions which should not be asked? Although many a young undergraduate might initially say “no: never! All questions must be encouraged!” I think most thoughtful people will realise there is a little more to it than that.

There are, for example, statements which present themselves in all the innocent garb of questions, but which smuggle in nasty and false assertions, such as the phrase “why are blond people intellectually inferior to dark people?” There are questions which mould the questioner, such as “will I feel better if I arrange for this other person to be silenced?” Questions can serve horrible purposes: they can focus the mind down a channel of horror, such as, “what is the quickest way to bulldoze this village?” Even more extreme examples could be given; they make it clear that not all statements that appear to be questions are primarily questions at all, and not all questions are innocent.

Once you start to think it through, it becomes clear that every question you can ask, just like every other type of utterance you can make, is not a simple self-contained thing, but a connector to all sorts of related assumptions and projects, some of them far from morally neutral. This makes it not just possible, but sometimes important and a matter of honour and duty, not just to refuse to answer, but to raise an objection to the question itself. More precisely, one objects to the assumptions that lie behind the question, and which have rendered the question objectionable.

“Have you stopped beating your children?”

“Tell me, my daughters … which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

“How do you reconcile your rationality with your religious faith?”

In all three cases the question renders any honest person speechless.

But in the first case, if the question is pressed, and I am hauled up before the judge in a court of law, then I will protest, at length and forcefully, that I never did beat my children in the first place. And in the second case, if the question is pressed, then a loving daughter may choose to handle what comes of her silence, and show her love by her behaviour. And if the third question is pressed, then I might explain, as patiently as I could, that the attitude of the questioner is as deeply distorted here as it is in the other two cases, and I will add that my faith was never divorced from my rationality in the first place, and that being required to explain this is like being required to explain that you are honest.

Now we have arrived at the point of this post, which is not, I will come clean, the general issue of questioning the question, but the specific issue of public discourse in the area of religion. But the two are closely related, because I am interested in focussing attention on where the issue of questioning the question really lies. The issue is not, “are there questions which are objectionable?” (I think we already settled that), nor is it, “let’s have some intellectual amusement unpicking what is objectionable about this or that ill-posed question which we find it easy to tell is ill-posed.” No, the heart of this issue is, what about the fact that there may be questions which are in fact ignorant and domineering in themselves as questions, like “have you stopped beating your children?”, but which we don’t recognise as such, because of the unquestioned assumptions of our culture and the intellectual habits it promotes?

The third example above is the one which invites the reader to explore this. Is that question objectionable or not?

I will give two reactions: first a subjective one, then the beginnings of an objective one. Subjectively, the question, and others like it such as, “how do you reconcile science and religion?” make me feel every bit as queasy as the “beating your children” one. The hollow feeling of having been pigeonholed before you can open your mouth, of being in the presence of someone whose mental landscape does not even allow the garden where you live, the feeling of being treated like dirt, it is all there.

Now, objectively, are these feelings of mine a sign of trouble in me, or a sign of trouble in our wider culture? I invite reflections. Here I will offer three.

First, my reaction is strong because rationality is a deeply ingrained part of my very identity; it is every bit as important to me as it is to anyone else, so that to face a presumption of guilt in this area is to face a great injustice. Secondly, though, religion is a broad phenomenon, having bad (terrible, horrendous) parts and good (wonderful, beautiful) parts, so the question might be a muddled attempt to ask, “what type of religion is going on in you?” It still remains a suspicious question, like “are you honest?” but in view of the nastiness of bad religion, perhaps we have to live with it, and allow that people will need to ask, to get some reassurance. Having said that, (and thirdly) we can only make a reply if there is enough oxygen in the room–that is, if the questioner does not come over like an inquisitor who has already made up his mind. The question needs to be, in effect, “I realise that we are both rational; would you unpack for me the way that rationality pans out for you?” We need the questioner at least to be open to the idea that willingness to recognize God in personal terms can be a thoroughly rational thing to do, in a similar sense that recognizing other humans as consciously willing agents is a thoroughly rational thing to do. In both cases, it requires a willingness that is in tune with reason, not unreason, but which is larger than reason, as a chord is larger than a single note.


[This piece was first published on the OUP blog in September 2014]