You’ve probably heard someone say, “There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers.” Well, no. There are “dumb questions,” and I have a smart reason for using them in my conversations with non-Catholics.
You see, a “dumb question” is one to which both parties should already know the answer, so it seems pointless even to ask. But it’s not pointless if the question exposes hidden assumptions that can change the trajectory of the conversation.
For example, I was giving a pro-life talk at a Catholic high school when a young girl (I’ll call her Kelsey) raised her hand at the end of the presentation. She said, “Mr. Horn, what gives you the right to tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies? I don’t like abortion, but I don’t shove my beliefs down people’s throats like you do!”
Some people would take offense at Kelsey’s response and strike back with a defensive attitude. But I saw an opportunity to move the conversation forward with a dumb question. I asked, “Kelsey, I know this might be an odd question, but why don’t you like abortion?”
“Well, isn’t it obvious?”
“Pretend I’m a five-year-old. What specifically about abortion don’t you like?”
“It keeps a new life from coming into the world,” she replied.
I then saw an opportunity for another dumb question.
“Okay, but a condom also keeps new life from coming into the world. Is there is a difference between abortion and a condom?”
“What exactly is that difference?”
“Well, condoms keep life from existing, but abortion takes a life out of existence.”
“Okay, and what do you mean by ‘life’? If I take some antibiotics, that kills bacterial life inside me, but that’s not an abortion.”
“No, it ends a human life. A baby.”
“Kelsey, I’m having a hard time understanding your position. You say that you don’t like abortion because it kills babies, but you think you don’t have the right to tell women not kill babies. Am I missing something?”
Kelsey nervously looked around at her peers who were waiting for her to respond. She became flustered and blurted out, “Yeah, but it sounds terrible when you put it that way.”
Dumb questions are useful whenever the conversation centers around a term whose true meaning supports the Catholic position but is hidden by assumptions or euphemisms. For example, imagine you’re speaking with a Protestant friend named Caleb about the issue of salvation and he says, “I’m not Catholic because Catholicism teaches salvation by works and not by faith alone.”
In a conversation like this, here’s a “dumb question” that I find extremely helpful: “What do you mean by works?”
Your Protestant friend might say:
“You know, when man does something to try to please God instead of letting God save him. Works are something we can boast about to others instead of boasting in God our savior.”
“So, you’re saying works are something we do so that God will be happy with us?”
“Okay, what do you mean by ‘faith’?”
"Faith involves trusting in Jesus with all your heart that he alone is your savior. By faith we ask Jesus to forgive our sins, and in return he gives us eternal life.”
“I’m curious; does having faith please God?”
"Absolutely! Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith it’s impossible to please God.”
“But by that definition, isn’t faith a work? You said a work is ‘something we do’ to ‘please God.’ You cited Hebrews 11:6 as saying that faith pleases God—isn’t the act of ‘trusting’ or ‘asking for forgiveness’ something we do?”
“It’s something we do with our hearts, but it’s not a public ritual like being baptized or a public act like giving to charity.”
“Okay, so when you say ‘works’ you mean things we do that other people see.”
“Where does the Bible say that is the definition of a ‘work’?”
“I can’t think of a specific passage, but...”
Dumb questions are also helpful because if you ever get “stuck” in a conversation you can ask the other person to define a key term he is using. When he tries to do this, it can become evident to him (even if he doesn’t admit it) that his belief system is inconsistent or that he hasn’t thought about in great detail. You can then use this as a springboard to encourage him to look at the Catholic perspective on whatever issue you’re discussing, with the goal of giving him more intellectual resources in order to come to know the truth.
Finally, when you use dumb questions you should qualify them so that the other person doesn’t think you’re talking down to him or being antagonistic. You can say something like, “I know this might be an odd thing to ask but . . .” or “This might seem like an obvious question, but . . .” You can even just flat-out say, “I know this is a dumb question, but humor me . . .”
For, ultimately, there are no truly dumb questions—only precious souls yearning to know God’s truth in any way possible.