Communicate Jesus and St Eutychus have been asking whether it’s any use to discuss beliefs online. Both of them have become somewhat pessimistic about it, at least in terms of atheist-Christian discussions. But this is a broader issue too…
After several years of reading blogs I conclude that these sharp exchanges between people with different points of view almost always generate far, far more heat than light. Blogs seem to best for helping like-minded people to share information and to mildly revise one another’s thinking. Alan Jacobs said that blogs are ‘the friend of information, but the enemy of thought’. I absolutely love blogs for getting news and opinion of all kinds, but the ‘dialogues’ are generally unhelpful. I’m sure everyone can point to one or two exceptions.
For my part, I’m interested in pursuing those exceptions! Here’s a short list of how I try to go about things. As with our aspirational ‘comments policy’, this all revolves around people…
Make it personal
I stick to the more personal online environments, like personal blogs and Facebook, where there are likely to be relatively few contributors.
I steer clear of massive public forums because of the sheer number of people (Rational-skepticism.org, Richarddawkins.net, news media sites, etc).
Make it relational
I comment when I believe it will lead to a genuine interaction with someone else. When I want to invest online, I look out for just one or two people with whom I might have a considerate exchange.
I don’t expect anyone to overturn their beliefs. For one thing, we generally change our worldviews at a trickle over the course of years. But more importantly, this happens within social settings, as we encounter new communities. What do we really expect to happen in the online world?
But neither do I aim to overturn others’ beliefs. I look for situations in which we might be personally affected — both of us. I want to share my life with others, however superficially — to meet with others, to know others. And perhaps somehow we might learn from one another.
I also try to be aware of the necessarily emotional and time commitments of online discussions!
On the blogs linked above, Steve and Nathan both ask what Christians ought to be doing in online discussions with atheists. For one thing, I don’t think the answer is to involve more Christians. The recent discussion over at the ABC’s 2010 Global Atheist Convention blog is one good example of why: there is quite a limited set of questions, arguments, and issues at stake — many of which seem to have become intractable. Amassing more Christian voices online will only stir up the muddy waters. In the case of the ABC blog, I figure it was best for Chris Mulherin, a Christian guest blogger, to handle the discussion on his own — and that seemed to go pretty well, especially as he confined his responses to additional blog entries.
It also seems to me that online Christian apologetics is a pretty confused business. In the first place, human creatures are irrational. I speak for myself as much as anyone: our viewpoints are at every point coloured by our experiences and feelings. Argumentation will only get us a short way. Conventional apologetics can only ever be one small corner of Christian conduct. Our evangelism must transcend our stunted notions of demolishing arguments (2 Cor 10:5)!
And how appropriate is conventional apologetics, anyway? Like Glen observes in his comments here, Christian apologists often unwittingly buy into the modern notion of an neatly explainable, anthropocentric god. More on this to come.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.