I started my previous post with the observation that the internet is full of discussions between believers and unbelievers, and not all of them are civil, respectful and constructive.
Too often discussion starts politely and constructively, but when it becomes clear that neither proponent is likely to shift ground, things can easily degenerate as we become irritated at our opponent’s intransigence (as we might see it).
I have probably made as many mistakes in internet discussions as anyone, but I am somewhat introspective about this, and have tried to review and improve – doubtless not enough for some people!
unkleE’s “guidelines” for adversarial discussion
Over a decade, I have slowly formulated an approach that works about as well as I think possible (but any further suggestions are welcome!):
1. Get used to disappointment!
It is rare that people change their mind, or their worldview, in one internet discussion. We may all think our arguments are good ones, perhaps even brilliant or unstoppable, but it is virtually certain that our opponent will think them rather less impressive.
It is good to decide in advance to not let our failures threaten our self esteem – or our behaviour.
2. Set yourself limited goals
If we are not going to convert someone in one brilliant comment, we can set ourselves more limited goals, such as learning something new (either from our opponent, or from the research we need to do to respond to them), or making a very limited and specific point. Or even just making someone’s acquaintance.
3. Be a friend, make a friend
That’s the ideal. For a christian, I think being friendly and respectful is more important than winning an argument. But it isn’t easy.
In normal life (say with neighbours and work colleagues), we generally get to know them before we ever get into serious discussion about religion. But on internet forums and blogs, our colours are nailed to the mast right from the start, and some people view any attempts at friendliness with suspicion, even scorn. (I have several times been accused of being too “nice”, a charge my friends and relatives might find amusing!)
But I still think trying to make friends is worth the effort.
4. Be slow to offend and quick to apologise
It is generally better to understate our argument and soften our words than to give offence, and it is crucial to apologise if we nevertheless fall short of this ideal. Courtesy is surely a minimum we can all aim at.
5. Avoid accusing opponents of dishonesty or imputing psychological motives
We can almost never know if a person is being dishonest in what they say on the internet. Even if they refuse to accept clear facts, it is more likely that they genuinely think our facts are wrong. And when it comes to opinions, if a person holds an opinion, no matter how outlandish it may seem to us, it is quite likely that they genuinely hold that view. The best way to respond to refusal to accept facts is simply to give references and leave it at that.
Imputing psychological motivations is even more problematic. A psychologist may be able to discern motives after spending time with a patient, but diagnosis over the web is highly questionable, especially when it suits someone to make some accusation of motivation rather than argue the facts. Such motivations can only be likely to be correct if the person makes a general statement about human psychology, supported by references, and then the accusation could equally be true of anyone, including them.
6. Deal with offensive comments peacefully
If someone makes a single personally offensive comment, it is generally best to ignore it. If it is repeated, then it is best addressed dispassionately and briefly, and then move on.
7. Choose your discussions wisely
I used to think that engaging with atheists on their own blogs was useful and challenging, but I found that many didn’t appreciate a christian poking around their ideas after a while. Sometimes they write their blogs for fellow unbelievers and a christian viewpoint only distracts them. Other times they have simply heard it all before.
I venture onto atheist blogs and forums far less these days, as I don’t want to tread on any toes. I try to discern whether christian comments will be welcome. And if I do comment, I try to speak clearly, be friendly, participate in the ensuing discussion, and then leave before I have overstayed my welcome.
I think the same considerations apply to atheists visiting christian blogs and forums.
8. Know when to stop
This is a difficult one, but I think it is good to try to discern when the discussion is reaching its use by date. If it is getting heated, it may be obvious, but often the discussion starts going round in circles and you have said all you really have to say on the topic. I think then a polite and quiet withdrawal is better than prolonging. If regularly visiting the same blog, making just a few comments each post is probably better than arguing inexorably.
However sometimes people are offended if I don’t address all their concerns and retire quickly, for they feel their good arguments haven’t been answered. So we have to take each case on its merits.
9. Always be willing to learn
We may be quite convinced of our basic beliefs, but there is always something new to learn. We shouldn’t be afraid to concede someone else has thought of arguments or has researched facts that we have never thought of. Taking note and doing the reading and thinking required can be a wonderful learning experience.
10. Care about facts and always check them before you write
Many critics accuse christians of basing their views on faith rather than facts, and undoubtedly this is often true. But I have found the same in reverse – many atheists who claim to be evidence based and yet ignore the consensus of experts in favour of some conspiracy theory about evidence they don’t like.
It is important to be consistent in the matter of evidence, and it is better to check references before making bold statements. I have nearly been caught out several times relying on memory.
11. You never know who’s listening
For every person engaged in discussion, there are likely to be several just watching, learning. Behaving well and engaging in interesting issues can be useful for these “lurkers”, even if it seems pointless for some of the reasons I’ve outlined.
12. Get used to disappointment!
Even if we follow all these guidelines, some people will still take offence, offer gratuitous insults, respond illogically and try to poison the well of our ideas. We must learn to take this in our stride.
Negative responses will sometimes be caused by our mistakes, but other times they are illogical (I have had people praise me for being caring, and shortly after either scorn me for the same thing or say the opposite) or caused by another person feeling threatened. We usually don’t know a person’s history, and there may be all sorts of reasons for these responses.
If we expect the occasional knock, we will be less disappointed.
Motives and aims
All this presupposes that we want to engage courteously and constructively with people who think differently to us. I have come across people on both sides of the God question who think (or at least claim to believe) that scorn is an effective tool against people they think are obviously wrong. But if scorn leads a person to waver in their belief, emotion is just as likely to lead them to return to their previous belief later. Psychologists will tell you that scorn is certainly not a good approach to people thought to be deluded.
I hope more and more people on both sides will want to relate as friends sharing ideas, and not allow their frustration at being unable to convince an opponent to get the better of them.
What’s your view?
I’m interested in feedback and suggestions. Courteous, of course!