Online Conversations about Religion Are Almost Never Fruitful

“Okay, so let me get this straight,” you’re thinking.  “A guy on a religious blog is about to tell me there’s no point in having religious conversation online … like on a blog.”  Close! However, I’m not suggesting that online religious conversations CAN’T be fruitful (I’ve been in a few that were!), but rather that the vast majority of them aren’t.  Here are some reasons I think this might be:

MOST PEOPLE BASE THEIR BELIEFS ON THE OPINIONS OF THEIR “EXPERTS”
Here’s the terribly sad truth about the internet and all its promises for knowledge: most people online have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.  Now, I don’t mean they’re wrong: I mean they don’t personally know what they are talking about.  Okay … so what does that mean? Most people who either believe or don’t believe in evolution have not done the science themselves.  Instead, they are relying on whatever books, blogs, or articles, they have read.  The same goes for theological, philosophical, or historical topics.  Most of us genuinely don’t know what we are talking about, but speak with confidence online based on our trust in people we determine to be “experts” on these topics.  Again, this isn’t universally true, but I feel like it’s a safe assumption about the average person you are likely to meet online.  It’s a terrifying thought, but in our society which emphasizes specialized knowledge (Way to fight back, liberal arts education! Sorry, soap box/side bar …), most of our knowledge is not a result of direct experience or understanding, but rather the product of the faith we put in other people that we decide must know what they are talking about based on whatever criteria we establish for the definition of “expert.”

Expert (n): Someone I see as far more credible than the dummy you’re listening to!


Of course, none of this would be a huge problem if we had some standard definition for “expert” or if all the “experts” could agree.  But they can’t because …



THERE ARE NO UNIVERSAL RULES REGARDING WHAT COUNTS AS “EVIDENCE.”
Now if you’re like me, after that last sentence, you’re fighting hard against the Law & Order flashbacks, but let’s try to keep going! As much as we might like to think so, “evidence” isn’t some objective, obvious, and agreed upon category.  The idea of “evidence” is very much tied to our worldviews, especially our epistemologies (what we think we can know, how we think we can know it, etc).  When religious and non-religious people (and hear I’m using “religious” to mean belief in some sort of deity, not as a  term opposed by “spiritual”) clash online usually neither side is aware that what is really happening is a clash of epistemologies.

So what you read is:

NON-RELIGIOUS PERSON: “There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of a god!”
RELIGIOUS PERSON: “What are you talking about? There’s plenty of evidence!”

What you should read is:

NON-RELIGIOUS PERSON: “Most likely I’m an empiricist and have decided that the only things that can be credibly believed in are those things that can be observed and understood through the five senses.  I believe that my five senses are reliable enough for this to work as an epistemology.  Furthermore I have enough faith (pun intended!) in the capacities of human reason to understand the universe to such an extent that surely human reason could know if a god existed, and thus is qualified to pass judgment on the issue.”


RELIGIOUS PERSON: “Well, I have no issue believing in what can’t be understood through the five senses.  Maybe I consider personal experience or divine revelation to be credible sources of knowledge (and thus of “evidence”), or maybe you and I are looking at the exact same phenomena (e.g. aspects of the physical world, historical events, etc) and disagreeing about whether or not it counts as evidence because of our differing a priori assumptions … which for some reason, neither of us is aware of or maybe just won’t admit.”

Oh, yeah! Well, my evidence can beat up your evidence!

These differing rules for evidence are also why conversations that start with “Give me one good reason to believe in God” or “Give me one good reason to not believe in God” almost always devolve into pseudo-intellectual drivel rather quickly.  Really, the best you can hope for in an online conversation is to make an honest effort to understand where the other person is coming from.  How do they understand the world? How did they come that understanding?

Which leads me to my next point …

THE AVERAGE PERSON’S BELIEFS ARE SUPPORTED, BUT NOT ACTUALLY FORMED BY THE “EVIDENCE”
This is not to say that people aren’t trying to make well-reasoned arguments for or against the existence of God.  What I’m suggesting is that most people don’t rely on these arguments until they’ve already made at least a preliminary decision about the issue.  “Evidence” can challenge or confirm our beliefs, but it seldom forms them (Again, yes there are people for whom this is the exception.).  I can’t recall the vast number of people I know who walked away from or joined a religion because of the behavior of its practitioners.  I can’t count the number of people I know who have rejected the gospel because they can’t accept what is says about their sinful condition, or the people who have embraced the gospel because they feel miserable and desperate in their current circumstances.  How many people who walk away from or embrace a faith tradition in college do so because they encountered someone they came to respect more (either for reasons of character or “expertise”) than the person(s) who originally taught them to believe or not to believe? These are just a few examples.  In other words, “evidence” runs the risk of being a bit of a red herring in trying to understand how a person initially came to or why a person primarily holds to their current beliefs.

I’m not saying that “evidence” isn’t an important part of our beliefs about religious things.  In fact, how much weight we put on “evidence” may vary depending on what we encounter in life or what season of life we are in.  However, I am convinced that for many of us “evidence” is a secondary (though still important) concern.

That was the day that a very thirsty Timmy started questioning a lot of things …

What this means is that neither walking a person through your “evidence” or “experts,” nor listening to their “evidence” and “experts” is likely to accomplish much in that one conversation.  Ultimately, you need to get to know a person, their experiences, and their deeper reasons for their beliefs.  All of these things are exceedingly difficult to accomplish online.

So please, do participate in online conversations about religion, but understand their rather severe limitations.  And please comment on the entries in this blog, feeling free to agree, disagree, or just ask further questions.  But understand that you’re very unlikely to ever convince someone to completely change the way they see the world in a few blog comments.  Also, understand that the way you choose to address other people online — people who often don’t know you and never will — very much affects your credibility and their willingness to consider what you say.  Also, remember that dialogue is a two-way street.  Be prepared to try to understand how other people see the world, too.

Happy online conversing, people!

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
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