Debating online or face to face

Greta Christina wrote recently about online anonymity and its pros and cons in discussion. I find when reading her posts I often feel compelled to comment at length and in this case the length was sufficient to justify an entire blog post.

The thrust of her argument is that although online anonymity is a mixed blessing, it is still a blessing.

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.

I agree with her on this. So why am I writing? “Greta Christina thinks anonymous onliDebating Chamber of the former House of Deputies of Austria, in discussion is a good thing” is hardly news. However, I do have a few things to add.

There are more benefits to online discussions. I think the quality of my debate is far higher online than face to face. Debating in person is not something I feel particularly good at, although I am trying to improve through practice. Usually, I find my memory lacking, my temperature rising and I often get nervous in the face of confrontation. Even if the topic isn’t inherently emotive I have an emotional reaction, which doesn’t help me get my point across. Plus it’s embarrassing and frustrating!

However, online both parties have more time to cool off and digest what the other person has said and make their own points as precisely as possible. There’s less temptation to blurt out the first thing which comes into your head, which may not be what you’d really like to say. That’s in an ideal world. On the flip side it can turn into a cut-and-paste war of quotes and links where no one really thinks for themselves. Debating online also doeAngry and frustrated personsn’t stop people from typing in the first thing which comes into their heads or from responding emotionally or ignoring their opponent’s points – but I do think it makes it easier to be a good debater – if you’re willing to take the time and effort.

On numerous occasions I’ve found myself feeling like I’m losing a face-to-face debate despite the poor quality of my opponent’s arguments. Only hours later do I realise what I should’ve said. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. It’s extremely frustrating. Anyone who’s got into a conversation with a barrister (courtroom lawyer) will know what I mean. They’re quick-witted, persuasive and good at talking. Some of them however, seem unable to get out of the competitive mindset. There’s definitely something fishy about their arguments, but you can’t quite marshal your own arguments fast enough to catch them out. Their aim is not to find out what’s true, but to convince a jury (whether real or imagined) of what’s true. It’s not investigation, it’s marketing.Debating in person

Part of what I do for this blog is face to face debates with people, so I’d like to improve the way I debate in person. I sometimes wish I could take some of those wit-powered debates online – asking them to “step online” (rather than “step outside”!). Obviously this isn’t always practical.

So failing that I try to research the topics which interest me online beforehand then avoid getting into any debates for which I haven’t already considered the arguments and counter-arguments. That might sound like cheating, but for now I think it’s better than getting angry, upset and frustrated.

Counfounding stereotypes

Last Sunday I went to a friend’s Evangelical church. I know what you’re saying, “Eshu, what were you thinking?”. No, I didn’t go just so I’d have something to write about. I’m genuinely interested, although more in the people and why they believe what they do than the beliefs themselves. Perhaps weirdly, I don’t think I would’ve gone had I not spent the last year or two reading atheist blogs and articles; I would’ve felt unprepared. I probably would’ve just ended up disagreeing but not really being able to say why. Which would’ve been frustrating.

I was trying to step outside my comfort zone and I certainly felt pretty uncomfortable. Not that anyone made me feel that way. I get the impression most of them knew I was new there and not a Christian. However, everyone was friendly and welcoming, as I guess people tend to be when they’re trying to build a church community. It’s just that two hours of listening to people sing and pray and hold their hands in the air gets a bit tedious. So I stood there uncomfortably and observed.

It was mostly progressive, modern style religion. Forgiveness, love, healing – all that nice-sounding stuff. Praying handsSome people came up to the front to be prayed for. Periodically members of the band were passed the microphone to guess what ailments others in the church might be quietly suffering from before the audience was told, “If that’s you, please come forward and be healed”.  The guesses ranged from “A hollow feeling inside your chest” to “Stomach pain”. People came forward, but it wasn’t clear if the guesses were right or how much they were helped.

Feeling a little awkward after the service I offered to help tidy up and this gave me an opportunity to chat with people individually. They were all appreciative of my helping even though I’d never been there before. Apparently some church regulars had managed to shirk the clearing up rota for several years!

Notably, one woman whom I started helping asked if I’d enjoyed it and seemed concerned that I might have been bored or put off.

“I wouldn’t want you to leave here hating Christians or hating God!”

I replied, “No, everyone’s been very friendly and I could hardly hate something I don’t believe in – you don’t hate Zeus do you?”

(Laughing) “No, I suppose not!”

Not hating GodI continued to chat with her as I helped carry various bits of furniture back to the church’s garage. She was in her late thirties, friendly and apparently unconcerned with the details of her religion. She certainly didn’t come across as bigoted nor even suspicious and resentful, not that I expected her to be. I guess maybe I am lucky in finding the nicer Christians.

However, I was shocked that her opening greeting contained such a egregious misrepresentation of atheists – that we hate God and/or Christians. I doubt this was an opinion she came to through her own experience, so I guess it was suggested by others in the church group.

It seemed that she was genuinely surprised I was a thoughtful, decent non-believer who actually knew a few things about the Bible. I was a curiosity. Maybe I’m getting carried away with my optimistic speculation, but I thought that realisation – that I wasn’t actually evil – put some doubts or questions in her mind. Questions like, “Why is this guy nothing like the atheists I’ve heard about?”.

I suspect in the majority of cases, believers are more likely to have their minds changed by meeting decent honest atheists than the best of highbrow arguments. This seems to be supported by Kieran Bennett’s post on de-conversion based on a huge quantity of Christian de-conversion stories. In the list of reasons why Christians deconvert tied for first place was:

The realisation that religious dogma contradicted observable reality was the second most an equally common reason for de-conversion cited within the sample (also at 14.89%).

The illogical stereotype of atheists as misanthropic god-haters is so common it might be considered a religious dogma, at least one supported from the pulpit if not by scripture. Confounding this stereotype is important for many reasons. To establish dialogue, stand up for ourselves and especially to call into question the authority of those who spread these lies.

Tolerate the believer not the belief

Ask any blogging atheist or freethinker and you’ll probably find they’ve done a post or two on tolerance. Well here’s mine.

It’s not uncommon for atheists to be told they shouldn’t criticize others people’s beliefs, because it’s rude or intolerant. Other bloggers have explained in detail why it’s important to do so and why it’s not rude to disagree. The consensus seems to be that being universally tolerant of other people’s beliefs allows a free-pass for bad ideas which can lead to some crazy or dangerous behaviour.

But what constitutes tolerance? Lynet at Elliptica describes what seems to me like a reasonable idea of tolerance:

Tolerance does not imply the lack of an opinion, it merely implies allowing others to disagree. I will, however, continue to argue for my own position. And I still think you’re wrong.

When I do get into debates on beliefs, I try to avoid being insulting or antagonistic. This isn’t something I always get right; it’s something I aspire to.  I know from experience that it’s all too easy to mock or humorously misrepresent someone’s beliefs in the heat of the moment, especially when the debate is face to face.

However, I genuinely don’t want to cause offence. The people I chat with about religion are generally nice decent people and I wouldn’t like to see them upset if I can help it.

I know some atheists say we shouldn’t worry about upsetting people. In some situations I can understand that attitude. For example, when “You’re so intolerant” is being used to shut down an important political issue rather than accept the more rational argument. Even more so if you’re being asked to tolerate a belief that is itself hateful or intolerant.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to get people to listen to your point of view, maybe change their mind, then I think causing offence will hinder your efforts. If you say or even imply that someone is stupid or crazy for believing what they do, you can expect anger and resentment, not carefully considered responses. It turns from a conversation into a confrontation – one in which backing down is seen as weak and shameful rather than open-minded.

So there’s a fine line to tread. We shouldn’t play the sycophant and pretend to agree so as not to hurt people’s feelings; but we’d be ill-advised to resort to condescending mockery or insults simply because we disagree.

The trouble is that many believers feel their beliefs are an intrinsic part of their identity. However politely it is phrased, the disagreement may still be interpreted as an insult. This is mostly the believer’s problem, but we should nevertheless bear it in mind when debating with them.

I commented recently on Kelly Gorski’s post ‘And They Call It “Tolerance”‘ to suggest that separating the belief from the believer is important. (Excuse the gratuitous self-quote).

Maybe we should tolerate/respect the believer, but not their beliefs. This distinction may be obvious to us; I think we should make it obvious to those whose beliefs we criticise.

After some searching I discovered that a similar idea was suggested by Mahatma Ghandi, and not Jesus as some Christians have apparently claimed:

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

My version is, “Tolerate the believer, not the belief”. I think that’s a good lesson for me both in the way I think about and treat believers.

As much as possible we should separate the believer from the belief. Smart people often believe stupid things. Most of us probably have some false beliefs, but that doesn’t make us idiots. It just means we’re mistaken in that case.

Now I need to work out how to make the difference clear to people without upsetting them…