Friday, August 7, 2009

Atheism and the internet

I have, for the past few days, been embroiled in a debate regarding Obama's pick for the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins. The debate, of course, has wandered outside its intended bounds and touched on the nature of religion, the definition of "new atheism," the interplay of faith and doubt, and (ultimately, as these things always do) the meaning of life.
I enjoy debate. I was pretty good at it in school; at least, so my teachers and classmates would tell me. The idea of good-natured banter - trying "on the fly" to refute an argument and learning something in the process, while attempting to remember one piece of the loads of information you amassed mentally in preparation - appeals to me greatly. This, I suspect, is why I have taken so easily to the system of online discussion. Someone posts a blog or an editorial or a comment, and one can respond almost immediately. We have designed this system to assist in the dissemination of ideas and to facilitate thoughtful, world-wide discussion. But what have we really achieved?
Those who, like me, have grown up with the internet (we were schoolmates together, the internet and I, if you will) expect a certain level of capability in our debates. I don't mean we expect our fellow debaters to be capable of debate, but that we ourselves be capable of certain things: anonymity, immediate access, spellcheck. When we do not have these things, we complain (picture, if you will, the recent episode of Southpark wherein the internet is "used up"). We expect that we shall be able to peruse the internet, find someone with whom we disagree, and under cover of a pseudonym proceed to tear down the opponent's argument. Debate in an online age is no more like debate once was; gone are the times of such fancies being "civil arguments" between gentlemen at Oxford or drunken follies in the back room of a pub, merely to be forgotten the next morning. I think that the advent of the internet has allowed debate to become more inane, more vicious, more polemic and more divisive - and that this leads only to greater schisms.
It has long been discussed whether electronic means of communication negatively affect one's writing ability. The lack of formality of an e-mail and the safe anonymity of the web lead to the grammatical equivalent of the "car syndrome" (people are known to pick their noses more often in the car because of the misleading feeling that they are somehow invisible). We let our manners slip because we don't have time to be bothered by all of that scholastic nonsense, and anyway, it's not like the Queen will be reading our posts and personally sending us a letter correcting our usage of her language. It's only the internet, right? Who will care? (A note to the reader: people do care.) And because the person we're debating may never meet us, we don't bother with the "pretense" of civility. If JoeSchmo123 doesn't know who you are in reality, why not try and get away with calling him an idiot? Because of the insurmountable distance between you and the rest of the world (at least so far as the internet is concerned, the distance can be as great as you wish it to be), the ordinary fear of the social repercussions of your actions is shadowed. Your name is unknown here, and that grants a certain power.
This is where the problem lies. Because the old rules of engagement are gone, replaced with the new, slipshod precepts of an online life, tact has gone as well. Witness the caliber of online arguments on Pharyngula, Religion Dispatches or elsewhere. Anonymous commentators fight to outdo one another in their proud, dogmatic boasting. And the louder you shout (figuratively speaking), the further away true discussion becomes.
I know that useful debate still exists out there in cyberspace somewhere. I've seen it on occasion, tactful and open-minded comments on topics that may or may not have a right or wrong side. People are still capable of expressing opinions as they are, opinions, instead of as absolute facts. But with the freedom of the internet comes abuse of language and abuse of others; anyone can take part in the sophistry which used to be the playful realm of gentlemanly sport, and they do so with vengeance. We forget that with all great freedoms come great responsibilities. As I wrote elsewhere, "It seems we may never find that common ground, no matter how many times we are beseeched to seek it. I fear that, in an age when global communication is as easy as the click of a button and thus the opportunity to learn everything we can from our fellow man is right before us, our anonymity within that global community will only drive us further down the road we're already traveling, to divisiveness and fragmentation, ever widening the gap."
The reason I titled this post "atheism and the internet" is this. It used to be that great thinkers, people who were well-educated in many subjects, would debate theology - the nature of God and God's relationship with the world. The sheer amount of information and experience that was pertinent to such a discussion was always, if not taken into account, at least acknowledged. But no more. The internet has allowed anyone to play the "expert." And thus the schism grows - the most indoctrinated become the most vocal, and the gap between sides in what should have been a simple exchange of ideas widens. The worst of it, I hate to say, is the staunch atheists; the followers of Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Myers. Sure, the ultra-religious are bad, too (the strict fundamentalists and the intelligent designers), but they have, at least, the potential for their perceived relationship with God to dampen their inherent pride. The atheists are not so beholden. They blow the trumpet of Science, riding on what they see as a triumph of reason over the old ways of superstition and myth, assured in their own certainty. Despite science's tendency to point out where we should be humble, there is no humility there.
Before I am attacked, however, by those whose sensibilities I have insulted and in the very manner which I have already described, I implore you - think! The internet does not give you the right to behave poorly, it merely gives you another circumstance in which to do it. It is your choice whether you take responsibility or not.

1 comment:

  1. As was mentioned in another RD editorial: "It used to be that you'd only hear from bigoted professors or crackpot pastors if you were unlucky to live next to them or read the newspapers or journals in which they were allowed to publish. These days, every idiot and his dog has a blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. That increases geometrically the opportunities for disagreement and conflict."

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