Internet anonymity facilitates vitriol in religious debates

Because I am somewhat technologically challenged and also stingy when it comes to buying songs, I listen to a good majority of my music on YouTube, and some of that music is part of the Christian genre. I’m a fan of Switchfoot, Relient K, NEEDTOBREATHE and various other artists whose music falls into that category, so I’ve spent a good bit of time trawling their videos to find songs that I particularly like.

Music, though, is not the only thing I find when I glance over these Web pages. Four times out of five, whenever I look over the comments on a Christian YouTube video I find a nasty, vitriolic “debate” raging on the page.

I am not at all opposed to religious debate. I think we can only understand our religious beliefs and the beliefs of others by discussing them openly and, in the process, refining our perceptions and voicing our questions. I’m a Christian, and I enjoy a rousing debate and an open discussion. However, I feel sick when I look at the scathing and rabid attacks people make on others over the Internet.

In YouTube comments, I have seen Christians tell other people that they are going to hell. And I’ve seen nonbelievers and people of other religious faiths tell Christians that they are stupid, ignorant, intolerant—really, take your pick of the negative adjectives.

Both sides do it, and they do it in the most foul language that I certainly hope no one would employ in a face-to-face debate. Aside from the general swear words, I recently saw someone in one of these discussions call someone else a “stupid c**t”.

I find it shocking and disgusting that we as a culture—a global culture—have made this a practice. The Internet is, honestly, a great platform for public debate, but so-called “discussions” of the nature I’ve just described are gross abuses of that forum and of each other.

The anonymity that the Internet provides allows us to say anything to anyone without ever seeing the other person. I think that the lack of personal contact makes us think that it’s acceptable to abandon the rules of decency. Under that delusion we fire off hurtful comments without having to answer for them or even address counterarguments, creating a cesspool of ignorance and anger clogging up our browsers.

The language and argumentative style I see on YouTube comments is something I have never, ever seen in an intelligent, rational, respectful debate. And honestly, I think that if someone can’t debate things in an intelligent, rational, respectful way, then they have no business debating anything at all.

Until this point in my piece I have more or less been ranting, but I do have a point: if we are going to insist on debating hot topics such as religion over public forums such as YouTube (and Facebook and any other Web site that allows people to leave comments) then we need to actually DEBATE, not just throw insults and post our opinions while slandering our opponents in lieu of listening to their arguments and meeting them where they are.

We need to treat Internet debates the way we would conduct discussions in our seminar-based classes: with respect for our classmates, with the willingness to listen and with intelligence. No one is going to be persuaded to our opinions (on either side of the debate) if all we’re doing is bandying insults and skewed facts at one another.

When we do that, we only succeed in making ourselves look intolerant and stupid (particularly when we can’t even do it using proper spelling and grammar—honestly, the misuse of language on the Internet makes my skin crawl, and I’m not the only one). If we can’t do that, we need to keep our opinions off the Web.

In my own opinion, religious debates are best conducted in person and not over some kind of electronic medium. If you are a member of a religious persuasion and you are actually trying to convert someone, it’s much better to do it in private, face-to-face, where you can get to know them as a person and not just as a potential Christian/Muslim/Hindu/worshiper-of-Cthulhu.

And if you aren’t trying to convert—if you are simply curious about learning about the nuances of someone else’s beliefs—then it is still better done personally, maybe over a cup of coffee. Religious beliefs, for many people, are so deeply entrenched in their personal identities that we cannot treat them as glib discussion topics.

That’s the quickest way to kick off one of those nasty debates I mentioned above. At the same time, those of us who strongly adhere to religious persuasions could try, for discussion purposes, to look at things objectively and to be patient when someone has a legitimate question, concern or point with something we believe.

However, I know that not everyone is going to confine religious (or any other) debates to face-to-face discussions. So instead I ask that when we engage in debate and discussion, we do it with respect even if our fellow interlocutors are not doing the same. If we’re all going to be using it, we might as well play nice on this digital playground.


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