Tweeting with Atheists: Can There be Dialogue?

One of my first stops each morning is to pay a quick visit to my favorite social media site: Twitter. Typically, my overnight haul of tweets that I’ve missed includes a gem from @Pontifex (who likes to tweet around 2:45 am my time) and messages from my friends living in other parts of the world. This morning, I awoke to this little exchange:

An early morning “conversation” on Twitter

@Soulessniper (aka “Frankly Atheist”) was responding to my first tweet of the day — an automated one — which was announcing a regular feature we run each morning at Morning Prayer. In digging a little further after responding to him, I figured out that I probably shouldn’t feel special. He’d had the following interchange with someone else right before our (one-way) chat:

Another interchange on Twitter

Apparently, he’s an equal opportunity, multi-faith disbeliever.

Actually, I took the time to respond to his “Why do you need to pray?” query seriously, and replied hoping that we could have a bit of a dialogue about his question. Not so much for me to “convince” him in any way, but actually so that I could eventually thank him for his question. Isn’t waking up to a question like, “Why do you need to pray?” really sort of the definition of the New Evangelization? Aren’t we — the faithful — engaged in a Year of Faith at this very moment in an effort to among other things radically convert ourselves?

The upcoming Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI is a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the One Savior of the world” (Porta fidei 6). In other words, the Year of Faith is an opportunity for Catholics to experience a conversion – to turn back to Jesus and enter into a deeper relationship with him. The pope has described this conversion as opening the “door of faith” (see Acts 14:27). The “door of faith” is opened at one’s baptism, but during this year Catholics are called to open it again, walk through it and rediscover and renew their relationship with Christ and his Church. (source: USCCB)

So I’m actually still really hoping that Mr. @Soulessniper might reply with an eye towards REALLY talking about this topic, not just in an attempt to slam each other in 140 characters or less. I would share with him that his question to me really gave me pause, caused me to turn to my Catechism, and did actually enter into my morning prayer conversation with God (who, yes, is all knowing…). Exchanges such as this one make me increasingly thrilled about the real conversations I see happening in places such as Patheos and

A question for you: When was the last time you had an effective interchange with someone of another faith or an atheist? What did you learn in the process about your own beliefs, and about theirs?

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  • Absolutely I think it’s worth engaging. I do think however that we should recognize that we won’t necessarily be able to recognize when our efforts are being “effective” and when they aren’t. Sometimes we’re planting seeds that won’t germinate for a long time. Sometimes when the exchanges happen in a public forum our words might be fruitful for others but the person we are talking to directly will be incapable of hearing them.

    Recently I blogged a bit about some thoughts I have about online dialogues with atheists, though coming at it from a slightly different angle. In her book Forming Intentional Disciples Sherry Weddell tells the story of how after a great loss the atheist began to challenge his Catholic coworker about questions of faith. He’d take books and read them and return them with scornful comments. And yet he would always take more books. Over the course of years he’d continue to be very caustic, abrasive, hurling insults…. and yet always wanting to know more. Sherry points out that cynicism and antagonism are defense mechanisms and that atheists will commonly raise these walls even while they are seeking answers to questions.

    I would assume that the questions are real and that Frankly atheist really does want to understand why people pray and that he’s asking the same question of people of different faiths to see what kind of answers he will get. If he responded to your overture with what Sherry Weddell terms a “tantrum” I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a sign that he wasn’t honestly seeking understanding. Instead I’d see it as one of those defense mechanisms.

    I’ve become more aware that it’s important that we answer questions with patience and forbearance even when the questioner seems to be disingenuous or attacking, even when he’s saying nasty things about the Pope or Mother Teresa or scoffing at religious faith. The fact that he’s asking at all is a good sign, it means he’s curious, the fact that he’s attacking might mean he’s trying to protect a sore spot.

    • lisahendey

      Melanie I love your response and I’m headed over to read your post. You share true wisdom here… and I completely agree with what you’re saying about “why” the repeated questions happen. I hope that when the moment comes for true dialogue, I’ll be ready spiritually and intellectually. This means giving myself permission to back away, to pray and to discern before commenting back. Thanks for making such great points!

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  • In a tweet? NO.

    In a blog? NO

    In a series of lengthy e-mails and taking each other out to coffee and having both parties committed to charity? Possibly, but I’ve yet to meet an atheist who doesn’t have a gigantic chip on their shoulder when it comes to religion.

    • lisahendey

      I actually have Theodore, so I believe they are out there. But I agree with you that perhaps online forums out in the public aren’t the best place for solid conversations about such substantive issues… maybe for opening remarks, and then take the dialogue someplace private.

      • Closest I ever came was a former Catholic who claimed that he now practiced “Separation of the Church and Leo” (and yes, his name was Leo). At least he had a good sense of humor about his anger.

        • stanz2reason

          Perhaps you’d get a better response not referring to atheists as ‘beasts’ or their viewpoints as ‘anger’…

          • lisahendey

            Actually stanz2reason you have a great point. These conversations really have to be charitable dialogue to help both of us understand one another’s perspectives. Thanks for commenting.

          • stanz2reason

            Sure thing Lisa! Glad to contribute!

          • I will the day they stop acting like beasts and stop reacting to somebody saying a prayer somewhere in their vicinity with anger.

          • stanz2reason

            Continuing to name call and strawmanning are probably why you’re unable to have fruitful conversations.

          • As if atheists don’t continue to name call and strawman all the time. I’ve yet to meet any atheist that doesn’t start with strawmanning and name calling, and progress downhill from there.

          • stanz2reason

            Perhaps making broad generalizations doesn’t help either. I believe the type of fruitful conversations Lisa was suggesting require a higher level of maturity than ‘they started it’ as a jumping off point. Perhaps the problem is you.

          • Which leads back to my original comment.

            In a tweet? NO

            In a blog? NO

            In a series of lengthy e-mails and taking each other out to coffee and having both parties committed to charity? Possibly, but I’ve yet to meet an atheist who doesn’t have a gigantic chip on their shoulder when it comes to religion.

            In other words, I’ve never met one who actually WANTS to engage in lengthy e-mails and taking each other out to coffee and having both parties committed to the ground rules of Catholic Charity.

            They’d rather take people to court than actually *discuss things*. They’d rather make insulting tweets and blog posts and name facebook groups “The virgin Mary should have had an abortion” than engage in discussion.

            Give me a man who’s willing to meet me in person, and actually agree to some ground rules, and I won’t convert him. I can’t convert him. Conversion takes a personal experience with God that I cannot provide. But I will show him how incredibly arrogant it is to ignore the supernatural, and I will make the attempt to pray with him, if only the Litany of Tarski- and 10 years later, when I’ve forgotten about him, he’ll pop up in my e-mail and thank me.

          • stanz2reason

            Thank you for validating my points better than I could.

          • And thank you for proving, once again, that you fit the stereotype of atheists who have chips on their shoulders.

          • stanz2reason

            I feel sorry for you if you feel anything I’ve said here indicates I have a chip on my shoulder or that i might somehow bare you any animosity. Reconsider my point that the problem might be you or at least your attitude rather than something I or another skeptic might be saying.

          • Interesting how you don’t even notice the link between those last two sentences. You blame all your problems with religion on the religious, instead of perhaps being a little bit skeptical about your own skepticism.

          • Kubricks_Rube

            You blame all your problems with religion on the religious

            Huh? I’ve reread stanz2reason’s comment three times now and I don’t see any mention of religion or the religious, let alone any problem with either. In this and all previous comments in the thread ze has 1) thanked out host and 2) called out your name-calling and generalizing. That’s it.

          • Of course you don’t understand. Your blind spots are equivalent to his.

          • stanz2reason

            Thanks kubricks. He doesn’t seem like someone capable of engaging without resorting to namecalling or simply lashing out with accusations.

    • I think maybe you have to manage expectations. Can you have a deep meaningful dialogue? Maybe not. But can you respond politely, cheerfully, thoughtfully and perhaps open up a chance for a follow up? Definitely.

      • In my experience, that only enrages the beast. I keep trying though.

  • Inge

    Looked up the account. Mr. Frankly Atheist is a bot, not a person.

    Most Atheists that respond to me (a former Atheist) on Twitter are either bots or trolls seeking to start a flame war. Not wasting my time on this.

    Besides, twitter is a very poor conversation tool with its 140 character limit.

    People who really want to start a dialogue can do so on my blog, Facebook or by emailing me.

    • Ok, I haven’t really kept up on hacking in twitterspace (trying to avoid it really, as my style doesn’t lend itself to the 140 character limit). How do you tell the difference between a bot and a live person?

  • Trish Shaw

    I have had a lengthy conversation with an atheist. That conversation was lengthy and both of us were trying to convert the other. The next day he thanked me for allowing him to talk about it. I also had a couple of FB conversation with him. On my small FB page, Pro Life and Pro Catholic, I had a lengthy Pro Life conversation. I explained why as a Catholic we feel the way we do about contraception. Here again this person thanked me for my explanation. Too many times, I am quick to try to convert people with out knowing where they are coming from, or I get defensive when they hold opposing views. I am a slow learner but I am trying.

  • Gene

    As a deconverted Christian, for processing and healing’s sake, I benefit from having dialogue with Christian of various backgrounds. In the real world, I find it difficult to find Christians who have size of comfort zone and resource of time to engage in too much conversation. Sadly, I think I wear people down in topics and ideas that aren’t necessarily sufficient aligned with their goals/interests/perspectives. As an alternative to real face-to-face conversation (rich in emotion, details, engagement, and more), I sometimes go to online. I’m sure I come across stereotypical with “giant chip on shoulder” and worse. From this side, it is really, really difficult to not be cast into such a bucket. (Or maybe it’s a hell-bound hand basket than a bucket.) Why does one need to pray is an interesting question. “Prayer” means, and experientially is, many different things among different types of believers. Personally, I prayed my last believed prayer now about seven years ago. I hope to not be things such as “caustic,” “abrasive,” or “hurling insults” as other comments have pointed out have been some of their experiences. The favor I need to ask though is this (and I don’t know whether it’s possible or not): Would you give me and people like me the benefit of the doubt? Would you treat us with corresponding patience and kindness as people in your in-group environment, who use the theologically aligned vocabulary and ideas? Would you kindly try to see your Jesus in me, the other, and not quickly dismiss as an anathematic poisonous threat to your beliefs? Kindly, would you consider dialogue and giving us atheists the benefit of the doubt?

    • lisahendey

      My personal answer to your favor is yes. You are a unique person, deserving of love, compassion and also charitable dialogue. I’m not looking for wars, rather for better understanding and a world where we focus more on loving and supporting one another than dragging each other down. So if I’ve done that in any way, I apologize. You are welcome here in this space and I thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Anthony Nuccio

    As someone who used to identify himself as an atheist (I currently identify as an agnostic), I think meaningful dialogue can happen with any faith group whatsoever. However, a “tweet” is hardly the place to make for a meaningful dialogue because of how short one is given to make a statement. I can understand if you or others could make effective dialogue in short statements, but that is very difficult for me to conceptualize. Also, I believe that Mr. @Soulnesssniper is merely picking on people who pray because he is one of those atheists who cannot find any positive in religious faith whatsoever. I would encourage you to not view all atheists in the light of @Soulnesssniper because that shuts dialogue down when you begin to presume that all atheists are as militant as he is.

    • lisahendey

      I thank you for commenting Anthony – I really agree with you on not viewing “all Atheists” by one person’s interaction in a limited conversation. It seems that those initial attempts at true dialogue must be taken into another format for us to really engage and learn from one another. Thanks for chiming in.

      • Anthony Nuccio

        No problem Lisa, thank you for commenting back. I should also say that I’m not trying to say the mediums such as Twitter cannot be valuable, but I think they should be the conversation starters and not the conversation itself.

        • lisahendey

          We definitely agree on that point Anthony – I learned my lesson about Twitter today. The person (bot?) in question seems only interested in a one-way dialogue. My attempts to kindly engage seem to be met with diatribes. I prefer this format for better coming to know and learn from one another.

          • Anthony Nuccio

            That’s a very respectable stance to take and one that I certainly agree with. If this person or bot is only interested in one-way dialogue, then I think that’s where the conversation will stop. Even though I believe in the good of people and that all people can be reasonable, I think everyone has a point where they will not creatively engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue.

          • lisahendey

            I’ll admit to being in unchartered waters here, so I appreciate you helping me to think this through!

          • Anthony Nuccio

            No problem!

  • James

    I’m an atheist and I have no problem at all with people who pray – so long as they aren’t praying *at* me (i.e. “Dear Lord, may this foolish and most likely immoral atheist see the light of your loving wisdom, amen”). Prayer, properly used, seems to serve as a valuable psychological tool for helping certain people to cope.

    Social media is not the best location to have meaningful conversations regarding religion. For example, on another site, armed only with a Bible quote, I recently was accused of being a “fool” by an Evangelical Christian who repeatedly contradicted himself logically in his zeal to defame people such as I who happened to disagree with his assertions. And when this was point out to him, he made a series of naked personal attacks. Such an experience, though, is not typical of my interactions with most Christians.

    There are plenty of Bill Maher-type atheists who are just flat-out rude to people. But, having grown up in the bible belt, I’ve also met plenty of people, pious Evangelicals, who loudly insist Catholics aren’t “real” Christians (never mind Catholicism is 1700+ years older than their denomination), Catholics who say the same of Protestants, etc etc – and there are plenty of Christians who assume atheists are immoral just because they believe in no god, never mind the evidence is quite inconsistent and contradictory with such a conclusion. The bottom line: people of all religious and nonreligious stripes can be rude arrogant and foolish. I’d encourage you to ignore this particular troll’s nonsense and seek out a more reasonable group of unbelievers and non-Catholics with whom to converse (it’s entirely possible this individual isn’t even an atheist, but merely a troll who is trying to get a rise out of people).

    • lisahendey

      Hi James:

      “The bottom line: people of all religious and nonreligious stripes can be rude arrogant and foolish.”

      I say “amen to that friend!” I think I agree with you that dialogue on these serious subjects is best handled in other venues, not in social media. This is really why I asked the question – and you guys, those who have commented, are truly helping me to understand who this can work. I thank you for taking the time to chime in. You’re welcome here any time!

  • Jim

    I’m atheist. I’ve never prayed but I am still a human being with all those same hopes and fears that any person has. Next month my Son will get married and I hope that him and his fiance will get to enjoy a long, happy, healthy marriage. Many religious people would pray for that. I sometimes wander around the house wishing I could find my car keys. Is prayer anything other than ritualized hoping?

    The danger I see in prayer as opposed to just hoping like I do is that I don’t hold anything to blame if my hopes don’t come true. I will never feel as though I was let down by a god who didn’t answer my prayers. I will never feel like a god doesn’t like me. I’ll never look at my life and wonder what is wrong with me that my god would forsake. I always hope for the best for me and anyone, I just don’t wrap that in ceremony.

    I do think you are missing the crux of his question. Why pray to an entity that should already know what your hopes are? And to paraphrase George Carlin, isn’t it presumptuous to ask God to change his plan just for you?

    • lisahendey

      Jim thank you so much for commenting, and really I do with the best for your son and his fiance, for a lifetime of love and happiness. What I tried to share in my tweet (ineffectively probably) is that I don’t pray to God giving God a “wishlist” of sorts. My prayer is out of love, an attempt to praise, to thank, and yes to ask for God’s intercession at times — for His will (not Lisa’s) in situations in my life and in the lives of others. Sometime we could have a conversation about intercessory prayer, but for now I will share that praying is a way of saying “I love you” to the Abba — the Father God — who knows all, makes all and gives all. Thank you for commenting!

  • Zeke

    Lisa, quick question (full disclosure, atheist here): how do you feel about @soulessniper’s comments to @haneenii? It would seem that you have common ground with him regarding the error of her theological beliefs and desire to have fellow Muslim women cover themselves, his strident tone notwithstanding.

    • lisahendey

      Good question Zeke and I have to admit to not being at all up to date on women’s covering themselves issues – I’ll tell you that her comment actually made me smile, because it reminded me of all of the Catholics who never come to Mass, and yet absolutely won’t miss getting ashes on Ash Wednesday. I need to study up to better understand Ramadan, but if fasting and covering are tenets of the religion then I would find his questioning of her to be quite disrespectful. In our Church, we’re doing a lot of talking during this “Year of Faith” about the need to re-evangelize ourselves FIRST and FOREMOST before we attempt to share our faith with others. Her tweet actually reminded me of that…

      • Zeke

        Thanks for your civility Lisa. I suppose what I am getting at is this notion that all religious tenets and beliefs must be respected and are therefore off-limits to criticism. There are no doubt women being beaten at this very moment for failing to cover themselves. Is it disrespectful to question such tenets?

        • lisahendey

          You bring up a great point Zeke – if you look at the continued twitter exchange today (or rather @Soulessniper’s tweets at me from today to which I didn’t respond) he brings up a question about two faith-healers who killed their child (at least I think that’s what they did… I didn’t investigate). I obviously would absolutely never condone that – just as I couldn’t condone a woman being beaten for failing to cover. And should we – as humans and as compassionate people — stand up against those wrongs? Yes. I’m guilty of spending too much time in my own little world to fight those huge battles that surround us over so many of these questions. I think — in many ways — I’m coming out of my little suburban cocoon and trying to learn more about the world around me, and about my duties to that world. In this respect, I don’t have answers, but just more questions…

  • Kubricks_Rube

    My feelings about prayer (full disclosure- I’m an agnostic Jew) are mixed. I can appreciate prayers for guidance or strength or wisdom. This type of prayer strikes me as a way of reaching within ourselves to unearth and accept what we already know (on some level) to be right and/or true. Kind of like asking What Would Jesus Do, the question keeps the moral dimension of any issue from being buried under all other considerations.

    But I feel much more uneasy about intercessory prayer (and divine/supernatural intervention in general). It feels to me (even when it’s to benefit others and not oneself) like steroids in baseball or insider trading. More than that, it seems doubly unfair because if the interventions being prayed for are just, a just god should not require them to act justly.

    For example, my Catholic mother-in-law often speaks of her recently deceased father looking out for the family in different ways. After Superstorm Sandy, she spoke of his protection for the extended family. This right after I heard about the two children who drowned during the storm in Staten Island. Did they not have a deceased relative to stay the hand of nature on their behalf? Does God really need a special request to prevent this and millions of other tragedies (both mundane and extraordinary)? To the extent that I believe that G-d may exist, I can’t help but hope He doesn’t intervene in the earthly plane.

    Anyway, I hope this is taken in the spirit of courteous interchange. My discomfort with prayer is my own and I mean no disrespect.

    • lisahendey

      Kubricks, thanks so much for raising this issue – I’m far from being an expert on intercessory prayer, although I do pray for the intentions of others every day… one of my “go to” references for this is Our Lord Jesus’ prayer — the “Our Father” as we call it, which seems to contain praise as well as intercession. Do I believe that God will help my favorite football team (Notre Dame) win if I ask him? No… He’s not like that scene in “Bruce Almighty” with the sticky notes (have you seen that? pretty funny look at prayer)…

      Would like to hear what others have to say on this…

      • Kubricks_Rube

        Yes, that’s a funny scene.

      • Zeke

        While the usefulness of prayer as a means of strengthening one’s faith is indisputable, I’m afraid that discussing intercessory prayer with religious folk is rarely productive. People will insist that God has intervened in their lives in a physical way (healing, helping to overcome addictions, sending rain, etc.), yet when asked why he chose to ignore the majority of their prayers, we are told that “He is not like Santa” or “it’s a mystery”. Then of course there is the uncomfortable fact that Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons report the exact same phenomena. As I say, these discussions aren’t very fruitful.

        • lisahendey

          I feel like if we can converse about these things politely and reasonably, without arguing or trying to convince, that it brings us closer to one another – call my “pollyanna”, but I believe that open, respectful conversation is possible. But thanks for sharing your input!

          • Zeke

            I suppose that should be the goal! Thanks and nice chatting with you.