Over in Patheos’s Catholic channel, Thomas McDonald of God and the Machine has run into a couple problem commenters. Specifically, the kind of atheist who think posting the following in a Christian combox is equivalent to counting coup:
The creation story of your own religion involves a man created out of dust who is convinced by his rib-woman wife to eat a magical fruit because a talking snake told her that it would make them like gods. The universe as we know it took much longer than six days to form, human beings didn’t spring forth from dust or rib bones, fruit isn’t magical, and snakes lack the vocal apparatus or the mental ability to speak. Before you slam Mormanism [sic] for being False, make sure the insurance policy of that glass house of yours is all paid up.
The commenter has made the mistake of assuming that every Christian is a biblical literalist/Young Earth Creationist, and the attack just doesn’t map on to McDonald’s Catholicism. But even if the aspiring pugilist had posted this in the right kind of combox, I really doubt the intended target would have been much moved.
Very few people shift their worldview on the mere fact that not everyone agrees with them. For some cloistered, isolated people, this may be a big surprise, but people running a blog with open commenting don’t usually fall into that category. So this kind of comment is, at best, equivalent to kicking someone in the shins and running away, and at worst, about as useful as biting your thumb.
[How does Leah] endure the same cramped round of bad reasoning, bad faith, and anti-social behavior from her compatriots on the atheist community. Does she ever get sick of it and toy with the idea of throwing caution to the winds and becoming a nun just to make the A******s for Atheism freak out
The answer is I almost never run into this kind of commenter, from either side. I don’t run out of fingers if I try to count the number of times a commenter has popped in just to tell me I’m going to hell. And, unlike a lot of female bloggers, I haven’t gotten sexual threats or ever had someone threaten me offline (please see “A Woman’s Opinion is the Mini-Skirt of the Internet“). My atheist readers are sometimes baffled by my metaphysics, but seldom call me stupid or take the kind of potshots that Thomas McDonald is enduring.
Why have I been spared? Well, given my habit of talking about religion through the lens of meta-mathematics and weird epistemology hypotheticals involving time-travel, I think drive-by trolls may not realize they’re reading a religion blog in the first place, or just figure it’s not worth their time to choose a rant to copy-paste. I’ve asked people to step away from fights, and for the most part, people who got a little out of hand in one thread were able to contribute productively in others.
The worst it’s ever gotten was during the discussion of PZ Myers’s desecration stunt, and that was partially because some people openly admitted their goal was to hurt people, not convert them. (Though technically I appreciated the honesty). But I was particularly happy with the commentariat during my dialogue with Matt Gerken on gay marriage, when, even if people were baffled by his position, there were relatively few ad hominems.
What I’ve found works the best (particularly during the PZ fight) is just assuming commenters are arguing in good faith and replying as though they’d asked you a slightly more respectfully phrased question. And it’s good to watch out for trigger language and dogwhistles. I wince every time I see Mark Shea refer to gay marriage supports like me as “brownshirts” and it makes me hard to read the rest of a post. My goal is to never give a reader I disagree with an easy excuse to close the window or write me off. Sometimes that means my language choice looks ‘soft’ but that’s only so I can entice people into reading my ‘hard’ content.
*Given that a commenter once referred to me as “the Alan Colmes of Atheism” I was tempted to title this post “The Wages of Alan Colmesianism is a Pretty Reasonable Combox” but I only just found the strength to forbear. I guess the takeaway is really just a big thanks to most of you.