Religious discussion in an age of incivility

Andrew Brown, writing for the Guardian, posits that much of the acrimony in religious debate today is the result of people not taking online discourse seriously, and adds that the current schism may in fact be the result of how the Internet allows people to voice their opinions without the same filter that one generally applies to their face-to-face communications. Additionally, the same online tools that allow us to connect and see things we have in common that we might not otherwise know also allow us to see what we have in opposition that we might not otherwise know.

He draws on an anecdote about his great-grandfather, who spared nothing in his distaste for the Pope but regularly had the local Catholic priest over for a bit of whiskey and discussion. More than mere civility, then; these two men were friends. Brown continues:

How very different the conduct of religious discussions on the internet. On the web the participants are often sober and they spare no pains to offend and insult one another, even when there is nothing at stake. I nearly wrote “nothing but prestige” but prestige in whose eyes? Who is watching? The strange, weightless intimacy of online communication has enabled complete strangers to hate each other passionately within minutes. This has had measurable effects in the real world. In the US, for instance, the breakup of the Anglican Communion has already resulted in some huge and juicy lawsuits and will certainly result in many more as conservative parishes try to remove their churches from the liberal central body. The schism could never have happened without the internet, which allowed each side to see exactly what the other was up to, and then deliberately to misunderstand it.

Brown also notes that there is a similar “listen but not hear because I already know I’m right” attitude that comes from “the New Atheists.” He’s concerned that religious differences, to some, might seem like a game one can play over the internet without heed of how it affects other people. But what happens to those for whom religious differences can get them killed?

The whole thing is here.

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