can the internet be a place for authentic dialogue?

Can the internet be a place for authentic dialogue between believers and non-believers? I’ve been thinking about that this week in the wake of some internet nastiness that you may already be familiar with.

If you’ve been reading any Catholic blogs or news in last week or two, you’ve probably come across someone commenting on the story of a science professor at the U of Minnesota – Morris, PZ Myers, who runs a popular personal “science” blog called Pharyngula (when I say popular: it is currently ranked as the 12th most popular blog in the world on Facebook).

Though many bloggers have commented on the situation, Mark Shea sums up the situation best (read his blog entry for full discussion):

PZ Myers, a washed-up academic at a third tier school who takes out his bitterness on Christians, claimed that some human toothache named Webster Cook had received death threats for stealing a Eucharist and threatening to desecrate it. Reader John Farrell repeatedly tried to get Myers to verify the “death threat” bit, but was shouted down by the throngs of Myers cultists who took the claim on faith. Myers’ then decided to blow away the last shreds of pretense that his Pharyngula blog was about science and give full vent to his demented hatred of Jesus Christ by urging his throng of equally demented followers to steal some Hosts so he could desecrate them and put the whole thing on his blog. The Catholic League got involved (rightly in my view) and Catholics, as is our custom, have been arguing about it ever since, pursuing a range of responses from complete pacificism to some rather over-the-top reactions.

Myers, who seems to have been surprised by the response, has waffled between “I was just kidding”–(Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” – Proverbs 26:18-19)–and promising that he shall indeed carry through on his threat. One gets the impression that both he and his followers, having nothing but contempt for Catholics, have no real grasp of the interior contours of Catholic faith and belief and therefore no grasp whatever of the hierarchy of values at work in Catholic life. A Host is a statue is a banner is a Rosary is a Bible is a scapular as far as they can tell. You get the feeling that they are genuinely surprised to find that Catholics are attaching far more importance to the descration of the Eucharist than, say, the desecration of a Rosary. They seem to have reeled a bit at the volcanic response. Now they are getting their footing and realizing this *really* ticks off Catholics and so, like eight year olds, they are enjoying being in (they think) the position of saying, “Take one step closer and I’ll torture your cat!”

…What Catholics are demanding is not that Myers and his cultish followers respect the Eucharist. We are demanding that they not invade our religious services, steal what does not belong to them, and incite others to vandalize what is ours and not theirs. We are pointing out that thugs who do this are of precisely the same caliber and guilty of exactly the same crime as somebody who paints swastikas on a synagogue.

I also like what The Curt Jester had to say, with his typical wit and grace:

As an ex-atheist I can totally understand P.Z. Myers attitude and ignorance and the only outrage he invokes in me is a turn to prayer for him. So I won’t be making any death threats, just life-after-death threats in that I am praying for him and hope to see him on day in the Beatific Vision.

I made the mistake of entering the fray for an hour or so over at PZ Myers’ blog in a follow-up post. Here’s how things started:

It’s interesting to note that a belief being described as “patently ridiculous” on this blog was held in esteem / fascinated Albert Einstein. Story here. Excerpt: “Father Groeschel recounted the story of a young priest who knocked on Einstein’s door without an appointment, just to pay a visit to the great professor. Einstein welcomed the priest stranger and insisted he tell him everything he knew about the Eucharist. Einstein was known to ask several priests to recommend all the books they could on the Eucharist, because of his fascination and respect for such an immense mystery.”
Posted by: Clayton | July 12, 2008 5:30 PM

Your Einstein story is not at all interesting. I would not be surprised if it was a bald faced lie.
Posted by: spurge | July 12, 2008 5:39 PM

And so it began. To save you the dizzying and annoying prospect of reading through the hundreds of comments, I’ve extracted the bit of conversation that I participated in. You can view it in PDF form here (it’s an 11 page document).

The upshot? I had an insight — about a day later — that I hadn’t considered before: If these people won’t as much as acknowledge a Creator, why would they give one of His creatures the time of day, let alone take them seriously enough to engage in a dialogue? Of course, there are atheists and there are rabid/ideological atheists. How to sort out the two, and engage in dialogue with the reasonable types, on the web? It’s difficult. It would be great if there were a good forum online for dialogue. Com boxes, in my experience, are not great places for dialogue. No body language, no tone of voice, no real-time back-and-forth… no agreement among participants to act civilly… no explicit commitment on the part of the bloggers to facilitate actual dialogue, etc…

I mentioned this in another post on Mark Shea’s blog, and people suggested a couple of online forums for dialogue: here and here. Now, the problem, it seems to me, is that the first site — just from a visual point-of-view — might be off-putting for a non-believer. The second boasts a banner ad reading “How to Become a Catholic,” which might not exactly help a non-believer relax and listen. If anyone knows of others, please let me know.

I’ll give C.S. Lewis the final word on this post:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

from The Weight of Glory

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