There’s only one thing that tempts me to believe the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and its claim that humanity is so sinful that the image of God has been obliterated in our souls:
Internet comment boxes.
These places can become so nasty that when Microsoft sent an artificial intelligence chatbot onto the Internet, it took only twenty-four hours for the program to become a racist that denied the Holocaust.
But blogs and social media comment sections also represent opportunities to converse with people you would never meet face to face. So is it worth it to try and defend the Catholic Faith in these forums? It can be, but we have to watch out for things that can sabotage our online evangelism.
In face-to-face conversation, we usually communicate as much with nonverbal cues as with words. A conversation can feel like a either pleasant chat or a grueling interrogation simply on the basis of things like eye contact, posture, breathing, facial expressions, and even the distance we stand from someone. But on the Internet, all of this disappears, and we have to decode a person’s meaning from some characters they’ve left in a comment box. In a Psychology Today article, “Don't Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions,” David Swink writes:
Without these important non-verbal cues, our imaginations fill in the blanks of what the person sending the message intended, and how they felt about the communication. We rarely fill in the blanks with positive intentions. This can lead to misunderstanding, damaged relationships, and poor business decisions.
Even innocuous messages can be interpreted in a negative light. For example, have you ever quickly replied to an email from a colleague with a single “yep” as a response? Swink says your tone could actually be interpreted as saying, “I’m really busy. I don’t have time for you, and by the way, you’re not worthy of a capital Y.”
At least in the business world you usually have a personal relationship with those you’re emailing. Genuine friendship and camaraderie (or at least a fear of your supervisor’s discipline and awkward working relationships) keep us from lashing out in work emails. But Internet commenters are usually anonymous names and pictures on a screen, so stress or the feeling we’re being attacked can make our worst impulses come out.
In order to counteract these imagined emotions, I recommend this simple advice: try to include the words “please” and “thank you” in your comments. They restore a sense of warmth and personal relationship that often become lost in our online discussions. For example, instead of saying, “Belief in God is not like belief in Santa Claus” you could say, “Thanks for your comment, but I have a different view on whether belief in Santa Claus is like belief in God. Could I please share it with you?”
Every so often I come across an article that is critical of the Church, and I try to offer a correction or helpful counterpoint in the comments section. Then the replies appear, and any attempt to answer them resembles Hercules’s attempt to fight the mythical Hydra—as soon as one comment is answered, another two appear with different objections.
Sometimes the comment is dissected in a technique called “fisking,” where every original point is answered in a lengthy reply and the commenter demands an equally thorough response. Or, when you try to have a sustained discussion with one person, others join in and suddenly what was once a friendly conversation turns into an attempt to answer a mob of hecklers. My advice for when this happens is to draw clear boundaries.
Say at the outset, “I know you brought up Y, but I’m here to talk about X.” When others join the conversation, you can simply ignore their comments because no one has a right to your reply. If they pester you about your lack of an answer you can politely explain, “I want to give commenter A my full attention, so unfortunately I can’t respond to your comment right now.” By using qualifications like “right now” you leave yourself an opportunity to respond at your convenience and remain in control of the conversation.
Even though people believe lots of different things, they all have one belief in common: they think they’re right. People love being right so much that they will ignore, even at a subconscious level, evidence that refutes what they believe to be true. This “confirmation bias” motivates them to read and remember sources that support preexisting beliefs and ignore or ridicule sources that contradict them.
When you find someone who is “wrong on the Internet” (which doesn’t take long), you might think that you can overcome his confirmation bias by presenting the evidence he has subconsciously ignored—and you’d be wrong. Did you get defensive and think I’m being too pessimistic? Then you’ve proven my point and demonstrated the existence of the backfire effect.
This happens when people, in the face of opposing evidence, become even more confident in their erroneous beliefs. In one experiment, researchers presented subjects with fake articles about political figures and then correct articles, which in most cases failed to correct those who believed the fake articles—even strengthened their erroneous convictions.
The backfire effect succeeds because people want to preserve their identity and fear other people destroying it. Instead of listing evidence that tries to smash someone’s beliefs or identity, you might find it helpful to just ask a question and say you want the person’s opinion on the matter. For example, instead of listing quotes that prove a fetus is a human being, you could just ask a question like, “What is a human being?” or “Why does that difference between born and unborn humans matter?” In the course of responding, the person may start to see the inconsistencies in his own viewpoint and then naturally change his mind rather than relent to some anonymous online critic.
Your Most Valuable Resource
Ultimately, the decision to engage in online discussions should be guided by this question: “Is it worth my time?” You have only 168 hours per week, and most of that time is reserved for personal obligations and sleep. The remaining time is a scarce resource and thus very valuable. It could be spent on prayer, relations with family and friends, or simple leisure that refreshes your mind and body. Are the products of online discussions comparable to these other goods?
Sometimes they can be. I know people who were helped into the Church by the gentle guidance of other people on websites like the Catholic Answers Forums. But at other times you’ll find yourself buried beneath the comments of trolls or “crusaders” who have no intention of changing their mind. In those cases we should remember Jesus’ advice: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6).
As a personal policy, I usually do not engage in long, protracted debates on my social media pages. There are simply better ways I could spend my time and help spread the truth about the Faith. But if you do see a genuine opportunity to have a real, online dialogue, then prayerfully discern what you’ll say, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in the conversation. Don’t think of the person as an enemy to refute but a good person trapped inside a bad idea. When all else fails, just be really nice in response and remember the words of St. Peter:
In your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence;and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong (1 Pet. 3:15-17).