A couple of years ago I joined with a few other people to start a forum for interreligious dialogue. This was how we described it:
A forum for discussing different religious beliefs and practices.
It is intended for friendly discussion to enable people to learn about religions other than their own. It is not for polemics or proselytising.
The best way to achieve this is to try, where possible,to confine yourself to explaining your own religion and beliefs (or lack of them). One of the main things to be avoided is telling other people what they believe, since they can speak for themselves and explain their own beliefs.
We also have a quarterly synchroblog on interreligious topics for our blogging members, and anyone else who would like to participate. A synchroblog is where a group of bloggers write on the same general theme on the same day, and then link to each other’s posts, so readers can surf from one to the other and get a variety of viewpoints on the same topic.
It’s called Religionrap, and it’s still there, and anyone interested in a non-polemical, non-proselytising discussion of religion is welcome to join. The synchroblog part of it never got off the ground, however, and the forum nearly died because within a month of it starting a couple of participants got involved into a ding-dong political battle over the policies of the Israeli government. And within a short time most of the other participants had left — they did not want their e-mail inboxes flooded with hundreds of off-topic messages. There were mainly two participants invovled, and they could have taken their arguments to private e-mail and spared the rest of us the boredom. But they ignored all such appeals and eventually one of them was banned from the forum, but by then it was too late, and most of the other participants had left.
I also participate in a number of forums on Usenet. Among them are some Christian and religious groups, and there is a similar problem there. People who probably have quite civilised discussions with other people face-to-face seen to revert to a kind of Lord of the flies mode when they communicate electronically, resorting to ad hominem arguments and crude personal abuse at the drop of a hat.
Here’s an example, which I happened to be reading this morning.
Who knows better what is moral in society, a Christian or an atheist?
Who is potentially a greater moral force in society, a Christian or an
If a Christian and an atheist witnessed someone trying to rob someone, who
would stop the robbery first?
Answer: The atheist.
Why? Because the Christian would first need to look in the Bible to see
whether the robber is doing something immoral or not, because that’s the
only place theists are taught they can get their morality from.
You see religions forbid their followers from thinking for themselves – for
obvious reasons (they would soon figure things out and leave).
So now in the 21st century we have millions of people walking around in
society who can’t and won’t think for themselves. How horrifying.
After some further discussion, the same person wrote:
Atheists get their morality from three main sources – 1/ their parents etc,
2/ state and federal laws. 3/ common sense and considerateness.
There are many decent atheists around F.Y.I. But they are often good out of
common decency, whereas Christians are often just good because they’re
scared of an angry God, and want a reward in the afterlife rather than
eternal punishment in a fire (which is actually baloney).
Now a moment’s thought should have shown the that “common sense and considerateness” and “common decency” would preclude the kind of sweeping generalistions, based on bigotry and prejudice, such as “whereas Christians are often just good because they’re scared of an angry God, and want a reward in the afterlife rather than eternal punishment in a fire”.
This kind of “if I want your opinion I’ll give it to you” attitude is what makes electronic discussions so futile.
The Religionrap forum was intended as a continuation of a Religion forum on a BBS network called RIME or Relaynet, and one of its rules was intended to preclude that kind of debate: that people should state their own beliefs, and describe their own religious practices, and should, as far as possible, refrain from describing those of other people. If the person who claimed that his own morality was based on “common sense and considerateness” (which on the Internet is often called “netiquette”) he would have avoided trying to characterise the beliefs of others (most of whom he had never met, and probably did not live under the same “state and federal laws” as he did), and simply said “This is where I get my ideas about morality from — where do you get yours from?”, he might have learned something, and so might the others participating in the discussion.
This is one of the milder examples. In the same discussion forum there is a participant who insists that everyone who doesn’t agree with him is a Gnostic idol-worshipper. He never says what he believes, only what he assumes other people to believe.
So is it possible to have a useful interreligious dialoge in an electronic forum?
If anyone reading this would like to try, you can join us at Religionrap by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org