General Question

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Is a civil conversation about spirituality possible on the Internet?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (37403points) July 30th, 2013
60 responses
“Great Question” (10points)

General Section Question

Spirituality is a broad topic. It can encompass Western and Eastern religions, and it can even include beliefs in things and ideas that can’t be verified through ordinary sensory data collection and study like astrology.

It often raises the ire of many adherents on all sides.

Does the interface here through the impersonal Internet loosen the bounds of normal human communication techniques to the point of rendering a calm discussion impossible?

I’m thinking of this question in particular. The original question seemed to be phrased in such a way to ask for reflection on all sides. However, the discussion quickly turned sour.

Is this a function of debate over the Internet?

I’ve noticed this tendency toward angry replies on other sites as well. It is not limited to Fluther.

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WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I don’t think so, no. Certainly not here.

snowberry's avatar

On Fluther? Possible, but highly unlikely. Maybe elsewhere, but I doubt it.

mambo's avatar

My sources say no.

cutiepi92's avatar

I’ve noticed anger too. In fact, you are asking a question that I have meant to ask on here for a long time now. I don’t know why people get so riled up and feel the need to try to throw subtle insults (or not so subtle) towards another belief. From what I have personally seen though, while I have seem extremists on both sides, there is always that one atheist that feels the need to come in heavy with the belief bashing. shrug More than once on sites like youtube I have seen someone post a general comment about God or belief (not directed at one particular person) and someone comes in with some type of insult. And then it all spirals downhill from there. One side will be trying to prove God or some other higher power exists, and the other starts saying things about science, scientific facts, and how religion kills, etc. Occasionally it also happens in the opposite direction, but not QUITE as often. Just from my own personal observation though, it may not be true overall as I am one individual lol. I think a discussion is possible between two individuals, I have had many myself with a few friends of mine that were civil. However, I think it is IMPOSSIBLE over the internet, especially in a large group.

Mama_Cakes's avatar

I haven’t seen it here, yet.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

On Fluther, Atheists feel like a majority in their beliefs, many find themselves in a majority on spiritual maters for the first time in their lives. They engage in the nasty behavior every majority group does. They are absolutely shocked that someone would accuse them of bigotry, as they perceive themselves to be in the minority in real life. As an agnostic watching, it is clear what the atheists here do to theists.

I am perfectly able to have discussions here with the theists with no problems whatsoever. I have never had a theist here argue with me in a nasty way and I disagree with them on tons of stuff.

zenvelo's avatar

It is possible, but not very likely in an open discussion forum.

DominicX's avatar

No, I don’t think so. Because someone is always going to reveal their true beliefs about a particular group of people and that is going to cause nastiness.

I’m basing this on nothing but experience. You can’t have a discussion about spirituality without somehow putting down the “other side” because spiritual discussions inherently come with the idea of being more enlightened, intelligent, knowing things that others don’t know/understand, etc. It is nigh impossible to talk about it without revealing some of that and the second you reveal, the nastiness begins.

It’s not the only topic—every online news article I’ve ever seen that has some sort of political element to it has at least one “fuck the liberals” or “conservatives need to die” comment on it. There are some things that just can’t be discussed civilly.

Sunny2's avatar

Perhaps we’d do better in person, but with the shield of anonymity, words become harsh and hurtful when we talk about subjects that are part of our ardent belief systems.

ETpro's avatar

I haven’t seen rational discussions prevail outside groups populated either exclusively by rationalists or a single brand of theists. Islam, Christianity and Judaism will just as certainly clash with vicious attacks, and they all worship the same God.

Personally, I strongly agree with Sam Harris’s contention that religion doesn’t deserve a special pass. Consider this.

The Fang people of Cameroon believe and will fiercely defend the following:
1  —  Human witches have an extra, animal-like internal organ that flies at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood.
2  —  Witches gather for huge banquets at which they devour their victims and plot future raids.
3  —  Many claim they have actually seen these witches flying or in their covens chowing down on human victims.
4  —  They believe witches can sit on banana leaves and throw magical darts at unwary victims. Many claim they have witnessed witches doing this.

Now, this is a set of religious beliefs. I daresay that you’d oppose such beliefs if the Fang people moved into your neighborhood in large numbers and set out to persecute witches—something their belief system makes perfectly reasonable.

How about a Muslim that believes fervently that:
1  —  Mohammed is God’s prophet and delivered the final and perfect truth which all humanity must submit to.
2  —  Mohammed did not die, but instead rode his horse into the sky.
3  —  Because the Holy Koran says that salt and fresh water will not mix, this is true and when you demonstrate that they instantly mix, you are a deceiver.
4  —  Certain verses in the Koran call for all who will not submit to the perfection of the Koran to be put to death by the sword.

Now most Muslims will tell you they don’t take 3 above literally, and they certainly do not subscribe to 4 above, but some obviously do, and both are in the Koran.

Civil conversations are only possible where no party is so convinced they own the truth that they deem anyone who disagrees with them not worthy of honest debate but just fodder for insult. And you will find more theists in that I-own-the-truth group than atheists. More by a VERY large number.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

@ETpro Very salient points against people you are never in discussions with here on Fluther.

I had a very nice discussion with a Baptist last night about the possibility of Chaos Monsters existing prior to creation. We talked about genesis and psalms. She said she would look into her own bible studies because she hadn’t considered that before.

I wasn’t trying to show her she was wrong and I knew an ultimate truth. I was having a discussion amongst equals, about something cool, hoping we could learn from each other.

Inspired_2write's avatar

It is possible when yu get mature people who respect anothers view and are interested in learning different perspectives and not feeling threanted by that.

JLeslie's avatar

I have seen many civilized discussions on fluther that asked atheists what and how they believe/think about something that is usually answered by religious beliefs. I have asked tons of questions directed at Christians what they believe about a certain topic amd the majority of the time everything stays courteous and respectful.

ETpro's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought If I list the absurd claims of Christians, that will just touch of another round of hate mongering.

The funny thing is I am not a believer in Atheism. I freely admit I do not know. I would love for there to be a god. The tingly feeling theists get from an epiphany, I get from looking into the night sky far from city lights, and knowing that milky stream flowing across the sky is all part of our galazy, with 100 billion stars and who knows how many planets. The same goes for considering this Hubble Telescope Deep Field picture of one tiny, miniscule slice of the night sky and the fact that there are 10,000 galaxies in that one tiny slice, and that they too average 100 billion stars each. And that’s one tiny fraction of the entire nighttime sky, a spec in it. I would truly love to meet the god who made all that. I have so many questions and so much awe to share.

But the ridiculous, contradictory beliefs I hear, I am not buying. I am open to persuasion, but those who accuse me of being arrogant and pig-headed all KNOW that they KNOW. They don’t need proofs or evidence because their belief system is superior to anything ration can produce. Point out flaws in their belief system, and they become enraged and claim that the person making the observation is being arrogant. It is such believers who are actually unreasonable and arrogant.

@JLeslie So have I.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Please, read the OP, if you have the time. I realize it’s late for most people.

I would like to repeat, is this a function of the Internet? In other words, does the medium play a role in the contention that seems to break out so often in questions related to spirituality?

ETpro's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake Sorry for the derail. Yes, the medium definitely plays a role. Disputes seem much less threatening when one is sitting in front of a cell phone or computer screen typing than when one is directly challenging a room full of living, breathing, potentially retaliating human beings.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@ETpro I’ve noticed this happens on other sites, too, such as FB and Reddit. Threads about spirituality somehow draw out the worst in the participants, unless they are very disciplined in their choice of words.

It’s so easy to read the words on the screen with intonations that simply aren’t there.

Take the innocent question “why are you here?” as an example. If it’s repeated out loud emphasizing a different word each time, the question can take on a threatening tone that the person who typed it may not have meant.

Our words really do matter. We can wound or heal. For me, that is the lesson I’m taking from the many different attitudes I see on threads about spirituality.

ETpro's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake Wise counsel. It is a work in progress for me.

Rarebear's avatar

Sure. @realeyes and I have been doing it for years and we’re buds.

rexacoracofalipitorius's avatar

How about a spiritual discussion about civility?

Actually, to answer your second part of the question- no, it’s not a function of the Internet. It’s a function of text interactions with low latency. Text doesn’t have a built-in “empathic channel” to signify the writer’s intentions and emotions to the reader. At the same time, people dash off a paragraph without thinking, and then people immediately have a chance to read it before the author has a chance to reconsider or edit what’s written.
Granted, few other media offer this combination, but the fact that the Internet can carry other types of media (VOIP conversations, teleconferencing, MMO games, etc.) tells me you can’t blame the Internet for incivility.
Ultimately, incivility is the fault of people, not systems or technology. Long before the Internet existed, people were rude to one another face to face- and they still are. Even if the technology you’re using makes it easier to be rude (by insulating you from the consequences of rudeness) it doesn’t remove your personal responsibility (and right) to be civil. It is and always has been up to you.

BTW, for those interested, there’s a related discussion going on regarding conduct on one of the highest-traffic maillists out there, the LKML.

ETpro's avatar

@rexacoracofalipitorius Ha. Outstanding and informative link. I feel much better after having read that.

Paradox25's avatar

Another user eliminated their account it appears on that particular thread. I’m more interested in debating the validity of evidence for an afterlife rather than debating the existence of an entity that I likely wouldn’t be able to conceive of. There are atheists who agree with my views about this topic, and ironically there are theists along with religionists who don’t. I prefer to have a civil discussion about these matters, but some skeptics are quite cynical with their attitudes so I’ll likely avoid them.

Personally I don’t feel that religion should get a special pass, just like my own or any skeptical views. What I do agree with is that people shouldn’t be treated like shit, or be considered intellectually inferior because they are theists, religionists or in my camp. Some of us have done a great deal of research to come to our current mindset about certain topics, so it’s not only about blind faith or wishful thinking. There’s a difference between civil disagreement vs attempting to belittle someone.

_Whitetigress's avatar

I just thought about this question again. I’m not sure if there would be peaceful talks. So many claims are made against each other. Unless everyone had the mindset of puzzle doers. Then they could see what matches what. But for general public to discuss? It would probably be ok in the beginning and then I can visualize scrutiny going back and forth easily.

Seek's avatar

I would say no.

Mostly because it doesn’t matter what you say or how carefully you word your arguments, as there will always be someone there willing to read insult into your post, and escalate into ad hominem, and then somehow make you out to be the bad guy.


tups's avatar

Only if people open up their minds and perspectives a little, but apparently that is not an easy thing to do when it comes to spirituality. Now, you say spirituality and not religion. There’s a difference between the two and if people could realize just that fact, I think it could be different. I think those topics are seen too black and white. Often, not always, if someone say the believe in God, bam, suddenly they are friends with martyrs, the inquisition, Jehovas’ witnesses and what not. Just because you believe in a god does not mean that you are friends with some fucked-up institution that supports all kinds of bad stuff.
It’s also like either you are an atheist or you are religious. These are two extremes, I think, and there is a major grey area between the two, but it just seen too black and white.

Pachy's avatar

Certainly not on the Internet, with its cover of anonymity.The topic is too much of a button pusher.

hearkat's avatar

Only insofar as the participants are capable of civility and respect. Sadly, these traits are lacking in society – especially over the internet.

johnpowell's avatar

It happens all the time on Metafilter. Mods just need to have some teeth. But the religious people there argue with this crazy thing called “facts”.

Here they seem to just bitch about how they are a total victim. It is old and doesn’t help.

tom_g's avatar


However, we must never confuse respect of people with respect of ideas. Everyone knows this. We all agree on these ground rules. But there is one exception. When something is labeled “religious” or “spiritual”, it suddenly becomes off limits. I thoroughly reject this – intellectually and morally.

We all know this, but some of us are drowning in tears at the thought of our ideas being put under the microscope. Send Mr. Racist or Mr. Misogynist into fluther, and watch the community explode in great, honest debate. Facts, science, logic are all employed to attack this person’s ideas. I’d be surprised if suddenly we all started singing “We must respect all ideas.”.

Even now, people are likely typing, “But Tom, you arrogant sh*t – what kind of assh*le compares racists and misogynists with simple believers in god?”. To answer the question before it is asked? I’m not, necessarily. I’m trying to point out that unjustified beliefs are attacked all the time here. If I tell you that I believe that African Americans are only 75% human, you won’t tolerate it. You’ll demand that I justify my belief. But why do you care what other people believe? Why are you so arrogant?~

So, back to the harmless liberal theists that predominate fluther. In a discussion about theism, why would we require that you justify your belief? Well, first of all, that’s what we do. We don’t have – and shouldn’t have – tolerance for just any belief. Why? Because beliefs inform our actions. A world in which people’s beliefs more closely reflect reality is a goal that is essential to an ethical society. If our liberal theist friends made up the majority or all of the theists in the US, I’d be baffled, but I wouldn’t see the belief as such an imminent threat.

But our liberal theist friends are using the same language of faith and belief as the people who have the power in this country to control my daughter’s reproductive organs, or tell my kids who they can and can’t love and marry. The demands of the reasonable theists to keep religious-labeled ideas as “off limits” is precisely why the batshit, dangerous ideas are used to influence law and science education policy in this country.

If you tell me that you believe the moon is made of sugar, we might discuss why and demand justification for such a belief. But the stakes are higher when you say that you share a belief in a god whose fellow believers are a direct threat to my kids.

My mother is a believer. I love her so much. I respect her. But I do not respect her belief. She loves me, but doesn’t respect my lack of belief.

I agree with many of the theists here on so many things. This is just one thing that we disagree on. And, honestly, if we’re going to discuss things such as theism, I demand that you stop putting hand cuffs on me and claim special status. It’s disrepectful to me – and an explicit insult on the intellectual integrity of you. It’s neither good for discussion nor online “friendship”.

So, do I believe a civil conversation about spirituality is possible on the internet. Sure. I’m willing to have one. But civility requires equality and honesty. Check the fragility at the door.

Seek's avatar

^ all of that.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

@johnpowell hmm, much like some other people here have bitched about being a victim countless times, in regards to the mods? Right. You have no leg to stand on with that argument, sir.

Being on the Internet definitely plays a part in it, as it gives one a sense of anonymity, so one feels they can say whatever they choose. Some, like me, are exactly the same IRL, though. Personally, once my switch is flipped, off I go, no matter the topic or whether I’m online or offline.

LostInParadise's avatar

Must spirituality be about religion? I see it in a larger context of justice, ethics and morality. The discussion should center on how we ought to act in the real world. Theists are free to give religious explanations for their beliefs, but in the end they have to relate these beliefs to concrete acts. In this wider sense, I see no reason why we cannot have a civil discussion on spirituality.

glacial's avatar

I have seen civil conversations on Fluther on religious topics. Whenever it is a question based on biblical (or other religious) text or history, it stands a pretty good chance of being taken seriously by all participants. I think “spirituality” is a toughie, though. It’s a deeply personal topic, and we all come to it with our own experiences and preconceptions. I’ve noticed that a lot of jellies (on both sides) enter these discussions as if each one is a continuation of every other interaction they’ve ever had. I think it would be easier for us to be civil if we came into the question, took a deep breath, let go of any prior grudges, and discussed the question on its merits.

thorninmud's avatar

It’s rare, but I have seen it happen here. It’s like a little miracle when it succeeds.

Just to mention one other contributing factor for the hostile tone: I believe that there’s a lot of unprocessed anger among atheists who were raised in religious environments. I see that in my own case. We were angry about having been pressured into living inauthentic lives, but complied (more or less) to preserve family peace and not put at risk relationships that secured us. Because we couldn’t speak our minds freely then and express our anger, it’s tempting to use venues like this one to say what we wish we had been able to say then. It’s a belated assertion of intellectual freedom from the ideology of our upbringing, using people in whom we have little emotional investment as proxies for the authorities of our past.

I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone here in the atheist camp, but I’m very aware of it in me, and so I try to keep from unfairly unloading my latent anger on people.

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tom_g's avatar

If anyone’s interested in a similar discussion from 2011 with 485 answers, check this out.

@WillWorkForChocolate – We’re not all college graduates. Some of these people might be kiddos with a slightly-different way of talking, like the above. But I’ve been in discussions here where a single word I say turns into an all out international incident. I am able to ignore semi-trolling comments like the above because there are plenty of other people who are willing to truly engage.

DominicX's avatar

@glacial That is true. I have asked many questions about Biblical interpretation and all of them were civil. But that’s because that question is already in the realm of religion. If someone responded with “well, I don’t think it’s worth answering because the Bible is a book of fairy tales”, that would be considered trolling because it doesn’t answer the question. It’s the questions where we are not already in a particular domain, where we are in the borderlines between atheism and theism, that cause the discord.

glacial's avatar

@DominicX Exactly.

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augustlan's avatar

Focus on the question, folks. That unhelpful response and the off-topic ones following it have all been removed.

It is possible, but I really do believe that the type of communicating we do online makes it a little extra difficult to remember not to hurt people in the course of a discussion about ideas. But really, imagine if you walked into a busy office full of semi-strangers and attempted a similar discussion. I’m guessing it wouldn’t go over very well in that environment, either.

rexacoracofalipitorius's avatar

It’s not the Internet; it’s us.
The Internet does not enforce anonymity, it merely allows it. The Internet is just a collection of technologies that facilitate communication- it’s up to you how you will communicate.

If your main contribution to a discussion is an ad-hominem attack on someone saying something you don’t like, then maybe you aren’t interested in having a civil discussion. One can still occur, provided the other participants want to have one, and all of them are willing and able to ignore you. If there’s a moderator, then uncivil comments can be made to go away- but what if there’s an important and cogent comment among the replies to that comment?
These and lots more are problems which have been solved elsewhere on the Internet by technical means or by local social norms. It’s not a problem with the Internet, it’s a problem with people.
The fact that this is even a topic of active discussion suggests a lot about the “community” here. Are we here to discuss ideas, or to attack one another?

Civility and rudeness both start with you. The only part of the discussion you control is the part you emit (hence sockpuppets ;^)

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augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Please remember: This question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

LornaLove's avatar

This is my own personal feeling. I feel a lot of people (particularly Americans) are angry at the christian religion. I do believe things are different there, bible belts are not heard of anywhere else. I know for me anything being shoved down my throat would cause me to turn away. Luckily I have never had that experience.

I like the term spirituality. I personally need that in my life, I hate to consider that we are here for a while we die and then it was all for nothing. To me there has to be something more.

Spiritually makes life worthwhile it give me something to seek more of. When I experience it, it is a wonderful feeling. I respect all types of spirituality I don’t particularly like all of them for my own personal reasons.

I often am in a turmoil and at those times even human contact is not enough. I crave a peace that I sometimes find in God. I wish people could ask questions and atheists would just not enter the question at all. I would imagine if I posed such a question I would be doing so at specifically spiritual people or if so labeled ‘Christian’ people. I think it never goes well because some people are angry at other people that tainted spirituality in their lives, and they should take it up with them or deal with it.

tups's avatar

@LornaLove GA. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I think the situation is different in USA too. It seems like religion has to be some kind of an extreme. I have never had religion shoved down my throat.

DominicX's avatar

@LornaLove It seems that things have been driven to more extremes recently; the “fundamentalists” have been becoming more radical and more have been driven to that end. It’s unfortunate, but it does seem to me that the divide just keeps getting bigger. People who were more moderate feel like their beliefs are under attack and they have to become more extreme to protect them.

JLeslie's avatar

@DominicX I think some Christian leaders and especially politicians see the divide as an advantage. I am not religious, but if suddenly Jews were not allowed to enter their temples I would feel under attack. So, letting, or even causing Christians to feel people are trying to oppress them causes them to be more loyal, more involved with their religion most likely, or at minimum align with those who identify with their religion and say they want to protect their rights to practice it. On my most recent Q I mentioned Christians getting upset about stores saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and one jelly who directly referred to that point talked about athesist getting upset about Merry Christmas. I don’t know any atheists or people who aren’t Christian upset about Merry Christmas, I would assume some do exist, but what I do know is many many vocal Christians who were really pissed about Happy Holidays being used. I think it is a useful tool for Christians to reinforce the idea that Christians are under attack.

I don’t think the majority of Christians are starting the stirring, rather some of them are basically being played. Afraid of a boogy man who is not there. Every atheist I know personally in my real life would fight to protect religious freedom.

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augustlan's avatar

[mod says] We’re straying, folks. Let’s stick to just answering the question. Thanks!

Paradox25's avatar

I should have added that there are sites where those who literally believe in spiritual concepts very much always engage in civil debate. I post on three other sites, and there are some skeptics on them, but we’re usually always friendly with each other. Fluther for some odd reason seems to attract many like minded folks who think anything dealing with literal spiritual concepts is comparable to Santa Claus or pink unicorns, so I tend to limit my discussions on here about these topics.

For people who’ve actually took the time to research various paranormal phenomena, I’ve found a few other sites to be more appealing for discussing spiritual (not religious) matters. I’m very careful where I post these days, but fluther is the only site where I engage skeptics where I’m outnumbered. These days I’m more interested in civil discussion rather than debating. I don’t try to win debates anymore, because most minds will not change regardless.

I can answer the OP’s question with a resounding ‘yes’, but it’s limited to certain sites I’ve found.

JLeslie's avatar

Just to clarify, I hope this doesn’t get modded, I don’t think the jelly that referred to my happy holidays point is one of the people continuing to reinforce the divide between Christians and atheists.

dabbler's avatar

I think the anonymity of an internet forum like this one enables some people to express themselves more vehemently or rudely than they might face-to-face.
People may feel they have less, or nothing, to lose being nasty when nobody knows who they are.

KNOWITALL's avatar

Yes civility is possible if we all make an effort. Negativity comes thru posts & pm’s loud n clear. I care so I try.

mattbrowne's avatar

It’s easier in real life.

dabbler's avatar

p.s. to my previous answer:
I have been party to some lovely discussions of a spiritual nature on fluther. There are some very thoughtful people here.
These dialogues get unpleasant only when folks who don’t really want to discuss a spiritual topic throw their monkey poo into it.
(So, <insert favorite deity here> bless the moderators!)

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