I’m an atheist; many of my readers (at least three out of four of them) already know this. I’m a twit-a-holic too (as in I’m biologically incapable of turning off twitter), which many might not have known, and those two facets of my life, when put together, make for some colourful experiences.
I “follow” many fellow atheists, and apparently I’m “followed”, in turn, by quite a few as well. Though when one has any large number of out-spoken atheists on their twitter follow list, one better be prepared to be engaged in, or at least be witness to a litany of theological debates turned knock-down, drag-out internet argument.
Twitter’s 140 character message limit seems almost perfect for this kind of debate, even though the argument is far more complex than either side often admits.
There was a time, back in the heady days of massive internet message boards, that arguing with people on the internet was the very picture of futility. That was a time, at least in my experience, when most arguments were fuelled by an exaggerated sense of one-up-man-ship and very little real world knowledge. Things are different today though. The vast majority of atheists on my follow list, who’s well written, if not stunted arguments litter my timeline, are not out to one-up every troll they can find, and their knowledge of the subject is, with few exceptions, impeccable. I often find myself humbled by their eloquence and expertise, though all too often I’ve found myself questioning their purpose lately. Not the validity of their statements, or the logic of their position, I still agree with them, and I’m still an atheist. I find myself questioning their methods alone.
What is the goal of all this argument? Is it conversion? Or just bragging rights? Quite obviously it depends on who’s doing the arguing, but I can’t help but feel like each and every debate I witness results in no winner one way or the other. Both sides are entrenched, both sides are passionate and both sides feel that they alone are right. To an outside observer, the quality of the debate may seem somewhat disproportionate, it certainly does to me, and at times it seems like each side is speaking a different language.
Isn’t a debate supposed to be a meeting of minds? Isn’t it supposed to be a frank discussion of the highs and lows of the argument, with the ultimate goal of clarifying issues and enlightening the darker areas of human understanding? Now, most everyone knows, such a discussion requires both participants to have the same goal in mind, it requires a voluntary referendum on authority arguments, ad hominem tactics and straw men. Unfortunately, it seems that one side in this particular argument is largely incapable of supporting such a referendum, and as such I question the validity in continuing such discussions in the face of an opponent who refuses to play fair.
Today though, I participated in an exhaustively long debate with a worthy opponent. Our positions are inconsequential, what’s important is that we both argued our respective opinion with civility and passion. We learned the basis of each other’s beliefs and, though I don’t want to speak for anyone else, I think we both learned something new about ourselves as well. We argued for nearly eight hours, with not so much as a bathroom break –which to some may seem a monumental waste of time.
What was the final result of the debate? Neither of us budged an inch on our opinions, neither of us conceded any real points and neither of us was converted or otherwise convinced to accept the others point of view. The outcome was simply that we became acquainted with each other, and as internet pursuits go, among surfing for porn and shopping, connecting with another human being, one whom you might not otherwise have had the chance to meet, seems to be a laudable end in-and-of-itself.
But my experience today is not typical. It’s not the norm for interactions on Facebook or twitter or any other online venue, people generally like to run their mouths and shut their eyes (the online equivalent to sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears). Basically, I’m saying that a lot of people are talking, but few are listening. This may not be a surprise to anyone, but it does point out the fallacy of the thing being pursued by so many people.
One of my favourite quotes from antiquity is credited to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He said, quite famously: “…as for me, I know only, that I know nothing.” He was talking about the ability of the Greek senate to find justice for its people and was chastising his opponent for unreasonable arrogance. Regardless of the context, his point seems to be universal. Intellectual humility is a far richer commodity than ignorant arrogance.
Now, I’ve had my moments of both ignorance and arrogance, but it should be known that I do actively try to exude humility. My wish is that more people did the same. I want for people to be able to say “I don’t know” without any additional qualification or positioning. Admitting a lack of knowledge is not the end of an argument, it’s the beginning of a moment of learning, and learning from one whose position is not your own is the fastest way to fill gaps in your knowledge.
As for me…I know only, that I know nothing. But I’m willing to learn from you, if you’ll indulge.