Conversations matter. We’ve seen that more than ever recently amidst reports of growing polarization as people become more and more immersed in social media echo chambers, such as this news story from NBC. It’s become so rampant, in fact, that Duke University has established an entire research lab devoted to the study of polarization as a result of social media usage.
The Internet was supposed to change the world for the better. Here was a tool to open up a world of new possibilities and global harmony as it enabled the free flow of ideas on the information superhighway. But the main gateways of today’s Internet, such as Facebook, Google and YouTube, have worked out that they achieve their best results (i.e. advertising revenue) by feeding people what they want to hear and watch in their news feeds. Rigged algorithms perpetuate a feedback loop – the right-winger only hears from those with the same views as himself; the radical feminist exists in an online world largely sympathetic to her own perspective. The same goes for the average religious or anti-religious web user. It allows people to live in an echo chamber where they can be protected from people who disagree with them.
The increasingly partisan nature of the online world tends to escalate the problem of having good conversations. Visit any Facebook group dedicated to discussing religion and you’ll find things can get vitriolic very quickly. Many conversations descend into the equivalent of verbal hand grenades being lobbed over the barricades of our carefully erected worldviews.
Atheists attack ‘faith-heads’ while believers respond in kind by demonizing their opponents. It’s not helped by the fact that online interactions are devoid of the tone, emotion and body language from which we take so many clues in our face-to-face conversations. A smiley ‘emoticon’ isn’t quite the same as actually giving someone a genuine smile.
In my past 15 years hosting the Unbelievable? radio show and podcast, I’ve tried to reboot the concept of good conversations, and the effect it’s had on me and those who listen in. In the process, I’ve aimed to put the God discussion back into the public sphere and get so-called opponents listening to each other again. There have even been some minds changed along the way, including mine.
I also seek to widen the conversation. What if we tried talking to people outside our own bubble? What can we learn from inviting people outside the Christian faith into our big conversations?
Bubbles are made for popping, and in our Internet age, both believers and non-Christians are only a Google search away from radical skepticism about Christianity. If Christians want to reach out and share their faith, they need to be prepared for the arguments they will encounter.
But modern apologetics has an image problem, often being viewed as the sole province of academics and intellectuals. Philosophical arguments for God and historical pieces of evidence for Christianity can be seen by the average Christian as an abstract exercise, far removed from the real-life world.
Because of the apologetics circles, I tend to move in, I know of many people for whom the rational case for Christianity was a significant part of their journey towards faith. But for most Christians who embraced faith at an earlier stage in their lives, apologetics is often something discovered after conversion.
I didn’t become a believer on the basis of a well-thought-out argument for faith. Rather, I had an experience that convinced me of the truth of Christianity. However, once that conviction had taken root, I was regularly challenged with reasons to doubt that experience and abandon my beliefs. This is when apologetics came into its own, providing objective evidence that confirmed the subjective experience of my encounter with God.
In the present climate of argumentative and antagonistic debates (especially online), the sane, measured and usually friendly discussions I host between intelligent people have struck a chord with audiences.
Debates are somewhat pointless if they merely reinforce each side’s views. But good conversations have a habit of getting beyond the rhetoric and point-scoring of a debate, and instead, open up a space for genuine learning. At their best, such discussions cause people to rethink their views and make room for new ways of understanding.
In an age of fake news, fake tans and even fake spirituality, people are looking for authentic conversations on faith, to help them make up their own minds. We are rarely granted absolute proof of anything in life. Rather than seeing doubt as the enemy of faith, I’ve come to see it as an inevitable part of the process of making sense of our beliefs. And if we aren’t talking to one another anymore, it means we stand little chance of understanding others.
‘Iron sharpens iron’ is a proverb often used by believers to describe the way they can benefit from mutual spiritual encouragement. But I have found the same applies when believers and non-believers dialogue. One’s worldview may take a few knocks in the process but, if the conversation is entered into in the right frame of mind, a brittle faith can be tempered into an altogether tougher, sharper one in the end.
Justin Brierley is the Theology and Apologetics Editor for Premier Insight which produces podcasts such as “Unbelievable?” and “The Big Conversation” in which he hosts discussions between people of opposing views on issues of belief, life, science and meaning. He is the author of “Unbelievable? Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian,” from which this article is adapted.