In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples Sherry Weddell tells the story of two men, Gareth and Thomas:
Gareth was a lifelong, militant, scientific atheist who had always heaped scorn on Thomas’s deep Catholic faith. But six months earlier Gareth’s wife had died, and suddenly Gareth turned up on Thomas’s doorstep, wanting to talk about God. Somehow over the years of working together, a bridge of trust had been built, and in this moment of vulnerability Gareth turned to Thomas.
Gried didn’t make Gareth any easier to deal with. He would borrow books like St. Therese’s Story of a Soul, and a week later he’d throw the book down on Thomas’s table, declare it to be rubbish—and then borrow three more books. It required tremendous patience and prayer on Thomas’s part to put up with Gareth’s tantrums and occasionally I’d get an intensely frustrated email from Thomas—it all seemed so pointless, Gareth would rant endlessly about the stupidity of the very idea of God and attack Thomas’s beliefs and yet very slowly, despite his kicking and screaming, Gareth was changing. After several years he acknowledged that he believed that God existed. But as for an organized religion like Catholicism—hah!
Then came the day when Gareth asked Thomas if he could go to an RCIA session with him.[. . . ]
It was not exactly a surprise when Gareth decided after a single session that RCIA wasn’t for him. He came to the same conclusion on his second experiment with RCIA. Perhaps the third time will be the charm…. But Gareth is still dropping by Thomas’s house, and the talk almost always turns to Christianity and faith.
When I think of the threshold of openness, I think of Gareth. Curiosity is a God-given part of being human that is ordered to ultimate fulfillment in God. Under the influence of grace, it is intended to lead on to the next threshold: openness. But moving into that threshold is one of the most difficult journeys for twenty-first-century people to make because it demands that we declare ourselves open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change. Openness is the premier example of a decision point that can feel dramatically different for outsiders than for insiders. The one on the verge of openness can feel as if he or she is teetering on the edge of an abyss, while the lieflong catholic wonders what all the fuss is about.
Despite all his protests, Gareth has actually undergone significant spiritual change and is haunting the frontier of openness. Whether or not he will be able to make the final plunge into openness is the question about which Thomas and I have been praying for years.
Moving from curiosity to openness is one of the hardest transitions to make because it involves, as earlier thresholds do not, making the choice to lower such defenses as cynicism and antagonism, and to acknowledge to God (if he is really there and listening) and to oneself that you are open to change. It can feel dangerous and crazy, frightening, and out of control. There are many internal and external pressures, fears, and blocks that must be overcome to reach openness. Because of this,many who are curious never make this transition.
This description of the encounter between Thomas and Gareth has been haunting me, especially Weddell’s account of his vitriol and tantrums. Today I put it together with another encounter that I haven’t been able to forget, between an atheist and a Catholic in a comment box on a Catholic website. An encounter in which the atheist exhibited the same kind of hostility, cynicism and antagonism which Weddell says often characterize people hovering at the threshold of openness. And I began to wonder: What if Gareth hadn’t had a Catholic coworker? What if he didn’t know any Christians at all, or at least none that he felt were trustworthy? What if he instead turned to Catholic websites, blogs, and online publications? What if instead of turning to a trusted friend he instead turned to anonymous, faceless online presences to answer his questions and respond to his challenges? What if once there he threw the same kind of tantrums and spewed the same kind of vitriol? What reception might he have had? Would he have found someone as patient and kind as Thomas? Would he have found someone to answer his challenges with love and prayer? Would he have found understanding? Or would he have encountered a self-appointed guardian of the combox, a defender against trolls? Here’s just a small taste of the reception that the atheist received: (I decided to eliminate the names of the parties involved, even though they were all most likely pseudonyms. I debated about quoting the exchange at all, but I do think it’s illustrative.
[. . .] bless you, but [R] is the biggest Anti-Catholic bigot that anyone has the displeasure of coming across to. [R] has nothing better to do with her life than to spread her Anti-Catholic lies on the Internet; that is her biggest “accomplishment” sadly. [. . .] Her Atheism is getting annoying & boring. I don’t know why [R] doesn’t keep her Atheism at her home instead of trying to shove her Atheistic religion down our throats. [R] is the most close-minded & close-hearted person on the blog, & she hates God & Catholics with a passion- if you stick around long enough you’ll notice she has schizophrenia-like isses that she won’t admit to. [. . .] Seriously, the IQ points of readers have been lowered when reading [R]’s attacks/comments. Our brains deserve better. [R], I’ll continue to pray for you, but you need to be banned for your own sake. You need to resolve your personal issues first & stop your hate & then come back & comment at the blog.
Of course, it’s not surprising that when given that kind of brush-off the atheist in question lashed out:
You obviously didn’t read my post. Maybe all caps will get to your minuscule intellect.
I AM AN ATHEIST. THAT MEANS THAT I DO NOT ‘WORSHIP’ ANY BEING OR ANYTHING. I HAVE NO IDOLS—PERIOD!
I DO HATE CATHOLICISM BECAUSE IT MOTIVATES AND FUNDS PEOPLE TO HATE HUMANITY AND LOVE A SUPERNATURAL CONSTRUCT THAT HAS NO MEANING.
THERE IS DOCUMENTED PROOF THAT MT WAS JUST ANOTHER FRAUDULENT STOOGE FOR THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, AND HER ‘MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY’ ARE HELL-HOLES FOR PEOPLE TO DIE WITHOUT MEDICAL ATTENTION.
THE CHURCH HAS DECIDED FOR YOU WHAT YOU SHOULD BELIEVE AND YOU ARE TOO TERRIFIED TO QUESTION IT. YOU HATE ME BECAUSE I DO QUESTION CATHOLIC BELIEFS. YOU ARE TERRIFIED OF NOT BEING CATHOLIC BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO VALUES OF YOUR OWN.
FOR CATHOLICS, ‘EVIL’ IS DEFINED AS UNBELIEF. ANY OTHER HUMAN ACTION—RAPE MURDER, SEXUAL DEPRAVITY, ETC., IS FORGIVABLE, AND THUS PERPETUATED WITH THE APPROVAL OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
YOU WOULDN’T WANT ME BANNED IF YOU HAD ANY ANSWERS TO DISPUTE ME.
Yes, the reply is unpleasant and yet I can’t help but see in this atheist a woman who, like Gareth, is seeking answers. She wouldn’t keep coming back and coming back to this Catholic site if she weren’t grappling with something, being pulled by something. Maybe she is, as the Catholic commenter says, an anti-Catholic bigot. Still, I see in her a lost sheep needing a shepherd.
And I can’t help but be frustrated with the Catholics who are so dismissive toward her. On the one hand, it’s understandable. She is an unpleasant person once she gets riled up. She loves to sling mud at Catholics, and especially at Mother Teresa. On the other hand, she’s got some genuine questions, she’s grappling with one of the hardest questions out there: the problem of evil.
What if instead of railing at her and calling her a troll and wishing someone would ban her, the Catholics on the site tried to be more like Thomas, to understand where she is coming from? That last sentence speaks volumes to me: “You wouldn’t want me banned if you had any answers to dispute me.”
Now although I wish I could be the one to set the example and engage with her, I don’t have time to go round after round with her in the comments. I barely have time to dash off a quick blog post now and then. But some of the Catholics who were engaging with her clearly had time. They recognized her, despite her constantly changing pseudonym. They had time to fire off response after response at her. But sadly, their responses were not likely to help her come any closer to openness to Christ and the Church.
Sherry Weddell says:
Since the journey to openness may well be a slow process, patience is vital. We need to remember that our friend’s surface questions about large, cosmic issues may well hide deeper personal questions that drive the search and yet make it difficult to move forward. Serious, enduring intercession is especially critical when someone is on the verge of openness. That is because God is not the only one at work in this process. Many influences—the person’s wounded nature, family dynamics, unhealthy or hostile friends, as well as the culture, the enemy, and the world—all conspire to block a move into openness. And our care for the person must be genuine. No matter what our friend decides, he or she needs to know that we truly are friends.
Now Weddell is clearly imagining face to face encounters with real life friends and not strangers on the internet, but I think her basic strategies should still apply. The anonymous “troll” in the comment box is still a real person, just as much as your coworker or neighbor or cousin. Though you may not have a friendship with her, you still owe her respect and even love. You are an ambassador for Christ, perhaps the only one she will ever encounter. What welcome are you giving her? What messages are you sending her about Christ and His Church? Are you inviting her in or pushing her away? It is true you may be limited in your ability to cultivate a friendship with her, but you can still treat her with the same kind of patience that Thomas extended to Gareth.
Pope Benedict called us to evangelize the digital continent. Every time you leave a comment anywhere on the internet, you are acting as an evangelist. What does it mean to love our neighbor on the internet? How might that exchange have been different?
I am sure that both the Catholics in the exchange did start out trying to be patient and loving toward the atheist. But her vitriol and bile began to wear on them and they began to lash out. I hope they do spend time in intercessory prayer for her as they say they do. I do wonder though, given the tenor of their comments, do they ever ask the Holy Spirit to guide them when they engage with her? I always mean to ask for guidance before I write comments but, alas, I often forget to really pause and pray before leaving comments. My fingers start flying over the keyboard, I’m reacting with emotion instead of walking away to calm down, writing from the gut instead of from the heart of contemplation and prayer.
At the beginning of this exchange one of the Catholics does begin to ask questions and seems to be heading in the direction of a less confrontational engagement, but it breaks down pretty quickly. I think it’s almost bound to break down when we rely on our own powers. Here’s where I come back to my idea that there must be a special charism out there for dealing with angry atheist trolls.Wouldn’t it be great if there were a religious community that took it on as their special mission? They would ideally spend hours each day in prayer and fasting and Eucharistic adoration so that when the encountered angry atheists they would be wearing the armor of Christ and would be impervious to the slings and arrows of outrage.
This is kind of a follow-up to some questions I asked in my post which explored a bit of the ethics and tactics of winning the culture wars, Do We Know What Victory Looks Like?. I suggested that
Most people engaging in that battle of winning hearts and minds aren’t trained. Most armchair apologists are flailing, and probably doing more harm than good, because they are more focused on being right than on really trying to win people’s trust, to build bridges and make common ground wherever they are able. Most people not only don’t know how to argue, they also don’t know why to argue.
I think another problem is that we tend to look at people as either friends or enemies. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us. We tend to forget that people are never the enemy. All people are on a journey, either moving toward Christ or away from Him. It is our job to help them on their way. But we have to remember that we may never see the fruits of our labors. Your job may be to plant a seed you will never see sprout, much less flourish.
We also lack a narrative that helps us to see the path. This is where Weddell’s list of the five thresholds of discipleship is so very helpful. It’s a road map. It can help you to see where a person is on their journey and to know what you might be able to do to help them move forward. And it’s a good reminder that the process of conversion is a long one and we need to not worry about visible results so much as
“Trust cannot be built if the evangelizers regard the unevangelized with fear and disdain.”
The focus of Sherry’s book is evangelizing at the parish level. In all of her stories she assumes a face to face encounter. Therefore I’m not sure to what extent her strategies will be useful in anonymous online encounters. Developing a bridge of trust, having a threshold conversation… you might be able to do that with someone in certain online settings, but I’m not sure whether you can do that with strangers in a third party’s comment box. Still, I think the basic postures are helpful. More helpful that reacting with fear and disdain. Perhaps we can work together to develop some useful narratives to help guide our encounters with hostile people, strategies to deploy in these anonymous encounters. I think the one thing we can’t afford to do is keep flailing about attacking every “troll” who stumbles into our Catholic online spaces. We should find a way to extend hospitality and mercy toward the most vile bile spewers, remembering that every chance word we type might be the pivot to turn them toward Christ or to turn them away from him. Common wisdom says that one should not “feed the trolls,” but that is a dehumanizing attitude. After all these “trolls” are sons and daughters of God, they are the lost sheep… and Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. While it might be prudent to avoid pointless engagement, to lovingly open up dialogue, even with someone spewing bile, might be a great act of evangelization. Meeting people with love and compassion can actually change hearts and minds.
By the way, this isn’t to say that bloggers can’t or shouldn’t set guidelines about commenting. I think a solid policy that requires all people to follow certain basic rules of behavior are a good thing. I notice that this kind of trolling and troll shaming happens most in comment boxes that are largely unregulated because of high volume of comments. I do think it’s perfectly reasonable to hold angry atheists to a standard of behavior. But then you can point to a set of rules, an objective standard rather than just them making you angry because they are attacking you.