Preaching to the Choir:
The Futility of Arguing on the Internet, Redux

Volunteering, anger, judgment, hell, wrath

Non in dialectica placuit Deo salvum facere populum suum (“It is not by ar­guing that God chose to save His people”). —St. Ambrose

troll noun [ C ] (COMPUTING) › someone who leaves an intentionally annoying message on the internet, in order to get attention or cause trouble. › a message that someone leaves on the internet that is intended to annoy people: A well-constructed troll will provoke irate or confused responses from flamers and newbies. —Cambridge English Dictionary.

INTRODUCTION

A few days ago (September 14th, 2019) I had intended to post the fourth in a series on Science and the Church.   However, some recent comments on articles in Catholic Stand and The American Catholic have disturbed me enough (even when I agreed with them) for me to repost a piece  about the futility of arguing on the internet.

It’s my view that comments should seek to persuade, rather than to vent.  This rarely seems to be the case.  Most of the time we’re “preaching to the choir,” addressing those who agree with us.  And when people do disagree, it’s rarely by means of rational discourse.  Sadly, I’m as guilty of venting as some whom I criticize.

My constraint in commenting or replying to the comments of others should be to not insult the motives, intelligence, or morality of others.  Most of the time I’m successful, but I’m sure some reader will be able to cite instances where I’m not.  (I can think of several myself.)

Here’s the problem: at present there appears to be no middle ground in politics or Catholic teaching. In my own case, I’ve changed from a Jewish, liberal Democrat to a Catholic, conservative (whatever that means!) Republican over the course of 63 years, and I did so by listening to what people on the other side said.   I wonder whether anybody now listens or tries to understand what the opposing person is trying to convey.

At any rate, here’s what I wrote five years ago.  I think it’s still applicable.

IT DOESN’T PAY TO ARGUE ON THE INTERNET—WHAT THE PRIESTS SAID

Five years ago an article in Crisis magazine by James Kalb reminded me of two homilies I had heard, and of the lesson I should have learned from these. The homilies were given by two different priests, both foreign-born: Fr. X, Vietnamese, one of the boat people who escaped the Communists at an early age; Fr. Y, Nigerian, a Dominican. (Aren’t we fortunate as a missioned nation, that bread cast upon the waters has returned?)

The Crisis magazine article is about the futility of argumentation on the internet, a conclusion with which I heartily concur. As the quote above suggests, argumentation is not the way to evangelize.

This was the lesson of the two homilies. It’s been a while since I heard them, so forgive me, Fr. X  and Fr. Y, if I don’t recast them exactly as you spoke.

THE LESSONS FROM TWO HOMILIES

Fr. X’s homily took off from the moving paean on the great gift of love, in First Corinthians, “…If I have not love…” Fr X said we have to love our enemies and those who contest with us, otherwise we are not Christians. We cannot disparage them or wish ill for them.

Fr. Y was discoursing on the Gospel, Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends the apostles out and tells them

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. (Matt 10:14)

In his homily, Fr. Y said that one should not contest with those—family members, friends, etc.—who dispute your faith. You should state what you believe and show, by the example of your life, what your faith means to you.

WHERE I SUCCEED AND WHERE I FAIL

I try to follow these teaching in my responses to those contending on the internet, but too often fail.

If a Geocentrist, or a believer in the Young Earth, refuses to debate honestly the scientific premises of their beliefs, I should do no more than point out where they might seek other opinions.

If someone advocates AGW (Anthropic Global Warming) I should do no more than give him data refuting that hypothesis and references amplifying these contraindicators.  I should not impugn his/her intelligence, integrity or motives.

If an atheist refuses to read the books refuting Dawkins that I recommend—I cannot, as with giving my dog medicine, coat the pill with peanut butter and slip it into his mouth. (One of our dogs was very adept at licking off the peanut butter and spitting out the pill.)

If someone argues that everything Pope Francis has said is in accord with Catholic teaching, I should do no more than cite specific contraindications to that, and again give references.  I should also (and I do) note wherein I agree with Pope Francis and show my respect for him as the Vicar of Christ.

So, the only thing to do is to love these people (even if I don’t like them) and pray for them. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will imbue them with grace, as it did one fervent atheist, Anthony Flew, who came to believe There is a God. And this is all I can hope and pray for.

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15 thoughts on “Preaching to the Choir:<br>The Futility of Arguing on the Internet, Redux”

  1. You were given that insight and intelligence for a reason and it was so you could defend the honor of good for justice sake, not to win a popularity contest as Miss Congeniality. Here is a news flash. It is the only avenue left to you to have a voice for good, abandon it at your peril. EVERYTHING is relative to God, not you or your feelings, opinion or anything else. The only thing that deserves a hint of compassion is ignorance (or inability to reason) and even then you have a duty to speak, not to be silent because there is really no such thing as ignorance of good. That is a lie. There is only rejection of good. These milquetoast Catholics understand nothing about why they were chosen to be a warrior because it takes a pair made of Kryptonite.

  2. If someone advocates AGW (Anthropic Global Warming) I should do no more than give him data refuting that hypothesis and references amplifying these contraindicators. I should not impugn his/her intelligence, integrity or motives….. Why not? Stupid is as stupid does and if you are intelligent enough to recognize an authoritarian motive behind a scheme, an ideology behind a belief or a non belief or the very integrity at the heart of the matter as in whether it is good or evil, I don’t see a problem with calling something what it is. That is the very argument used to shut down the voice of the righteous and obviously it works. You become a sheep, they become a wolf.

    1. Mary, a question: if I do impugn intelligence or motives of someone who disagrees with me, will that convince him/her that I’m right? Or will it just gratify my ego? There was intelligent discussion between conservatives and liberals on Bill Buckley’s Round Table some 30 years ago. Alas, we don’t see that any more.
      And for an example of discussion that’s fruitful and polite, scan down these comments and see that between Captcrisis and me.

  3. What a wise and well written article. It is so true. I had enjoyed finding a Roman Catholic forum which initially gave me much comfort reading and sharing my faith; well preaching to the converted is a very good way of putting it. I had to walk away because of the feeling that some members who because they have Theology degrees seem to band together and treat you like an imposter when you disagree with them; my big objection was the constant criticism of the Holy Father. I felt it was so wrong, and had to leave the forum.

  4. You may just be preaching to the choir but, you are giving the choir reason and thoughtful ways to express oneself. I think that this is extremely important. I have had some success in toning down the knee jerk and terrible comments made by people I agree with. My arguments to my little choir are: We don’t have to lie. We don’t have to exaggerate. We don’t have to use foul language. We don’t have denigrate those who disagree with us. We just have to present the truth with reason and intelligence. We can not use the devil’s tools against evil. The evil one is far more skilled in using these tools than we can ever be. We must learn to use the tools God has given us: truth, intelligence, patience, understanding and love. These are the tools that will work but takes time and practice to learn how to use these tools. It is worth the effort.

    1. Jesus says, “the gates of the netherworld cannot prevail against [the Church]”. In other words, those gates are not ours! The ball is in our court. Truth prevails.
      The mission statement of Catholic Stand says nothing about arguing. CS allows us to hone our skills. If the choir is out of tune, we need to more practice…

  5. Bob, thanks for writing this. While I have responded to other people’s comments, both directly and indirectly, I generally agree with you — they are a waste of time. I’ve seen writers I greatly respected (at least at one time) reduced to bickering ad nauseam with other writers who had chosen to dog them with constant contradiction, sometimes going over the same subject three and four times in successive posts.

    Internet debates would likely be more civil and less time-wasting if both writers agreed to something like a Lincoln-Douglas debate format, where each gets an equal total word-limit but the affirmative writer gets the first and last word on the subject and interested parties stay off to the side until the last article is published. *sigh* A man can dream, right? In any event, I have a lot of things to write about and don’t want to get trapped writing about the same handful of subjects repeatedly out of the need to get the last word in. Besides, so far as I know, only the Church has any protection from error on matters of faith and morals. I don’t.

  6. I have an addiction in life and that is reading the comments section. I might not read every comment, but I spend a significant portion of my life reading in comments sections. I read those sections for amusement and to read opinions similar to my own thoughts. I also love the comments because of the diversity: I have learned so much from others’ individual experiences and differing opinions. I live in a conservative place, but opinions in the comments show me thoughts I can’t experience among my neighbors. I learn the arguments of the other side, understand where the other side is coming from, and I sometimes learn to be more compassionate, even if I disagree with a different lifestyle or choice.

    I also learn that there is much ignorance out there too.

  7. I didn’t know that water vapor and methane were greenhouse gases until you pointed it out in an argument with me in the comments. Also I didn’t know that CO2 was being measured at Mauna Kea. I looked those things up and you were right.

    I go to mostly conservative sites because I’m not interested in people “preaching to the choir”, and I often learn something.

    1. CC, thank you so much for your comment–maybe it is possible to get back to the age of civil discourse.
      PS–the reason CH4 and H2O are greenhouse gases is that they have bending vibrations whose frequency is in the IR (heat energy portion of the spectrum) so these molecules can absorb heat energy and reradiate it; part of the reradiated energy goes to outer space and part goes back to the earth. This is why nights are warmer when it’s cloudy, other factors being the same.

    2. CAPTCRISIS-I try to go to daily Mass and I try at the Offertory to pray for all the “write people” in my life that they will get to heaven. You are one of my “write people.” And yes I say, trying not to be too loud, “I have greatly sinned.”
      Bob, thak you. Other Bob, thank you.
      All here: have a fullofwonder weekend. Guy, Texas

  8. Bob,
    I agree that there seems to be futility in arguing on the Internet. Some might suggest that the computer and the Internet will be a device used by Satan to try to control mankind in the end times. Just take a look at the Book of Revelation as it presents the “mark of the beast”.
    Coincidentally, the price for an Apple computer when it was introduced to the public was $666.66.
    https://images.app.goo.gl/SYoCvpD4EmgdNw3w8
    Yet, we are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3 that “all scripture is inspired of God and is useful for teaching – for reproof, correction, and training in holiness so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work.”
    He continues:
    2 Timothy 4:1-5 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

    4 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

    So, as you suggest, we must point out the contradictions between the Scriptures and statements by the Pope, bishops, priests, deacons, fellow Catholics, and others.

  9. Bob-Well said.

    I note that those who disagree with me probably also say “there is no reason to argue with him.”

    I do think there is one good from posting what you think and believe. Often your posts include an undeniable truth – [e.g. 2+2=4 or authorities have found the remains of 2,246 babies aborted by an abortionist in South Bend IN and homosexual democrat candidate for the presidency, Mayor Pete B says he hopes that reporting on this does not become politicized] – at a minimum, even those who disagree with you must 1. admit that you have stated a truth; and 2. that what they are really arguing for is how they want the world to be, not how it is. There is the possibility that, at some point, they will think back to a truth you have stated, the truth will gnaw at them, and then they will accept it – and change their lives.

    Do not stop writing and publishing. Pontius Pilate wrote one of the shortest articles in all the history of mankind, it was published on the Cross, and he was criticized for it. But he wrote the truth. And not only was it and is it true, it is one of the most reproduced works of all time. So, in your own way, keep on keepin’ on and tell the world Jesus Is King.

    Thank you for your insights.

    Guy, Texas

    1. Thank you Guy for your kind words. I also think it’s well to post what you believe and to justify it with rational arguments. What bothers me is when I impugn the intelligence or morality of someone whose comment is obviously flawed. This behavior is what I was trying to argue against. (By the way, I know you don’t do that sort of thing.)

    2. Guy,Texas
      Thanks for your posting.
      The Truth is sometimes difficult to get across to others, to accept, and to act upon. But it is necessary to share.
      Just saw the news article about the abortionist from South Bend, IN early this morning.
      Our country has been deceived by Satan into believing that abortion is okay, and not murder. Yet, pro-abortion advocates will decry any abuse upon dogs and cats. I don’t get their logic.
      No doubt that we are in the end times. Turn to the Bible and let no man deceive you.
      Bob
      Dallas, Pa.

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