Rules of Engagement

man-390339_640In the last year or so I have been involved in quite a few theistic/atheistic debates on social network sites, and have followed the back-and-forth on many more. One thing that has never failed to shock me is the ridicule, belittling and all-out hatred expressed during these exchanges. I see complete disregard for any respectful discourse. I see contempt and condescension towards people that do not hold the same views. I see ganging-up on people who are asking legitimate questions.

You might assume that I am talking about anti-theists or militant atheists. I’m not.

I’m talking about Christians.

In a certain sense an atheist has no compunction to abide by any rules of engagement. They are not governed by any body or required to subscribe to any code of conduct or objective moral guidelines. Even though it is hard to accept this, it is part of the price for interacting with a militant atheist, or anti-theist. They are free to make up their own rules. There is no reason to expect them to abide by yours. This is one of the few benefits that their world-view offers them, and you cannot blame them for taking full advantage of it.

I’m not accusing all atheists of being rude or of not following assumed social contracts. I have had very enjoyable and informative dialogs with people who are completely opposed to my point of view. As long as there is mutual respect two people can talk about anything, while still not coming to an agreement. What I am talking about is the ridicule and abuse tactics advocated by atheist leaders like Richard Dawkins or Peter Boghossian. There is a mind-set out there that considers this a completely legitimate way of treating those with alternate views of the world. The tenacity of the Internet troll is seen as an end in itself. If they can get you to loose your cool, or to just throw you hands up and walk away, they have “won”.

A Christian, on the other hand, does have a set of rules they are expected to recognize, and instructed to observe. I don’t know how many times I have heard 1st Peter 3:15 quoted as the Apologist’s key verse, but normally it is only the first half of the verse that you hear. You do not hear the part about doing it with “gentleness and respect” quoted nearly as frequently.

I freely admit that I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I have done my share of flaming. I have also seen the opportunity for a snide remark designed to cut, and have often taken it, but I am trying to change. My current favorite verse to guide my apologetic approach is, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV). This is in the middle of a passage where Jesus instructs the Apostles to spread the Gospel, and warns them about how they are going to be mistreated. He does not tell them to take on the attributes of the wolves, to beat them at their own game, but to present the Truth boldly and unselfishly. They were told to heal the sick. They were instructed to endure in the midst of beatings, torture and being run out of town. If they were called to withstand all of that for the sake of the Message, how can I dare to claim offence against a name-caller, and lash out in some sort of self-serving “righteous anger”?

I am not advocating some sort of wishy-washy, I’m OK you’re OK type of approach. We need to stick to our convictions and state the truth, but we also need to present that truth in an attractive manner. It is possible to either wield it as a sledgehammer to beat them into submission, or as a cool glass of water to offer them refreshment. Recently I have been trying to ignore any insulting rhetoric and only respond to the actual talking points. I rarely feel that I am getting through to the person I am in a direct conversation with, but I am a strong believer in “ricochet witnessing”. I feel that if I can get the opportunity to present my point in the most Christ-like way possible, I have accomplished my goal, whether or not the point is acknowledged in the exchange.

What I don’t understand is the downright vicious remarks that are sometimes posted by my “fellow Christians”. I have lost count of the times I have seen things like “All atheists must die!” and “Go to hell and good riddance!” What are they trying to accomplish? They not only are loosing that particular battle, but are also reinforcing their opponent’s appraisal of Christians in general as bigoted and hateful, causing any future efforts of believers to fall on deafened ears.

Sometime you can tell very quickly that the person you are debating is not interested in rational discourse. If you find you are caught up with a troll, forget about trying to win the argument, you never will. The only win/loss option you have left is how you represent Christ. Are you going to win by displaying Christ’s nature, or will you loose by allowing the other person to goad you into displaying your own human nature? The way you behave is the only thing you have any control over, and in many circumstances it is quite possibly the most important thing. The final instruction Paul gives the Colossians, in a letter he writes from prison, is to “Walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6, ESV) This specifically says to not waste your time. It implies that sometimes the best thing you can do is to politely bow out. Remember that if you decide to stay and engage you are acting as an ambassador for Christ. You need to represent Him in an attractive, intelligent, honest manner. Though anger has its place, its place is usually not during an online dialog with a stranger.

I once heard an axiom that said, “What you call a person with is what you call them to”. Are we calling them to Christ, or to Westboro Baptist Church?

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  1. My apologies (smiling here), but I’m a visiting secular (not a troll) and simply want to point out my appreciation for this statement: “The way you behave is the only thing you have any control over, and in many circumstances it is quite possibly the most important thing.” If more people of faith, and those without faith, would hold to this guideline. . .maybe we could work together (beyond defensiveness) and get some good things done in this world (the only one we have, in my opinion) we have to share. I wish you well.


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