October 22, 2019 // Perspective
What I learned talking with skeptics on Reddit
Earlier this month I finished my second dive into the Reddit AMA world. One of the most popular websites in the world, Reddit is a forum for all sorts of online conversations and presentations.
The AMA (for Ask Me Anything) is a 21st century version of the medieval “quodlibetal” questions, during which a game theology professor would entertain any inquiry that came from the floor. Now things are a bit cruder and more rough and ready on Reddit than they were in the universities of the Middle Ages, but you get the idea.
When I engaged in the exercise last year, I received almost 12,000 questions and comments, making mine the third-most commented-on AMA after those of Bill Gates and Jordan Peterson. This time, I’ve received over 15,000 comments and counting, making mine the second-most commented-on AMA of the past year, just after Bill Gates and ahead of Bernie Sanders! I mention this not to show how popular I am with the Reddit crowd (I’m sure most of them have never heard of me), but rather to demonstrate just how massively interested young people are in the questions of religion.
If you can make it through the plethora of obnoxious, juvenile, and insulting comments, you will actually learn a great deal about what is on the minds of the Reddit audience — mostly young men between the ages of 18 and 30 — when it comes to religion. I would identify four major themes: proving the existence of God, the problem of suffering, the determination of why one would choose one religion over another, and homosexuality. Each of these issues was addressed hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Permit me to speak, very briefly, of each in turn.
So first of all, the question of proving God’s existence came up again and again. Are there rational grounds for believing in God? How do I know that there is a God? Can God’s reality be demonstrated to someone who does not believe in the Bible?
What struck me very positively in this regard is that the young people on Reddit seemed to have a powerful interest in God — and that’s no small thing. They weren’t treating the proposal of God’s existence as prescientific nonsense or self-serving fantasy. They were honestly wondering about God, restlessly searching for him. What struck me a bit more negatively is that there seemed to be little or no sense that Christian theologians and philosophers have been presenting and defending arguments for God’s existence for centuries. That the Reddit audience hadn’t an inkling of what these proofs and demonstrations might be is, at least in part, a failure of the churches in their ministry of education.
The second major theme was the problem of evil. Now, it has been said that all of theology commences with and ultimately centers around the issue of justifying the ways of God in the presence of great suffering; so in a way, the intense interest of young people in this question is another encouraging sign that they are eager to think theologically.
It would obviously require a lengthy book even to scratch the surface of this matter, but I would make just this one observation. I told a number of my conversation partners that there is only one mystery more puzzling than the problem of evil, and that is the mystery of goodness. Evil does not, strictly speaking, exist. It is the lack of a good that ought to be there, and as such, it is always parasitic upon the good. So as deeply frustrating and confounding the problem of evil is, it is always outpaced by the “problem” of goodness — namely, why goodness and beauty should exist at all. This, I suggested, might be at least a fresh way to address the issue.
The third principal motif was this: How could one possibly know that one’s religion is better or truer than any other?
To a large extent, this query is born from the relativism that holds sway everywhere in the culture of the West and, relatedly, from the conviction that toleration is the one indisputable value. Behind the question is the assumption that any attempt to claim truth in regard to a given religion is simply tantamount to arrogance and bigotry. Those who posed it seem to feel that religions are more or less like hobbies. You have yours and I have mine, but neither one of us would be justified in imposing them on each other or on anyone else.
What all of this reveals is the breakdown in anything like genuinely public religious argument. That a person can or should actually make a case rationally for a religious perspective strikes the Reddit audience as absurd. In response to one of these questioners, I offered a brief demonstration of how one might argue, on Thomist grounds, for the legitimacy of a Trinitarian monotheism. I would be flabbergasted if that little exercise actually convinced my interlocutor, but my more modest hope is that it might show him or her that objective argument is possible in regard to religious matters.
Finally, my Reddit friends were massively concerned with the issue of homosexuality. Repeatedly, probably a thousand times, I heard that the Church hates gays and is hopelessly behind the times in regard to welcoming and affirming homosexuals. I won’t even attempt in the context of this article to address the moral issues here, but permit me to say that the reaction of the Reddit audience is ample proof that the language the Church has used to articulate its teaching in regard to this question has been ineffective to say the very least.
Those well-versed in Aristotelian teleological ethics understand what is meant by the claim that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” but I’m afraid that the vast majority of people took that language to mean that homosexual persons are twisted and contemptible. Was this a deeply incorrect reading of the Church’s teaching? Absolutely. But is it an indication that we can and must do a great deal better in getting that teaching across with greater compassion and clarity? I think the question answers itself.
I will confess that my two forays into the Reddit space have been more than a little discouraging. If you dare, look at the dismaying number of just plain aggressive and mean-spirited comments. But at the end of the day, I take those 15,000 comments as a deeply encouraging sign that the restless human heart is still searching for the only one who will satisfy it.
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