The Dangers of Online Evangelization and Apologetics

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High School Prom May 2007

I don’t think I’ve changed much since high school. I would like to think I’m wiser, and I’m sure I’ve learned more since graduating, but in some sense, I’m very much the same person that I was then. My values certainly haven’t changed. My moral beliefs haven’t. Some people might say that’s a problem, that I should have grown, matured, during that time. But I have. I have matured, but my moral code didn’t need to. I didn’t come up with my morality by myself. It was given to me. The truths bestowed on me by the Catholic Church, the truths of God, myself, and the world, were given to me, and I clung to them in my immaturity. When I didn’t fully understand them, I clung to them. When I didn’t fully desire them, I clung to them. Now that I am older, wiser, and more mature, I continue to cling, though I understand more now.

I have not changed much since I was in high school, but some of my childhood classmates and acquaintances have definitely changed their opinions of me. Classmates that I once might have called friends have since become cruel in their comments, and suddenly differences in opinion have become grounds for “unfriending,” unfollowing, and sometimes even personal attacks on my family. So what happened?

Distance happened. Cyberspace happened. Internet pseudo-anonymity happened. Or maybe life just happened, and my classmates are not as tolerant as they used to be. Maybe they’ve also become better at defending their personal opinions, and now to be friends with someone who disagrees with them seems preposterous. I can’t say for certain what caused the change, but I know the internet did not help things.

I wrote papers against abortion, gay marriage, and IVF in high school. My classmates knew how I felt about those topics, but it did not prevent us from working together in class, sitting together at lunch, or playing together on the athletic field. I was part of a chastity club, attended the March for Life every January, and led our class retreats. None of this stopped people from talking to me, befriending me, even nominating me as class Vice President twice. I really loved my class and my school, and when I graduated, I really felt like I left having never made a single enemy. I might not have been close friends with everyone, but I do think everyone liked me. They were all nice to me at least, just as I was nice to them.

Some of my grammar school and high school classmates definitely don’t like me anymore. Some have even told me that they hoped that my son “turned out gay,” that my children hated me for my disgusting, backwards, homophobic beliefs. I’ve been unfriended on Facebook because I went so far as to say that dogs are not the same as human beings. I used to write on these topics in school, and no one batted an eye. Now I blog about them, and people suddenly seem to hate me. What changed?

Chances are, neither of us really changed. Many of us probably believe what we believed in high school, but here’s the big difference. We’re not together anymore. We don’t see each other anymore. Our only interactions are via the internet now. So no matter how personal our relationships might have been a decade ago, they are quite impersonal now. And that makes all the difference.

When I was in high school, you saw me every day. You saw me helping classmates with homework. You saw me helping with food drives, volunteering at the local soup kitchen. You saw me sitting beside my locker, chatting with friends, comforting classmates over break-ups, dealing with my own first heartbreak. I was real to you. Now? I’m not so real anymore. I’m just a name (and a name that you won’t recognize from my school years) and a picture (you’ll probably recognize me there). I’m just a bunch of words on a screen, and you don’t like those words. So you don’t like me. And why should I blame you? After a decade or more, you probably don’t remember me very well. Time makes memories fade, and those years that we spent together are just a memory now.

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Wedding May 2015

And I think that’s the crux of the problem with trying to evangelize and defend the faith online. It’s impersonal. You are not debating with a real, live person with feelings; you’re arguing with an avatar. Or at least that’s what you tell yourself. Hiding behind your own avatar, you might feel braver, bolder, more aggressive in your defense of your beliefs. I feel that way too. When you know you’ll probably never see your opponent in person, you don’t worry so much about offending them. If you know you won’t meet her in the office lunchroom tomorrow, you have no qualms telling her your puppy makes you more of a mother than her pregnancy does. If there’s no risk of running into him at the local Target, you don’t hesitate before telling him that you hope his son is gay and ends up hating him. When you don’t need to see the tears, hear the sobs, you don’t worry about hurting another person’s feelings.

It’s hard to evangelize from behind a computer, and it’s nearly impossible to defend the faith adequately over the internet. Conversions often stem from relationships. They emerge from friendships. I once helped build houses with a young man who considered himself agnostic, leaning toward atheist. My faith and his beliefs couldn’t have been more different, but our relationship was established on the belief that we are meant to be good. I wanted to be more Christ-like; he believed this to be the only existence he would ever enjoy, and thought it best to live a good life. We had countless wonderful conversations about theology and philosophy, and never once did he wish me ill. He never even raised his voice in my presence.

I’m sure the internet can be used as a tool for evangelization, but sometimes I wonder if we’re doing more harm than good when we engage in debate online. Without the benefit of human civility, real relationship, and a sense of empathy, debates quickly degenerate into screaming matches that don’t convince anyone of anything. In many cases, conversations, and in turn, conversions, are too organic in nature to survive the internet. I have often felt that as much as I enjoy engaging people in honest debate, the internet, and specifically social media, just isn’t where we show forth our best selves.

When I debate with a person “in person,” the discussion ends with a hug if I know the person well, or at the very least a handshake. We never walk away fearing for our children, or our future, or our children’s futures. We never walk away as we struggle to hold back tears. But social media debates are different. They end when someone either gives up, gets cursed out, or is finally announced to be too “uncivilized” to entertain. And there’s no need to hide tears, since there’s no one to see them shed anyway. They often seem to neglect a very important fact: we are all human, and we deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what we believe or how we might disagree.

Social media and the internet in general will never be a suitable platform for evangelization and apologetics, for conversations and conversions, if we neglect our humanity and the humanity of others. If we behave like animals, and if we are in turn treated worse than animals (because my family’s dog definitely was treated kinder than my own son when I dared to suggest that children are more valuable than animals), we will never get to the heart of the matter. We will never reach the heart because too many of us are willing to break hearts to make a point, and none of us wants to have our hearts broken by someone who doesn’t care whether or not we ever heal.

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

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