I had the pleasure of attending a debate last night between John Loftus and Randall Rauser, co-authors of the book “God or Godless?” During the debate Loftus had all the passion of a fundamentalist preacher and you could almost smell the fire and brimstone. Except, he was the Atheist! Rauser was the calm, cool and collected presenter. Loftus was also remarkably condescending about religious believers in general, calling all of us “delusional” on multiple occasions. All-in-all I was very unimpressed with his aggressive tone, his condescension and his general lack of etiquette.
But I had a chance to chat with him one-on-one after the event. He was a different man! He was relaxed, he was calm, and the insults were (mostly) gone. We didn’t talk for long, but he was definitely willing to have a gentle dialogue on these issues without resorting to name-calling and condescension. He was willing to explore the issues instead of pounding his opinions into whoever would listen.
What happened? I have a theory. The major difference between the formal event and our one-on-one chat was the venue. In the debate he had an audience. He had a reputation to uphold. At public speaking events adrenaline can get pumping and one can take on a different persona. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I could never possibly say that I know Loftus well enough to really comment on the reason for the difference, but I would wager a guess that the reason lies somewhere between adrenaline and an audience.
Most of us will never do a public debate where we have to defend our views (unfortunately – it would probably be a good learning opportunity) but sometimes we do have “public” discussions online. If you get into lively discussions at Facebook, or on discussion forums or what have you, there is a known audience. When you know other people are listening in, does your persona change? I suspect mine might change a little. In some ways this is unavoidable; it’s only human. We get nervous. We don’t want to “lose.”
I need to re-iterate my opinion (and yes, it is merely an opinion; I could be wrong) that most people should avoid online discussions of major life issues for this reason. Instead, go for coffee with people where you are face-to-face with them and nobody is listening. If you do engage in online discussions try to make them private; just email. If you end up having public discussions be very careful how you behave yourself. I’ve poked around briefly at Loftus’ blog and, unfortunately, the fundamentalist preacher mode is alive and well there too. Case in point.
The Loftus during the debate was a man who I would have been glad to personally escort from our city if somebody gave me the authority to do so. The Loftus I chatted with post-debate was a man I would have loved to go for coffee with and chat for hours. Be the second kind of Loftus in all your conversations, even public ones.