Online Debating

Richard Mouw
Richard Mouw, who has been an inspiration to me in regards to healthy disagreement and charitable interactions. (Wikimedia Commons)

How do we get past the idea that debating online is something that we do to “win” arguments, or to “destroy” our opponents? An online friend of mine suggested that we should not think of online interfaith discussions as a sport. He suggested that one way to help combat this “sport” mentality is to institute a rule against screenshotting ideological opponents for sport. This rule seemed interesting to me. But, I wonder, what would that do for accountability? Some may jump on this rule and spew whatever venomous tarnish they would like in order to support their opinions laden with zingers and bigotry.

Before I continue, however, I must admit that I have been guilty of screenshotting conversations with ideological opponents in an effort to make them look stupid and/or uninformed. [1] Looking back, it’s embarrassing that I went through such a phase, and lost track of why we should be having these conversations. My focus was not on glorifying Christ and His work on earth. It was about destroying my opponent, and  attempting to gain points and zingers against their ideas. Indeed, this was a selfish act on my part and, not to mention, petty. So, therefore, I wish to repent and hope I can build bridges once again with my brothers and sisters and focus on why I do what I do. Do I talk about Mormonism online to win arguments, or do I do so to bring people to know Christ, and His magnificent Gospel? [2]

Discerning truth from error does not come from debaters tactics or rhetoric. It comes from rational arguments, faith, and proper discernment. In the Doctrine and Covenants, it invites us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). I am not convinced that pointing out typos or trivial errors in an essay or blog constitutes as totally discrediting someone as an intellectual, as long as said intellectual is willing to listen and respond reasonably to criticisms. Nor am I convinced that debates are all that useful for pointing people to the truth. Dr. Daniel C Peterson also shared a similar opinion: “I’m not convinced that public debates are a very effective way of getting at or pointing to truth,” writes Peterson. “Too much depends upon quick-wittedness, cleverness, and rhetoric. . . I heartily dislike American presidential “debates,” which are more about soundbites and “zingers” than about serious, substantive discussion of complex issues. I’m much more inclined (though, even here, lack of time, coupled with a long list of preexisting priorities, would argue against it) to written discussions, where there is no time clock, no premium placed upon one-liners and zingers and crowd-pleasing oratory, no playing to an audience, and no length limit.” [3]

Our conversations must be more fruitful, and filled with more charity for one another. Some of my online interactions with people have grown so polarizing that I once told a friend that I was not longer interested in having serious conversations with others, and would rather troll people. Really!? That’s what my conversations have turned into? In what universe should a faithful Latter-day Saint take Christ’s Infinite Atonement, and not take it seriously? In Micheal R. Ash’s fantastic response to the so-called CES Letter, he touched on a simple yet important truth: “Smart people don’t always agree with eachother.” [4] How do we recognize that others might be familiar with the same working information and historical facts and yet simultaneously have come to different conclusions without assuming the other person is merely “ignorant,””blind,” or “crazy”? This is a question that I think everyone needs to ask themselves while engaging in online interfaith actions. In the long run, people need to realize that we all come from different perspectives and different backgrounds. We need to simply realize and accept that some people have read the same things as you’ve read, and yet have different conclusions.

Another great question, How do we deal with people who are simply hostile towards the things you hold dear and sacred? I have asked my self this question throughout my years of online interaction. I have answered this question in many different way, from “Be kind, and defend what you believe,” to “Sarcastically, but cleverly, respond to their conversations.” I have come to the personal conclusion that both of these answers are wrong. In the Book of Matthew Christ instructs that we should “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” I have come to the conclusion that some people are so mean, irresponsible, and nasty that withholding what’s sacred has been, and is, the healthier option. In some cases, I can come up with fantastic, well thought out answers to complex issues, and some people will still find ways to twist it and make you seem like a maniac. In these extreme yet common cases, it’s simply not worth casting your pearls.

Getting back to my earlier comment on accountability. I think we shouldn’t let anybody say merely whatever they want and simply get away with calling groups of people blind and ignorant. These attitudes are not helpful, nor are they useful. We need to hold these people accountable for what they say, and have them further explain themselves. And if they cannot explain themselves, we ought to simply ignore such silly rants. It’s simply rude and uncharitable to assert that an entire group of people are idiotic, and don’t know a thing about, well, anything. Accountability is actually why I disagree with my friend in regards to excluding screenshots on the internet. Screenshots are good and can be used for the safety of an environment where people can express good ideas. Imagine if, say, in private one is especially rude and hostile while, at the same time, in public forums these same individuals are winsome and kind. I think as long as we take and share  screenshots for reasons that are ultimately constructive, then it’s perfectly fine. Did Joe Shmo say Mormons are stupid idiots who are going to hell on a public forum? Did Jack Smack say evangelicals are deluded idiots? Well, we have a screen shot of him saying so. So, therefore, it holds people accountable for rude, ridiculous, and slanderous writings. This, ultimately, creates a safe environment for honest individuals. It is not, however, a safe environment for trolls who wish to slander and demean.

In the end, we are all just people doing our best to be kind and loving to our brothers and sisters. As we write and comment, I invite people to think before they press that “comment” button, “Is this useful? Is this appropriate? Is the person I am talking to a kind and reasonable human being?,” and, most importantly, “Is this comment honest and fair?”It is not honest to grab what one Mormon or evangelical says to paint the hole heard. It isn’t charitable to demean an entire group of people based of off peculiar beliefs.  Asking these questions before and after typing a comment, I believe, will help build better dialogue.

Saint Francis of Assisi once wrote the following poem called “Peace Prayer,” which has brought me great comfort and peace as I read its words. It speaks to me in tremendous ways, and reminds me that I need to be an instrument in the Lords hands.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

Saint Francis of Assisi (Wikimedia Commons)

where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In summary, I believe that we, particularly I, need to be more charitable in conversations. We need to be more kind, loving, honest, and more Christlike. Because, ultimately, what we are trying to do is point people to Christ. We can do this, not by fire, not by wind, and not by an earthquake, but with the soft impressions and the gentle touch of the Holy Spirit.


1. While some of these conversation certainly did testify of my opponents ignorance, it simply was not right to blast it the way I did in some circles.

2. For those of you interested in learning what Mormons identify as the Gospel, follow the link here.

3. For further context regarding Daniel’s blog, see “Responding to Robert Bowman.”

4. Ash, Micheal R. Bamboozled by the “CES Letter.” Self Published, 2015. Pg 13.

Smart people don’t always agree with each other.

“There are smart atheists, Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and yes, Mormons.
Smart people don’t always agree—in fact, they often disagree. There are, for example, also smart Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and even Communists. You might think that the other guy or gal is an idiot. You may be convinced that they don’t have a clue about how the real world works or what is best for our country—and you may have good arguments to support your convictions—but the reasons you maintain your views and reject theirs are typically not because you are smarter than they are.

“Intelligent people can all agree that 2+2=4, that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and that a dropped rock will fall toward your toes.

“Intelligence and rationale are not enough alone, however, to determine that there is or isn’t a God, that the Bible was written by divinely inspired prophets, or that Joseph Smith communed with God and translated an ancient American record There is no silver bullet to kill all other arguments and no universally acceptable “proof” that will convince all people that one position trumps all others. Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that we don’t always think purely rational thoughts or that all most of our decision making—even on important life-changing issues—is determined by sheer intelligence. And we can’t escape this problem because it’s simply part of our human nature. “


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