The Guardian’s Comment is Free website was recently introduced in the UK, aiming to emulate the highly successful US-based discussion website the Huffington Post as a home for comment and discussion on a variety of topics, mainly political. Comment is Free, like the Huffington Post, aims to attract a more eclectic readership than would usually take part in discussions on the Internet, with articles written by journalists, politicians and playwrights.
Since Comment is Free has been in business, one topic which consistently attracts more comments, discussion and all-round vitriol than virtually any other is, unsurprisingly, religion.
There are few topics for discussion that do such a good job of getting people steamed up as religion, whether you’re religious or not – it’s easy to get a whole load of people worked up and leaving comments practically dripping with angry spittle and tears. Recent articles on Comment is Free include
- What is God for? – James Randerson questions the argument that a religious society equates to a moral society
- Secular supremacists should sort out their own schools – Peter Franklin confronts the denunciation of faith schools by so-called ‘Secular supremacists’
- This is a clash of civilisations – Polly Toynbee argues against ‘indoctrinating and divisive’ religious schools
- God is what we make Him – Dave Hill suggests that hardline atheism is too crude a response to religious extremism.
These articles have all attracted dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of comments from readers. A piece on the Huffington Post called If You’re a Christian, Muslim or Jew – You are Wrong by Cenk Uygur attracted a huge amount of attention and comment. The pattern is familiar – when the topic of religion is emotive to begin with, all you need to do is take a stance for or against religion, set your stall – the more robust your language, the better – and then watch the diatribes flow in. That said, I have observed from most of the articles I’ve seen on Comment is Free that, having written their piece, most contributors are then happy to leave their readers to slug it out, passing back comments, responses, pithy comebacks and insults with gay abandon.
Do these discussions ever get people anywhere? Not often. The topic of religion is always guaranteed to raise temperatures, discussions on religion very rarely ending in agreement by all parties. If, as an atheist, you’ve ever got into an argument about religion with a religious person, you’ll know exactly what I mean – those conversations usually end in comments along the lines of “We’ll have to agree to disagree”, and that’s if they went well. Such conversations are as likely to end in insults and even physical violence. There are notable exceptions, when moderate people on both sides of the fence find enough to agree about, but many people don’t even get involved in debates about religion – maybe because they are not sufficiently confident of their arguments, but mainly because people think that such arguments are akin to shouting at a brick wall for all the good they do.
So why all these arguments, if they aren’t getting us anywhere? People like to get their point across, and even if it’s half-baked, they’re entitled to it. The discussion can be fun, or at least good exercise for the brain. Simply making a comment one way or the other gives everyone an idea of the balance of opinion in an argument. Even if people found Peter Franklin’s piece on Secular supremacists to be ignorant tripe, a lot of them joyously leapt on the opportunity to tell him so, more than supported him, which said something more interesting about the balance of opinion of those who read the article than what Peter Franklin thinks.
A friend of mine adopts the position of devil’s advocate in almost any political discussion, deliberately taking the opposite viewpoint to mine just for the sake of watching me go red in the face – but I’m glad he does, if it makes me think about my opinions, and what evidence I have to back them up. That religion attracts so much comment is partly attributable to the fact that religion encroaches so far into everyone’s lives, be they religious or not – politics and education are two areas where religious pressure groups seek greater influence, and no-one can escape the effects of changes in these arenas. It’s essential now more than ever to balance the debate, wherever it is happening, and tackle ignorance and sloppy thinking. For Humanists, it is also a fantastic opportunity to show that absence of religious faith does not mean absence of thought or morals.