I recently had an interesting, if unpleasant, experience after commenting on Matzav.com. Someone left a link on XGH’s blog to an article there by Rabbi Fingerer, the author of Search Judaism.
Here I feel I should mention that I have nothing against him. That I got a copy of his book as a gift is purely a coincidence. Since I started critiquing Search Judaism I’ve been noticing articles in frum newspapers by Rabbi Fingerer. On the whole, he seems intelligent, tolerant, and well-meaning. That he happens to often get his facts wrong is almost beside the point. I truly think that if more people in the frum world took his approach, tolerating questions and genuinely trying answer them, the society would benefit greatly.
I left a comment on the article at Matzav explaining what he got wrong. I had a hazy notion that Rabbi Fingerer might respond and we might have an interesting discussion. At the very least, I could have an intelligent discussion with other commenters. To my dismay, I was instead subjected to vicious personal attacks by the commenters there. It rattled me enough that I responded in defense of myself, something that I realize now I shouldn’t have done. I have no desire to be a troll, especially not accidentally.
I did notice a few interesting things about the comments people left. In no particular order: they assumed that there was something wrong with me for disagreeing with them. They seemed to think that words and phrases could be used for emphasis regardless of their actual meaning. They think that typing in all caps makes their point stronger. They seemed unable to believe that there could be more than one person in the world who disagreed with them, claiming that I and two other commenters who also expressed disagreement must all be the same person. One commenter even claimed that he knew me from yeshiva – apparently he was in school with someone who had questions, and assumed I must be the same person.
Worst of all was that no one bothered addressing the arguments. The conversation went something like this:
Article: A, and B are true, because of C.
Me: B isn’t true, and A is because of Y.
Commenters: You’re a poopyhead!
Of course, they didn’t actually call me a poopyhead. What they said was far more viscous. I finally understand the jokes about atheists eating babies. Here was a group of people that knew absolutely nothing about me, yet assumed I was a horrible, vile person they couldn’t let their children near simply because I disagree with their religious views. Okay, a detail that’s fundamental to their entire worldview, but still, that’s hardly a basis for judging someone’s character. Even the person who found my blog (and he seemed very impressed with his “research,” as though figuring out how to use Google was a major accomplishment) didn’t bother to do more that skim a post or two, as evidenced by accusations that were at odds with what I have actually written.
What surprised me the most about all this is how much it bothered me. Here was a group of random strangers, whose opinion could in no way affect my life, even if they by some chance found out who I am, and yet the barrage of vitriolic comments and insults shook me. Social censure by an entire group is a powerful thing.
After giving it some thought, I realized that they weren’t reacting to me personally. They were reacting to a perceived attack on the foundations of their worldview. They were attacking a caricature, the ATHIEST, who they were free to tear down in defense of their beliefs. The particular person who triggered the defense, or even that there was a real person they were attacking, was irrelevant.
I also realized that the mass insults were sophisticated defense mechanism evolved by the religious meme. Questioners are to be insulted, taunted, and shunned. By these means they can be forced to agree with the group, at least outwardly, thereby nullifying the threat to the meme’s continuation.
Lastly, thinking about the social dynamics of my experience made me realize that I don’t actually know any people like those commenters. I’ve lived in a frum community all my life and nearly all of my friends are believers. All of them know, more or less, my opinions on religion. Some enjoy discussing it with me, and some don’t, but none of them hold it against me. The commenters on Matzav are those whom all the frum people I know think of as the right-wing crazy people.
I’ve come to see this episode as a learning experience, a first-hand taste of just how central religion is to some people’s worldview and how unpleasant they can be when that worldview is threatened.