Monthly Archives: January 2013

A christian response to trolling, Part 1: Trolls and what Peter said

Around Christmas (I forget if it was just before or just after) I received a text message from a friend asking how to deal with trolls. This friend was fairly new to blogging and had just received a host of comments on their blog which they had either not anticipated at all, or at least not the passive aggression contained within them. I gave a rather pithy reply (due to constraints of time and message space), but here I hope to elaborate on that a bit more. In fact, this has been expanded so much, I’ve had to break it up into several parts.

I’m guessing most of you are more internet-savvy than I, so I don’t need to do too much explaining to you as to what trolling is. I only want to highlight some features of them, but I really want to focus on how a christian might respond to them.

Some background on trolls

Trolls are not always rude or impolite. In fact, most that I have come across are not and some even pride themselves on the fact. Their purpose is to antagonise or otherwise get a rise out of someone. To engage in abusive behaviour is sometimes known as flaming. A good troll will get their kicks without being identified as such.

Identifying a troll isn’t always clear cut. The most boring of them are very obvious. Commenters on the Guardian’s website may recall a particularly nasty troll called MoveAnyMountain (MAM) which posted hateful things about disabled people on a number of threads before eventually being banned. It may sometimes be easy to cast the term “troll” at someone you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean they actually are and to misidentify someone as a troll is generally considered poor form.

This was recently put quite succinctly by a message that was retweeted to my attention from @renireni who stated “Amount of big name twitterers who use the word ‘trolling’ to deflect accountability is astounding.”

In my experience of them, they are often concerned about either a single issue or at least a very narrow spectrum of issues. To use the MAM example above, they never expressed much interest in threads which didn’t include any aspect of disability rights. I have come across several atheist trolls in my time who seem only to have negative things to say about “religion.” I wonder if they have anything positive to say or have any other interests!

Another feature is that they often ask others to justify themselves, without giving much justification of their own views. In other words, they ask others to do a lot of the “work” for them. Goading others into wasting their time is seen by the troll as a victory for them. This is linked to another characteristic: a lack of real engagement. I have seen some who delude themselves into thinking that because they post and reply to others, that they are engaging. This is rarely more than simple hectoring, however, and I’ve seen good commenters being battered online by a barrage of naysayers who show no open-mindedness or willingness to discuss matters on anything other than their own terms.

What Peter taught

Moving away from general observations to more specific ones, I wish to talk about responding to trolls from a christian perspective. Foremost in my mind is Peter’s instruction to the dispersed churches when he writes “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” He carries on but I would encourage you to read the whole section in context.

I read this as both an encouragement and as a warning. For me, the ability to communicate an idea effectively shows that you have understood it. Even if someone disagrees with you, if they understand what you are saying, then at least any debate can be conducted with parties talking about the same thing. There are few more depressing debates than when two people use the same words to describe different concepts.

For this reason, I think it’s a fairly good idea to have close to hand an explanation, in your own words, the reasons for your faith. On this blog, one of the first posts I made was about a scientific approach to faith (not a methodology, but an approach that was as evidence-based as possible) and later I wrote a summary of Easter, which I see as being at the heart of my faith.

The warning comes with how we do this. If asked, I will direct people to read these, but I don’t arbitrarily send them to anyone I disagree with. Though I doubt I always succeed in explaining my faith “with gentleness and respect” I do try. Where I fail to do so, it is more often than not a reaction against those who show no gentleness or respect; i.e. “an eye for an eye”. I don’t claim that I, or any other christian, is perfect.

In the next part, I’ll look at what Jesus taught and what Paul did, before concluding in a third part later on.


2012 in books

This year, I was not able to finish as many books as in 2011. A large part of this may have to do with a few heavy tomes. It took quite some time to get through Herodotus’ Histories, Homer’s Iliad and Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Below is the whole list, complete with links to each review. Also, if, on reading this, you have any recommendations of titles you think I might like then please do feel free to leave suggestions.

Christianity (16)

The Historical Reliability of the Gospels – Craig Blomberg
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Kenneth Bailey
Revelation for Everyone – Tom Wright
Barefoot Disciple – Stephen Cherry
The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles – P.N. Harrison
Jesus and the Victory of God – N.T. Wright
The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
The Early Church – W.H.C. Frend
Paul: A Very Short Introduction – E.P. Sanders
What St Paul Really Said – Tom Wright
Christianity Rediscovered – Vincent Donovan
The Purpose Driven Life – Rick Warren
Paul: Fresh Perspectives – N.T. Wright
Introverts in the church – Adam McHugh
The Future of Justification – John Piper
Blind Spots in the Bible – Adrian Plass

Science (7)

The Limits of Science – Peter Medawar
On Space and Time – various
Cosmos – Carl Sagan
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
A User’s Guide to the Brain – John Ratey
The Man Who Changed Everything – Basil Mahon
Collider – Paul Halpern

Fiction (10)

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Woodlanders – Thomas Hardy
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
The Well-Beloved – Thomas Hardy
The Double – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Iliad – Homer
Under The Greenwood Tree – Thomas Hardy
The Aeneid – Virgil
Desperate Remedies – Thomas Hardy
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick

Other (6)

Histories – Herodotus
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto Geuvara
Finding Darwin’s God – Kenneth Miller
God is not Great – Christopher Hitchens
Confessions of a GP – Benjamin Daniels
A Brief History of the Crusades – Geoffrey Hindley

Total (39)

Top 10 posts of 2012

I’m not a fan of “[reviews of the year]” which are shown the light of day before the year has ended. That is why this post has not taken shape until the start of this year. In case you’ve only just stumbled across this blog or if you’ve only recently started following (welcome along, by the way!) then these are the most popular posts in 2012. I’ve used the total number of hits as the measure. As I migrated from Blogger to WordPress, this takes into account the total hits from both sites.

It is interesting to see this list, as it’s not what I expected. The top 2 posts are by far away the most popular, each with more hits than numbers 3-10 put together. Some of the posts on unemployment have been unexpectedly well-read, though I will confess some disappointment that some of the longer posts into which I poured the most time and effort have not made the list.

I think it also says something about how a blog post is worded which either piques the interest when it is advertised on social media or by how easily it is found via a search engine.

1. Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education
2. Proof of why a transposition error is always divisible by 9
3. Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
4. Confession of a left-wing christian
5. A Big Personal Announcement
6. Why I left my church – part 4
7. Why I left my church – part 1
8. Is this the worst email reply ever?
9. How not to conduct an interview
10. What is an alethiophile?

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for topics you would like me to write about, please do feel to suggest any. If you would like to write a guest post then do drop me a line. You can leave a comment, send me a message on Twitter or Facebook.

Book Review: Collider by Paul Halpern

From the outset, it has to be said that the book is already a little out of date. First published in 2009, the version being reviewed was published in 2010 with a revised preface. As such, while there is much talk about the search for the Higgs boson, the book doesn’t include the detail of the research that culminated in the announcement in July 2012 of the confirmation of its existence. I do not know if the book is to be further revised or if the author intends a follow-up to include an account of the latest research.

With that forewarning, I ought to move on to what the book does contain, rather than what it doesn’t. It is the story of particle physics and the machines that have been built in order to test the theories. Since I was a teenager, I was long fascinated by the fundamental constituents of the universe. I was able to follow this through by continuing to study physics through A-levels and on into university. For someone like me, this is a great book. However, for those who aren’t interested in fundamental physics, I doubt it will be of much interest.

The scope of the book is very broad, ranging from the testing of the “plum pudding” model of the atom through to brane-world scenarios and Hawking radiation of black holes. With such breadth, it is inevitable that the technical depth is, to some extent, lost. Halpern doesn’t provide the reader with many equations, tables or technical diagrams, though a few more wouldn’t have been amiss in my opinion, especially with regard to Feynman diagrams which are described but not shown.

In telling the history of particle accelerators, there is a political history thrown in, which is unusual for a physics book but which is not an unwelcome addition. The idea of the cost of such large scale accelerators in weaker economic times is certainly worth some consideration, especially when thinking of what other things public money might be spent on. In this aspect, the author does betray a slightly jingoistic bias; the reader being left in no doubt (if they were in any beforehand) that the author is an American, though the poor spelling gives this away in a few places. 

That slight criticism aside, however, this is a very engagingly written book, accessible to most lay readers. Though some of the detail has been omitted, I don’t think this hinders its readability too much. If anyone wished to get an introductory overview of particle physics, then this would be an excellent place to start.