Torrents of bile: publish and be damned

Matthew Reisz is startled by the abusive responses to one of his articles

November 26, 2015
Source: iStock
Pointing the finger: it is a strange experience being singled out for ferocious criticism

Who can ever tell what lurks in the depths of the internet?

Five years ago, I wrote an article arguing that the idea of a “war” between science and religion is not a very helpful one, given that “all-out wars between neighbours tend to be pretty unpleasant, and the reality is that atheistic scientists have to share space in universities with scientifically literate religious believers and religiously committed scientists”. Although I was critical of some militantly atheistic scientists – such as one who regards religion as “intellectual terrorism” and “mental weakness” – the general tone could hardly have been less inflammatory.

I have obviously written scores of articles since then and have hardly given that one much thought. But the other day, when I was searching for something else, I happened to come across a post on the Why Evolution is True website, where I was subjected to some pretty startling abuse.

I was accused of “promoting a science-faith lovefest”, being “pretty much biased against atheists”, and producing “totally juvenile”, “massively tedious…bilge”, fit only for being “put in the recycling bin or better still in the cat litter tray”. I was called “an asshole” and a “so-called journalist” who managed not only to “miss the target when he shot his arrow” but to send it in “the wrong direction”, where it “came around and shot him square in the ass”.

One contributor to the thread wondered whether I was “really so blind or stupid” or just “a manipulative prick”. Another (don’t tell my boss) was “shocked at such an appalling article being in the Times Higher Ed”. A third – best of all – suggested I was “lying for Jesus”.

None of this was very pleasant to read, although it is pretty trivial compared with the kind of garbage women and minority groups have to put up with all the time. But what is really weird is just how distant it seems from what I actually wrote. Amid what strike me as a few valid criticisms and a few more I am happy to reflect on, torrents of bile were directed at me for minor irrelevancies, things I hadn’t said (and don’t believe) or comments I had quoted from others. Far from being “biased against atheists”, I am – for what it’s worth – a pretty convinced atheist myself. And although I am sceptical about whether science and religion are engaged in a battle to the death, that hardly means I want to “promote a lovefest”.

Nonetheless, I can’t help taking pride in one rare ability I seem to possess: to manage to be both an arsehole and to shoot myself in the arse. I can only put it down to all the circus-skills training I had as a child.

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Reader's comments (3)

It is, I am finding, increasingly difficult to adopt an irenic stance in the false science/faith binary. Obviously, it's not a valid distinction: "scientist" does not equal "atheist"/ faithist does not include scepticism with respect to any branch of science as an article of faith. Theology and the sciences are different domains. I'm a Catholic - best to come out as one, I guess. Since the Dawkins effect, I have been asked several times whether I believe in evolution. Believe? What is the right answer to that? Yes, I took a leap into the inchoate void and accepted evolution as it perfused my soul? Do I believe in LaPlace's Equation? Have I ever suffered doubts about Newton's second law of motion? Again, though, do I believe in the big bang theory? I 'believe in' evolution in the same way as I believe the Kreb's cycle and tend towards the big bang cosmological genesis, but with justifiable, scientific scepticism. Yet underlying the question is an assumption: I'm 'religious', and therefore delusional, dim and a hidebound Biblical literalist, and probably homophobic to boot: the stereotypical straw man against whom bias is often projected. As Origen wrote in the 2nd century CE, 'For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.' So, you at the back, please catch up on these long-emerging trends in theology, both parties.
Hi. I take your point about name-calling, and have put up a post asking my readers not to hurl invective or engage in name-calling towards people like you who are trying to be civil. I apologize for that unwarranted invective.
"But what is really weird is just how distant it seems from what I actually wrote. Amid what strike me as a few valid criticisms and a few more I am happy to reflect on, torrents of bile were directed at me for minor irrelevancies, things I hadn’t said (and don’t believe) or comments I had quoted from others." Edward Feser had the same experience but this time it was with Jerry Coyne himself, not his minions.

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