14 February 2011

Tell me all your thoughts on god...

You know we live in a pretty amazing age when I can make that request of hundreds of people from all around the world from my bedroom. And that's exactly what I did a couple of years ago, using the chat service Omegle.

The countries filled in with blue are those which people have alleged to be from while I've talked to them on Omegle.

If you haven't heard of it, Omegle is a chat service that randomly connects you to another person using the service at that time for a completely anonymous conversation; participants are differentiated as "You" and "Stranger." It was a predecessor to ChatRoulette, but didn't take off in mainstream popularity like that site did (but Omegle has since added a video option to stay competitive). I personally prefer the text-only format that Omegle offers, since I think it puts the focus on the conversation rather than the appearance of the other person. And of course it means that you don't have to deal with seeing people masturbating for the camera, and the worst you get is people asking if you want to cyber and requesting your A/S/L like it's 2000 again or something.

Once you learn to ignore all the folks looking for cybersex, you can have some pretty excellent conversations on Omegle. Behind their anonymity, people will open up about the personal details of their lives, and you may find yourself doing the same; it can be nice to just share what's on your mind knowing there's another human being listening, but a human being who will never know more about you than you tell them and whom you'll never talk to again. I've also had some pretty hilarious conversations, but I'll save the details of those for another time. :D

A couple years ago I was using Omegle somewhat frequently and also really coming into my atheism full-force. I had never really been a believer (I think at some point soon I'll post about my personal history with religion and atheism), but at that point I was reading a lot more about the views of prominent atheists and the perils and contradictions of religion. As such, my conviction toward a worldview without supernatural elements strengthened immensely. As always, though, I was very curious about how religion impacts people's lives, having never really been in a similar situation myself. So I got the idea to just ask people bluntly on Omegle about their thoughts on religion.

From the outset it was my goal to make it clear that I wasn't trying to impose my views on them--I never even mentioned my personal beliefs unless they said they wanted to hear them. The question itself was taken from a song (and a very few folks recognized that and responded with the next line, which always put a smile on my face). I styled it as, "Tell me all your thoughts on god?" with the lowercase "g" to dissociate it from any one particular deity and the ungrammatical question mark (perhaps with an assumed "Will you..." appended to the beginning of the sentence) to make the request sound less demanding. The phrasing was still a bit limiting, but I also thought it had the necessary boldness to capture people's attention and encourage them to respond. All I wanted was a civil, deep conversation about what they really thought and believed, without the social restrictions you'd encounter in any other place than Omegle. I hoped people would be as upfront and honest and eager to share as they had been in other personal topics on the site, and in large part this hope was realized.

While I didn't want to impose any of my own beliefs on my conversational partners, I did want to put them in a position in which they had to carefully consider and defend their own beliefs. In that vein, I sort of took on the role of a Socratic questioner--I came from my position of modest knowledge about world religions, but forced people to explain things to me as if I had no idea what people actually believed in real life.

For example, I wouldn't let someone get away with simply telling me, "I'm a Christian." I would say to them, "So, you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah?" and then would work upwards from there, finding out what precisely what they meant by saying they were a Christian.

Many others would go a step further and simply respond to my initial query with, "I believe in Him." To this I would play dumb and ask, "Which one?" because I wanted to point out their presumptuousness, even though I knew that statistically they were most likely talking about the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. Many folks seemed to be taken aback by such a follow-up, as if they had never been asked that question before. And of course that made me happy, because asking people questions they hadn't been asked before was precisely my goal. We then worked our way back up from the point of which god they believed in, I all the while making no assumptions in my queries and forcing them to explain their point of view in basic terms.

And just because someone was also an atheist didn't mean I simply responded, "Hey, me too!" and was done with it. I treated such conversations the exact same way, keeping my own beliefs to myself until asked and questioning their reasoning at every turn. This was done out of fairness, but also helped me to form my own perspective.

This was all of course assuming they even answered my first question--most people didn't. Understandable, of course, since most people don't go on to Omegle looking for a serious discussion, and many folks are uncomfortable discussing religion, even with a veil of anonymity.

But I asked my question of every conversational partner (unless I needed a quick break from the weighty conversations and just wanted to talk to somebody about how awesome Velociraptors were, of course :P). In my normal use of Omegle I usually immediately disconnect from anyone whose first message is asking "A/S/L?" or is a request to cyber, but in this endeavor I didn't discriminate on those grounds, and was certainly glad I didn't, because while almost every single one of them disconnected, a few were happy to abandon that goal and offer me some great insights.

There were some interesting trends among those who did humor my initial request, as well. Of those who clearly made an initial assumption about my beliefs, it was about a 50/50 split between those who assumed I held their same beliefs and those who assumed I held contrary beliefs (assumed I was an atheist if they were religious, and assumed I was religious if they were an atheist). Most of the latter group would become immediately defensive. If they let me get a word in edgewise, I would calmly point out that I had never said anything about my standpoint. That was enough to placate most people and open them up to further conversation, though some would remain hostile and disconnect shortly thereafter.

One memorable conversation started off amiable enough, with my partner responding to my query with great enthusiasm and much praise for the Abrahamic deity. Upon further questions, however, his tone suddenly changed. He asked, "Wait, are you an atheist?" and before I was even able to send my response (which was probably, "Is that important?" since while I didn't want to be dishonest or evasive with people, I tried to keep the first part of the conversation focused on them) he started spamming things such as, "ATHEIST SHIT!!!!" In the middle of it all I tried to calmly ask him why it made such a big difference to the conversation what my beliefs were, but he never answered, and after spamming insults for about two dozen lines, we disconnected.

That conversation left me frustrated, of course, but please don't let that example make you think that most of my conversations went that way, because in fact most of them were quite civil. There was occasionally a detectable air of suspicion even among those who opened up, but the vast majority of those who didn't disconnect immediately were more than happy to share their beliefs with me, a perfect stranger. Sometimes the language barrier put a limit on how deep the conversation could go, but I had some amazingly enlightening conversations with several of the folks who were fluent in English. Overall the experience was incredibly positive. I was inspired, I learned a lot about people and what their beliefs were and why they believed them, and gained a new amount of confidence in humanity as a whole based on the openness of dozens of strangers from all over the world whom I will never meet.

Examples of very positive conversations I had included a couple in quick succession that I had with some folks in India. They both identified themselves as Hindus, but presented to me a form of Hinduism I had never heard of before. They referred to a strict belief in one or many of the gods of the Hindu pantheon as the Hinduism of their parents, and said that instead they believed in a much more encompassing concept of godliness and felt that most religious people were on the right track if their religion inspired them toward kindness. They described "God" as something intrinsic to ourselves and the world around us rather than a discrete being. They were also genuinely curious about and open to my beliefs when I shared them, and took on a tone with me similar to the one I hoped I was giving them.

I've occasionally considered going back and having another go at asking the strangers on Omegle for their thoughts on God, but each time I've essentially come to the conclusion that I should just let it be. While it was a terribly rewarding experience, it was also a bit taxing, as I felt obliged to give everyone the proper amount of time to share their thoughts, even if I had heard things very similar before. I also had to keep sharp and make sure no assumptions slipped through the cracks, and to maintain genuine interest in what people were sharing. They were kind enough to share their thoughts with me, and I needed to give them the due amount of respect for that. I also once tried asking the same question as a Facebook status, but barely received a response. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, given the lack of anonymity, but I guess I had just gotten used to the beautiful amount of openness I'd enjoyed on Omegle. So in the end I've pretty much decided to leave that time as it is, and simply cherish the memories.

That being said, however, I'd love to hear from you on the subject. I likely won't push my line of questioning quite as hard as I did back on Omegle, but please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject; I always love learning about the perspectives of others. Leave something in the comments or shoot me an email (my address is on my profile page). You already know who I am, but feel free to comment anonymously or email me from an anonymous account if that's how you feel more comfortable doing it. Also, if you email, please mention somewhere in it whether you'd be okay with me sharing what you've written (anonymously, of course) on this blog.

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