In a move that will probably be compared by some to a flip-flopping politician, we’re reversing (with some qualification) the change in policy announced last Friday about discontinuing comments on the blog. We were wrong in assuming that the tiny percentage of participation reflected a consensus that there is little value to the comments. We didn’t realize how important the comments section is to many of our readers, even if they don’t participate themselves. While we want to introduce new paths for dialogue via a “Letters to the Editor” feature, we see now that we didn’t need to shut down an existing forum for communication. We’ve heard stories of how the comments section has been a haven for gracious dialogue, and of how it continues to be a key part of our witness to the church and the world. We want to build on that dialogue, not close it off. So the comments section is back. For those who are interested in more of the context and rationale behind the change and its reversal, read on.
Dialogue happens in many ways at BioLogos, not just in the comments section. The blog itself features a long list of authors, most of whom are not BioLogos employees, who bring multiple perspectives on important questions. The blog features major series, like Southern Baptist Voices, where we invite people who disagree with us to write their views. We have given ECF grants to about 100 people around North America and Europe who are fostering dialogue in churches, schools, colleges, and scholarly communities. We have regularly hosted meetings like Theology of Celebration and BioLogy by the Sea, where pastors and teachers can bring their concerns about evolution to us face-to-face. This spring we’re starting the BioLogos Book Club that will provide opportunities for readers to exchange ideas both online and in local conversations. So we’re looking for ways to increase dialogue—not to suppress it.
That was the goal of the changed comments policy too. We were concerned that the wider dialogue was inhibited, that people were hesitant to enter a discussion that has been dominated by just a few voices. Frankly, we don’t yet know the extent to which this is happening. We heard from some via email that they were grateful for the change, but we heard from many more who expressed disappointment about the change. We can only guess right now about the representativeness of our sample. We’ll monitor the available data and act on that at a later time.
For now our decision to reverse the change has been driven by the arguments we heard from you. At our Monday morning staff meeting we had a good, rousing debate about the reaction to last Friday’s announcement. Our conclusion was to come back to you and apologize for the furor we caused. We’re putting the comments section back. There are two slight changes, however, that we’ll implement for a time to see how they go:
First, we are still planning to encourage author dialogue via “Letters to the Editor”. There are two reasons for this. 1) We believe there are some people who are hesitant to jump into the comments section. As one commenter last week said, there are times when critiques in the comments section can be rather severe—almost down to the punctuation marks. Some people thrive in an environment like that; others don’t. We want those who don’t to have a venue for interacting with us too. 2) We can’t expect all of our authors to trawl the comments in order to interact with the readers, because it can be enormously time consuming. But we think they would be willing to respond with a paragraph or two to some representative comments. So we do plan to feature letters to the editor with author responses from time to time. It was never the plan—despite the insinuations of some—to use this as a vehicle to suppress the critical comments and only publish comments from our cheerleaders. The plan was and is to hear the concerns of readers and engage them.
Second minor change: the comments section is going to require one additional click. We’ll have a line at the bottom of each post that reads, “Join the discussion of this post” and a button that will open up the view of comments and allow registered users to write. Part of the reasoning for this change is that some of our readers find the comments annoying (we know this because we’ve heard from them). But the bigger reason is the way comments can affect readers’ interpretation of the primary content. We referred to the Popular Science decision to end reader comments on their blog for this reason, and now we’ve seen an example of this first-hand. One of the comments on our blog charged that BioLogos has completely ignored the problem of divine action, claiming there has “not been even one BioLogos column in the past 6 years that directly tackles the question of God’s involvement in the evolutionary process.” Prominent atheist blogger Jerry Coyne highlighted this on his own blog, and seems to have read our post through this lens. Now his readers have been informed that the reason we instituted the change in comments policy was that we have no answers for the problem of divine action and we needed to insulate ourselves from our critics. Really? Clicking on the “divine action and purpose” tag in our resource finder brings up 40 entries (many of which have multiple posts). Consider Alvin Plantinga’s series Divine Action in the World, the series The God Who Acts: Robert John Russell on Divine Intervention and Divine Action, David Opderbeck’s series God and Creation, and Kathryn Applegate on Understanding Randomness. These are all on our blog within the last year. Perhaps these are discounted because they’re not perceived to “directly tackle” the problem to the satisfaction of everyone of how God could be involved in a process which may appear from the perspective of science to need no such involvement. But they are certainly directly relevant to any such explanation and ought to be recognized as part of the ongoing conversation we’ll have on this important topic.
As frustrating as the perpetuation of misinformation can be, we’re persuaded now that the benefits of open comments outweigh the drawbacks. It seems that the commenters can serve as a sort of “free press”. I watched enough episodes of The West Wing back in the day to understand that as aggravating as the press can be at times, we’re much better off for the function they provide. Comments can hold authors accountable, as you have done with us, and as one of our faithful readers, Lou Jost, did in the comment section of Coyne’s blog, telling how he has been treated well and not censored in conversations at BioLogos despite holding contrary views (we greatly appreciate that). There are too few organizations that allow the free flow of discussion about these issues; we want to continue to be one of them. So, for those who are interested enough to click the “show comments” button, they can contribute to or merely observe the back and forth dialogue of those who care deeply about issues of origins and the Christian faith.
Finally, one more note about Coyne’s characterization of BioLogos. He is certain that there can be no rapprochement between evolution and Christian faith, so it is a foregone conclusion in his mind that we are dying. Our announcement on Friday signaled to him that the end has come (though to invoke Mark Twain, I think that the news of our demise is greatly exaggerated). In his view our cause of death is that we have tried so hard not to offend Evangelicals that we have nothing relevant to say about origins. Are we pandering to Evangelicals? That seems to us like accusing New Englanders of pandering to Americans. We ARE Evangelicals, and though there are other Evangelicals who hold some different positions, it is at the core of our mission to help the evangelical church come to terms with what science has shown us about the world. We’re happy to engage with atheists and others outside of evangelicalism when the opportunity arises, but primarily we’re committed to working out as best we can the implications of evolution for Christian faith. And contrary to the assertion that our work hasn’t helped one person, we regularly feature testimonials from those who have found our message valuable.
We’re going to continue exploring ideas in pursuit of the truth on the blog. We’re glad to have readers who are interested in this too. We pledge to do our best at fostering gracious dialogue with you. Undoubtedly we’ll make some more missteps along the way. We’re grateful for your help in staying on track.