Is the Internet bringing about the end of organized religion?

Finding a way outNo, the Internet will not bring about the end of organized religion. But it is making it much easier to leave.

There is a thoughtful article at AlterNet by Valerie Tarico entitled “Does the Internet Spell the Doom of Organized Religion?“. In the article, Tarico argues that “the biggest threat that organized religion has ever faced [is] the internet.”

Here is a summary of the argument:

  • “A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system.” The internet opens the user to all sorts of ‘unapproved’ information. This is absolutely the case. No longer are churches and church-affiliated colleges the storehouses of knowledge and information. Today, it all lives on a collective web of resources not controlled by the church or any organized religious entity.
  • Christian opposition to science is not just about attempting to suppress facts and information that expose and disprove false religious claims, but, “They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance.” That is, it is the emotional connection that many science educators are now able to employ on the Internet that is truly challenging the church. It is not just the facts (for we have known these for years), but it is the successful packaging of these facts into digestible, entertaining, relevant, artistic, and even wonder-invoking, emotional videos and summaries (in a manner similar to what  religion has done for years), that is truly challenging the church.
  • Quick and convenient side-by-side comparisons (we call them “synoptic” in biblical studies) of various religious claims, especially of the absurd and sensational, allow Internet users to quickly compare ridiculous religious claims with similar ones that the user might personally hold. The user can the quickly recognize the similarity and logical association between the absurd and the previously held claims, and then dismiss them both as irrational. This is a by-product of the Internet’s ability to disseminate information and of the scientific community’s recognition (finally!) that is important to communicate the relevance of new (and old) discoveries to the public, as well as the information.
  • The internet exposes the “Kinky, Exploitative, Oppressive, Opportunistic and Violent Sides of Religion”. This is a two-fold problem for organized religions. On the one hand, problems with appalling religious faith claims (like God commanding genocide, ordaining slavery, etc.) can be highlighted on the Internet (when they are often ignored or conveniently overlooked in Sunday School). But a second problem is the exposure of problems with the clergy, who suddenly find their financial and sexual misdeeds exposed everywhere on the internet. Simply put, it’s harder to cover up crimes committed by churches and its leaders that it was before the Internet.
  • The internet has created a community of like-minded folks who are easy to find, which provides a safe place to land for people coming out of organized religion. One of the most appealing aspects of religion is a built-in community of like-minded people who often support each other in times of struggle and provide an identity to the believer within a community. Before the Internet, it was difficult to find or create a similar community outside of one’s local religious community. However, the Internet has provided such a place, where those leaving a community of faith can instantly discover a large and very diverse community of rationalists and “non-believers” committed to the same ideals of morality and justice to which former believers are accustomed, but that are not rooted in theistic claims. The Internet provides a new community of friends, even in small towns dominated by members of a singular faith community that have ostracized the recently departed.
  • Interfaith communities and groups exploring spirituality that exist outside of dogmatic organized religious institutions can be found on the Internet, which allows those departing organized religions either to depart gradually from the faith, or, to remain at a level of belief and spirituality with which they are comfortable without the constant corrective pressures of unprovable doctrines and dogmas.

The article overlooks (or perhaps takes for granted), one of the most powerful things the Internet does, which also happens to be its simplest and most original feature: hyperlinks. In its infancy, the Internet was a way to link one document to another. No more having to go “look it up”. No more having to take the author’s word for it. Instant verification is now possible with links (and with a ton of cataloging help from Google :). Any claim can be almost instantly checked, challenged, or verified. This ultimately does away with the need for a single authority (like a parent or a priest), but instead allows the user to judge a claim based upon both an evaluation of the evidence itself and comments about the credibility of the evidence and the arguments from a whole collective of experts and authorities, all contributing to the evaluation of particular claims.

Note that this is different from a simple democratic vote on ‘truth’ – an accusation that opponents of sites like Wikipedia often use to characterize the site incorrectly. On the Internet like in scholarship, not all links and commentators are weighted the same. Links into a page from established news sources and scientific journals are counted as being worth more than a self-published LiveJournal page touting the alien origin of the pyramids. Credible sources are weighed more than self-published material. This is how Wikipedia works. It’s also how Google’s search algorithms work: placement in Google’s search results is the product of the number of visits to a particular site, the number of links to the site, and the credibility of the links linking to the site as calculated by still other algorithms evaluating the credibility of the other sites linking into the site.

Oh, and of course, cash spent on bumping certain websites to the top of Google searches as “advertisements”. Note, for instance that a simple search for “science and religion” on YouTube (acquired by Google in 2006) elevates and highlights “Scientology” and “Baha’i Faith” videos to the top. These are paid ads, which is ironic, in that it is now organized religion that is paying top dollar to have its message artificially promoted (since it is having less success threatening, ostracizing, and killing “heretics” to keep its message on top).

Personally, I don’t think the Internet will spell the end of organized religion, or of disorganized religion for that matter. What it will do, however, is hasten the dissemination of information, both credible and non-credible, and will allow users to begin to accumulate claims and information from sources other than parents, close friends, and clergy. There will always be fringe groups, hate groups, believers in aliens, and conspiracy theorists, and the internet will, in fact, lend them additional undue exposure as well. Likewise, just because information is more readily available to a greater number of people does not ensure that users will know how to use this newly found, often unvetted information, which many readers do not (and often cannot) confirm as credible.

(This, btw, is why accreditation and credible schools and scholars still, and always will matter: accreditation and scholarship are the antidote to popular myth, hate, fear, impulse, and unsubstantiated claims, beliefs, and ideologies. Methodologically sound and objective research (as opposed to personal revelation and unverifiable, or worse yet, easily disproved claims) is the best means by which to discover and evaluate knowledge and information. This is the realm of the academy, and it is increasingly relevant and necessary. And yes, THIS is why tenure matters!)

Ultimately, I’d argue that the Internet makes information that used to be available only in the elite classrooms of the world now available to the public.

Or perhaps better said: the Internet is the closed course that we wish we could take, that suddenly got moved to a larger room.

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on the ‘accreditation’ of bibliobloggers

SBL Biblioblog Badge

SBL Biblioblog Badge

the following was originally an excursus within an earlier essay on role of online universities. i have posted this revised and expanded excursus as its own essay here. -bc

some have recently complained about the recent announcement of the society of biblical literature’s affiliation with individuals who identify themselves as ‘bibliobloggers’ – a loosely connected group of biblical scholars and students dedicated to publishing their thoughts, research, and opinions online. a general objection appears to be a discomfort with the attempt to organize and officially recognize a group of scholars who, by the independent nature of their chosen medium of publication – blogging – are often more comfortable as independent voices. however, a repeated, acute objection appears to revolve around the fear of an oversight body with the power to bind and loose confirm or reject a blogger’s legitimacy.

i have addressed some of these issues in previous posts. this new affiliation results in a new section within sbl dedicated to the practice of biblical research via blogs, websites, and other online technologies (i.e., biblioblogging). the sbl affiliation is an attempt to coordinate the efforts of bibliobloggers, many of whom are already members of sbl, instructors at universities, or both, and establish a venue at the national meeting to present, discuss, and share new ideas and experiences in a dedicated session. a steering committee was formed to guide the new group, coordinate the new sbl section’s efforts, and hopefully bring a bit more legitimacy to a growing practice increasingly being adopted by biblical scholars around the globe.

some, however, have objected, worried that the new group may serve as a blogging police or worse yet, an accrediting agency. however, this is simply not the case. several hypothetical straw man (and straw woman) arguments have been made in an attempt to contest the sbl’s formal affiliation with bibliobloggers. but, perhaps the most appropriate comparison to the straw man arguments made by dissenters is the academy’s current response to online universities.

online universities are businesses that offer degrees to students who pay tuition to take classes that are completely online. many of these institutions possess little-to-no oversight, no accreditation, and offer little real education. they are essentially paper mills offering worthless pieces of paper degrees to anyone that will pay the $500 tuition. it is therefore possible that some phony ‘institutions’ call themselves ‘universities,’ and that those they graduate regularly and proudly place the degrees they have ‘earned’ online after their names (like ‘m.b.a.,’ ‘ph.d.,’ or ‘m.div.’).

what is true for online universities and their graduates is also true of bibliobloggers. it is true that nutballs can theoretically claim to be a ‘biblioblogger’ by typing the word ‘biblioblog’ on their blog or creating a badge and affixing it to their site, just as it is possible for someone to ‘achieve’ a ph.d from an unaccredited paper mill (online or otherwise). but, possession of an online degree doesn’t make the degree worthwhile, the recipient legitimate, or one’s subsequent claims respectable. all it means is that one is claiming to be something, even if they are actually not what they claim to be.

it is not the job of the government to tell these people that their ‘degree’ is worthless; they have a right to buy a piece of paper with the words ‘ph.d.’ on it if they choose. in the same way, it is not the job of the sbl or any biblioblogger steering committee to regulate, control, or otherwise sanction who is and who is not claiming to be a biblioblogger. this is traditionally the job of accrediting agencies, and it is important to remember that accreditation is voluntarily sought by the institution seeking accreditation. that is, a university voluntarily submits itself to the accreditation process, it is not imposed upon them.

universities are governed by accrediting agencies. the government list of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs lists national, regional, and state accrediting agencies like the western association for schools and colleges, the new england association of schools and colleges, the north central association of colleges and schools, etc.  but within the academy, ‘accreditation’ (i.e., worthiness) of individual scholars is informal, and is usually based upon their academic affiliation (where they work/teach), their role within the academy (committees, contributions to higher education, etc.), or their record of publication (contribution of original research to society), even though no formal accreditation process exists for individual scholars. (one could argue that the tenure process serves this purpose, but one need not hold a tenure-track position to be a credible lecturer or researcher.)

similarly, at the intersection of blogging and academic biblical studies, this informal ‘accreditation’ may include a blogger’s affiliation (with a university, church, or professional organization like sblaarasor, etc.), one’s role within the biblioblogging community (reputation, commitment to online resources and research, etc.), and one’s record and consistency of publication online (contribution to the online community). however, no formal organization, committee, or individual exists to grant accreditation to bibliobloggers, nor will it (at least not with the steering committee for the sbl-affiliated bibliobloggers). credibility and ‘accreditation’ rests with the peer-review process; an informal collective of scholarly peers ultimately decides which bloggers are credible and which are not. thus, the same factors that weigh into decisions of accreditation or legitimacy of a university or an individual scholar should weigh into the ‘accreditation’ or legitimacy of a biblioblogger – no more and no less. again, this ‘accreditation’ is not a formal document as it is with universities, but better resembles the ‘street cred’ that is earned only through years of dedication and experience to one’s craft.

so, while anyone may claim to be a degree-granting university or a thought-dispensing biblioblogger, those that do so are judged by their peers on credible measures of reputation, publication, and contribution to the field, regardless of whether they have the word ‘university’ or ‘biblioblogger’ on their websites. like the accreditation of universities, colleges, and online universities, accreditation is ultimately a peer-review process. many will claim to be bibliobloggers, but only some will be recognized by an academy of their peers to be worthwhile.

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