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and information that expose and disprove false religious claims, but, “They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance.”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.

ARRRGGGHHH: the ramblings of an idiot

Rick Santorum said words yesterday, which means there’s a good chance he threw logic and facts to the wind and simply made stuff up.

Really? 4000 years of human history? That’s ‘traditional marriage’? Rosemary Joyce at Psychology Today has some pesky facts that speak to this claim. (HT: Morag Kersel)

And 4000 years? That’s as long as humans have been on the earth? Even fundies think the earth is older than that! Or is that how long humans have been getting ‘married’? And marriage between one man and one woman is ‘biblical’ marriage? Really? I’ve dealt with this fantasy before.

Likewise, hasn’t slavery also been around for most of those 4000 years? Is that his argument: because we’ve done it all throughout human history, we should continue to do so?

Where on earth is he getting his facts? Actually…don’t answer that. It may smell like…well…Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum needs to learn the difference between the loss of a previously exclusive privilege and persecution. Asking people of faith to treat others as they would be treated themselves is not persecution. Demanding that a large group not suppress the civil rights of a smaller group is not ‘intolerance,’ just like a police officer arresting an assailant is not ‘intolerance’ against the ‘right’ to assault people.

When the U.S. decided that it was wrong to, oh…let’s say, own other people, implementing the law emancipating slaves is not intolerant of the southern, slave-holding way of life. Rather, it is the loss of a previously exclusive (and unethical) privilege of southern slave holders. Southern plantation owners were not being ‘discriminated against’ when they were told that owning people was no longer legal, they were simply being told that what they had been doing for generations prior to that is highly discriminatory and flat-out wrong, and the state finally recognized this and remedied it, despite the fact that the Bible clearly endorsed slavery (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), and despite the fact that slavery had been around for ‘4000 years of human history.’

This is pandering to religious conservatives at its best. For the Christian argument that demonstrates why it’s OK for Christians to support the legalization of same-sex marriage, and if you’re really looking for a Biblical basis for at least allowing the state to pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage, read here. (Warning: it’s long, rooted in the biblical text, and full of pesky facts and reason, so be prepared to think.) And if you still can’t get over it, try this.

go to church. get fat. praise the lard!

Jesus in Toast

Jesus appears in a piece of toast.

A new study out this week links obesity to religious activity.

The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, found that young adults who frequently attended religious activities were far more likely to become obese than those who didn’t.

“Our main finding was that people with a high frequency of religious participation in young adulthood were 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than those with no religious participation in young adulthood,” says Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“And that is true even after we adjusted for variables like age, race, gender, education, income, and baseline body mass index,” he added.

The study, presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

The study says it may be all of the cheap, high-in-fat potluck foods. Then again, it could be attributable to a demographic overlay of southern cooking traditionally being high in fat and the Bible Belt being in the south. Maybe.

Or,

Do overweight people tend to gravitate toward church because it is a place they feel is more likely to accept them, since churches are not supposed to be concerned with physical appearances?

Or, do people who go to church get fatter over time (perhaps for the same reason)?

Whatever conclusion you reach, the numbers don’t lie: praise the lard!

on egyptian muslim solidarity with coptic christians

I made a few comments on the recent demonstration of Muslim solidarity with Coptic Christians in Egypt in my “Jerusalem, the Holy City” course at UCLA. The the report on the terrorist suicide bombing here. I previously wrote on the Egyptian Muslim demonstration of solidarity here, and about the Coptic candlelight peace vigil here.

a note on dispute resolution within the church

There are three steps recommended in Matthew 18 to resolve a dispute within an organization, in this case the church. (See the note below regarding the difference between dispute resolution within an organizational/church setting vs. those outside of an organization.)

Matt. 18:15: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

Matt. 18:16: But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

Matt. 18:17: If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Guardian Council

Members of the Guardian Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran discussing matters.

When involved in an internal dispute, first go directly to the person and try to resolve the issue. Do not gossip. Do not go to someone else. Do not whine in an advisory committee. Do not scheme to rally opposition against the person with whom you have a problem. Do not use your friendships with others to deprecate the reputation of your perceived opponent. Go directly to the person, act like a mature adult, and attempt to resolve the issue. If there is distance between you, call them. Email them. If you can, meet with them in person. Communicate your issue like an adult. Don’t talk to everyone but the one with whom you have an issue.

If the dispute is not resolved, take a few others with you to the person and attempt to resolve the dispute. Note that it does not say go to meet with others about the person, or convene a meeting in the absence of the other person, but in the presence of all parties at the same time. Let the differences be resolved together as one body.

If there is still no resolution and the dispute remains, take it to the entire church, again, in the presence of the person in question.

Note that in all three steps, the person under discussion is present to offer a defense of his/herself, to offer his/her opinion on the matter, or to offer an explanation. At no time in the process does a group meet in closed, private session without the person in dispute in the presence of the group. Meeting in the absence of the person in dispute is nothing more than collective gossip; those meeting about another person are not following the biblical precedent, but are participating in corporate gossip about another individual.

If an issue is not important enough to bring directly to the person in question, or if the one raising the issue is too much of a gossiping coward to approach the one with whom he or she has an issue, then the matter is not worthy of discussion; any other process is wholly unbiblical. Additionally, any eldership or church leadership that invites such behavior and meets with a known gossip in the absence of the person against whom a dispute is raised, and without attempting the three prescribed remedies laid out in Matthew 18, invites, participates in, and openly endorses a corporate form of gossip, which is not only unbiblical, but undermines the credibility of the pusillanimous leadership’s authority in the resolution process.

Authority and credibility are always enhanced by transparency and open communication, and are conversely diminished by secrecy and gossip.

Any church leadership that participates in or endorses – tacitly or explicitly – corporate gossip is worthy of consistent and scathing public condemnation and should expect as much.

“For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” – 2 Samuel 12:12

Happy New Year.


(N.B. – If someone is actively committing a crime against you, call the authorities. This is especially recommended if the person a) is not a part of your organization and therefore under no obligation to adhere to your organization’s established system of dispute resolution (in this case, the church; cf. v. 15 “if another member of the church…“), or b) expresses no interest in reconciling with you. Likewise, if a criminal offender has demonstrated that anything you write or say to him/her in private will be taken out of context and relayed publicly or potentially used against you in a court proceeding, then deal directly with the police or appropriate authorities. The point is that one should deal directly and honestly with those with whom one has a dispute within an organization with established reconciliation procedures. If the one with whom you have a dispute has exhausted any semblance of professional integrity, then further private communication will most likely prove futile, and may actually exacerbate the situation.)

how (not) to plant a church

this video absolutely cracked me up.

favorite jokes:

  • must have a cool shirt: a v-neck t-shirt or an embroidered shirt (the video forgot the screen printed hoodie, which is a fav among relevant types.)
  • faux hawk ‘driscoll spike’ busted me up
  • he has to be a man
  • “keyboard playing worship leaders can no longer be used by god”
  • twittering about success of church

new mythology-based fantasy themepark coming to kentucky

Ark Encounter

Ark Encounter

A new myth-based fantasy theme park is coming to Kentucky. The park, which will be called Ark Encounter, promises to expose visitors to myths and fantasies that will rival those of Disneyland. The park’s main attraction will be a 500-foot long reproduction of the Bible’s Noah’s Ark. The park will also feature an ancient walled city (perhaps bringing to mind Jericho), a petting zoo, live animal shows featuring giraffes and elephants, and a full scale reproduction of the biblical Tower of Babel (as the park developers envision it).

The park has attracted some controversy, however, as some have argued that because it is a religiously-themed park, it should not qualify for state tax breaks and incentives, such as the Enterprise Initiative Act Tax Refund Program for which Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has stated the park has applied. Governor Beshear argues there is nothing “remotely unconstitutional” about the proposal. He said the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business based upon the product or subject matter of its products. The Governor compared the Ark park to NASCAR, arguing that not everyone loves NASCAR, but that did not stop him from authorizing tax incentives to help the Kentucky Speedway hold a Sprint Cup race next year.

The developers are cleverly attempting to avoid the church-state argument by establishing the Ark park as a for-profit business. Unlike many other faith-based organizations, establishing a for-profit business means the group will forfeit tax exempt status in the long term in exchange for job-creating tax breaks up front. Essentially, the Ark park is gaming the system to get its tax breaks at the beginning. The Ark Encounter website specifically notes that “the tax incentives do not go to non-profit AiG, but to the for-profit Ark Encounter LLC.”

But there should be no doubt that the Ark Encounter is a faith-based enterprise. Not only is the park centered on Biblical stories, but the park will be managed by fundamentalist Christian Creationist group Answers in Genesis, which also runs a Creation Museum park in Petersburg, Kentucky. The Answers in Genesis jobs website specifically states that in order to be eligible for employment at AiG or the Creation Museum:

“All job applicants need to supply a written statement of their testimony, a statement of what they believe regarding creation and a statement that they have read and can support the AiG statement of faith.”

As a taxpayer incentivized, for-profit business in Kentucky, the Ark Encounter will not be allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of testimonies and declarations of faith as Answers in Genesis openly does at the Creation Museum. Only time will tell if the park will “unfortunately” be “forced” to convert to a not-for-profit, faith-based organization after it deals with the inevitable first volleys of discrimination lawsuits. (If it does, will it refund the tax incentives to the state?)

However, if the park’s developers and management are able to avoid employee religion-based discrimination pitfalls, it will most likely be successful in building the park. It will be interesting to observe whether the park declares its purpose as one of attempting to convince visitors of particular faith claims, or if they stick to the mission statements of other theme parks which center around simple entertainment and filing children’s heads with fantastic tales like those Disney productions that would never be physically possible in a world governed by science and physics.

And while Governor Beshear repeatedly touts the benefits of the park – investing $150 million to create jobs in Kentucky, bringing tourism to Kentucky, creating 900 full- and part-time jobs, an estimated annual impact of over $200 million on the state’s economy, and attracting 1.6 million visitors in its first year – I wonder if he’ll go the distance and compare this for-profit theme park to other mythological fantasy parks like Disneyland, Disney World, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As long as the Governor and the park’s developers are on record as stating that this park makes no faith claims about religious truth, and is instead only another fantasy-based theme park like Disneyland, there should be no quarrel.

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