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and information that expose and disprove false religious claims, but, “They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance.”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

question markI was invited by my friend Jason Boyett to write a piece on doubt for his blog, O Me of Little Faith. I wrote an essay entitled, “On the Virtue of Doubt: A Brief Autobiography of the Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” in which I discuss the influence that doubt, skepticism, and science have had in my life and career. I recount portions of my personal story moving from my Christian upbringing in central California to life as a scholar embracing science, evolution, and the critical method, and rejecting literalistic interpretations of the Bible. I describe my struggles with issues of faith and what I’ve learned from it all.

Please give it a read.

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