Ex-evangelical Valerie Tarico wrote a post, republished yesterday by Salon, that argues the internet is killing religion. Tarico isn’t very specific about what kind of religion she’s talking about, she uses “organized religion” and evangelical fundamentalism more or less interchangeably. But the claims are interesting: basically, that the availability of information via the internet—“cool science videos,” articles about the dark sides of various faiths, support groups for leavers—are leaving religious belief on hard times.

In a sense, the truth of these arguments is obvious: it’s certainly the case that it’s much more difficult to raise a child in ignorance of the outside world, of other types of beliefs, than it was even when I was a child (less than two decades ago). To really keep out the world, you’d have to live a pretty rigorously isolated life, and that’s pretty difficult in a Western society. Simply on an anecdotal level—these things are impossible to really measure—it’s true that finding information online, or finding other people with similar doubts, has given some people the courage to leave religious communities.

But I’m pretty skeptical of these realities being advanced as an up-from-the-darkness trend story, particularly with “religion” or “organized religion” are left so ill-defined. That sort of enlightenment narrative draws on a long history, but it has lost a great deal of its persuasive power. Like all technology, the web is a neutral instrument, up to how people use it. It has given all sorts of tiny, fringe groups, from religious cult members to radical political activists to sexual fetishists, a means of finding one another and congregating. There are “corners” of the internet just like there are “corners” of society, where the consensus of the “secular” mainstream almost totally fail to penetrate. The availability of information has not, in any age, greatly influenced the persuasiveness of religious belief, in large part because it provides as many opportunities as challenges. Even contemporary American fundamentalists have done a good job putting technology to use; the web has enabled and energized fundamentalist movements as much as it has empowered certain people to escape them.

While the web makes information available to those who look for it, it’s unlikely that many people actively use the web in a way that challenges their beliefs. In fact, the arrival of the social internet has made it possible to do just the opposite: shape your own web environment to fit your tastes. It’s still likely, if you’re a typical American evangelical, that you’ll end up having a few outliers—a few gay friends, a few non-believers, a couple of liberals—who post stuff on Facebook you wouldn’t seek out otherwise. While that surely has at least a mild effect of moderation and expansion of religious people’s horizons, I think it’s pretty mild. If you’re de-converting, it’s probably not from reading a few Facebook-shared articles and watching a “cool science video.”

To zoom way out on this discussion, I’m reading Charles Taylor’s immense and wonderful A Secular Age, which attempts to explain, across centuries and academic disciplines, how the world changed from being a place where disbelief in God was unthinkable to one where it is the dominant, and for many people most plausible, way of looking at the world. That change had already happened by the 20th century; long before the invention of the computer, it was impossible to be a religious believer without being aware that there were many people who weren’t.  (Characters in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were having nonchalant sidewalk conversations about this fact back in 1856.) The groundwork for the plausibility of “exclusive humanism,” Taylor argues, was being laid hundreds of years before that, even in the theology of Calvin and Luther. Today, even in the face of such huge revolutions in human “be-ing” as industrial society and global consumer capitalism, religion is still plausible to significant swaths of even the populations of modern Western societies.

So of course it’s true that the internet has played a role in killing religion in certain people’s lives, or maybe even in the lives of certain (small, fringe) religious communities. It’s made many people more aware of the pluralism of the society they live in, and brought previously far-flung differences close. Those can be powerful things. But it has also provided a means for even the craziest to disseminate their “ideas” and find like-minded followers. Social media allows people to shape their information-world with people and sources who reinforce what they already believe. So is one particular technological revolution “killing” something as huge, and something with such a long history, as “organized religion”? Maybe a little, probably not much.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://garyhorsman.com Gary Horsman

    I agree with you. The web has had the opposite desired effect to expanding one’s viewpoint by making it easier to find anything that marries well to your own world view. It is ironic that with all this information, people will gravitate to what they feel most comfortable and familiar with.

    Take something as innocuous as movie recommendations on web services like iTunes or Amazon. Their algorithms are geared to helping you find movies similar to the ones you’ve already liked or purchased. Everything is geared to giving you more of the same. Homogeneity is what drives a lot of traffic online. Would you expect Amazon to recommend Charlotte’s Web if you’ve already purchased the Terminator Trilogy? What’s to say you wouldn’t enjoy both?

    It’s the same with ideas. You’re encouraged on social networks to seek out people with similar interests, geographic locations, likes, dislikes, careers, etcetera. You’re encouraged to explore MORE OF THE SAME. That’s a recipe for intellectual isolation if I’ve ever seen one.

    Truth is, expanding your mind is hard work. It can also create a great deal of anxiety, and who would want that?

    But I think it’s necessary to explore as many ideas as possible and to open one’s mind. It breeds understanding, tolerance and discovery. An epiphany can only ever occur when a person opens the gates and welcomes new ideas.

    There’s no better time than now to do that. But human nature, such as it is, will probably stunt potential growth to our detriment.

  • Ron Bruno

    Though the Internet definitely makes information or “knowledge” more accessible, religious skepticism and atheism steadily increased their influence in intellectual circles throughout the 20th century. “Secularism” however, has the same elements of religiosity as belief. Utilitarian conceptualizations of the Good exude as much teleological pretension as the concept of God with an extra “o”. The notion that evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and atheists can build consensus for the “good” of the State, the corporate capitalist state such as it is, seems naive at best. Belief in any ideology has irrational tribal roots, whether the ideology be theistic, atheistic, Marxist, etc. Every ideology attempts to posit an answer for tragedy and human suffering. The digital universe merely accelerates recognition of the ultimate absurdity of all moralistic claims. Are metaphysics even necessary in the digital age, or as essential as art? Or is that just another metaphysical question?

  • Ormond Otvos

    This article illustrates the obverse of what it claims. In the life of a troubled believer, they’re only a few words on Google from powerful understandings and explanations for those things that worry them. Comfort can come from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, which are ripping huge holes in the walls of conditioning erected by religion. It will only increase.

  • Neil Wilson

    It must be admitted that one of the salient characteristics of cult leaders is that they enforce isolation on their followers. Even more mainstream Evangelical churches consciously try to ensure that their members lives are always full of church activities and their only ‘authority’ figures are the church leaders. Those who question are soon pushed out and shunned.
    The internet certainly can do harm but on balance the free availability of information and a way of independent checking on supposed ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ far outweighs any negatives. If the internet makes Christians integrate more in the world around them and question their beliefs and refine them to what is gold and not dross then this is a good thing.

    • Ron Bruno

      How ironic Neil, that you mention Christians “refining” gold from dross. Did you perhaps mean “discerning” or merely separating the two opposite values? Are you aware of the origin of the expression in The Apology of Socrates? Perhaps you meant that Christians should rationalize their beliefs, a clear contradiction in terms? I do admire your mention of supposed “truths”, for calling into question the very existence of truth, or at least man’s ability to ascertain said Truth. Perhaps truth is the most basic delusion of all? And we are left with faith and irrationality? In any event, there is no good reason to remain isolated in a digital universe…

      • Joseph Martin

        Those are interesting thoughts about truth and metaphysics you have, Ron Bruno. What philosophers did you learn that from? Tell me so that I too may learn from them, and broaden my understanding of historical philosophy.

        • Ron Bruno

          I will confess immediately that I am very fond of Friedrich Nietzsche. Though I was raised Catholic and converted to evangelical Christianity in my late teens, I abandoned my faith at age 20 and picked up a copy of The Portable Nietzsche at a bookstore about that time. Nietzsche appealed to me immensely and from that reading, it became evident that I would have to read a great deal more philosophy in order to understand Nietzsche. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by his Christian upbringing (his great grandfather, grandfather and father were Lutheran ministers), but was also influenced by his education in the classics and in particular, the character of Socrates. In short, it is impossible to understand Nietzsche without reading Plato thoroughly. Nietzsche was also influenced by other philosophic, literary and artistic figures, including Kant, Goethe and Richard Wagner.

          Nietzsche was widely criticized for his controversial, anti-systematic and often contradictory observations but he still cast a profound influence on 20th century arts and letters. His critiques of Christianity and morality in general, academia, democracy and metaphysics placed him far outside mainstream thought. His rejection of metaphysics and rationality led him to conceive the Dionysian and the ubermensch as artistic alternatives to rationality. Ironically, his “faith” in the mystical and its potential for authentic passion placed him in the company of Kierkegaard, whom he never met. I also highly recommend Karl Jaspers essay on Nietsche and Kierkegaard, which can be found in Professor Walter Kaufmann’s anthology on existentialism.

          Thank you for engaging me, Mr. Martin. Best wishes on your path of inquiry.

      • Neil Wilson

        Not quite sure what you are getting at. When I wrote my comment I was thinking of the time Jesus went to the synagogue and was handed the scrolls and he chose the passage from Isaiah which states;

        “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
        because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
        He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
        to proclaim release to the captives,
        recovering of sight to the blind,
        to deliver those who are crushed,
        and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

        To me this is true religion and would attract unbelievers whereas modern American Christianity (especially of the evangelical flavor) does little of this but rather preaches a gospel full of judgement and indeed of hate, a message emphasizing and encouraging separation of believers from the world, a belief that a highly materialistic life style of middle class prosperity is evidence of Gods favor and that the poor are such because of sin and Gods judgement.

  • AC

    I was the opposite, I lived in a nominal Catholic home, overcome with pride, arrogance, self-love conceit I hit a wall when various disappointments & emotional disturbance brought me to my knees, leaving me mired in doubt & self pity….the realization that I was a deeply broken sinner was the beginning of life for me.

    The odds of naturalistic origins are beyond reason, if separate timeless truth from man corrupted legalism we can rediscover the light amidst the clouds

    http://m.voices.yahoo.com/how-did-life-originate-10642121.html

    As for the central focus of this article, I say it’s pretty much on the money