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.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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