Is the Internet Killing the Baby Jesus?

According to an article in yesterday’s Salon,

Religion may not survive the Internet

Tech-savvy mega-churches may have twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.

But, but, but … if everybody becomes an atheist, who’s going to read my blog??

Actually, I’m not panicking just yet. I think the announcement of The End of Religion is a little premature, possibly a bit too optimistic, in that: 

1) Religion is like the Borg — they’re adapting to the modulation of our phaser rifles. Creationists, for instance, haven’t gone away after Dover. They’re still with us, trying new ideas, new techniques, to slip in and brainwash new generations of victims.

I like to think they’re going to fail, but … if you keep trying — at anything — chances are high you’ll find something that works. A way to succeed. Who’s to say the Internet itself won’t be the tool that helps them win?

2) The enemy of rational thought isn’t just churches, it’s superstition and all sorts of other silly beliefs. The type you find in churches is only the formalized variety of something much larger and more invasive. And though the power of churches may be on the wane, this other garbage, the homeopathy-type stuff and such as the ghost-hunter-type crap you find on TV may actually be helped to spread by more pervasive media.

Even I, all too often, get sucked into repeating things I see online, only to later find out it was nonsense. I’m checking Snopes and doing image searches a lot more often, I can tell you, to try to get the real story behind the supposed story.

The core of all this isn’t the distributive media, it’s the receptive medium, the human mind. And there, we may just be in a more dire situation than we know.

If you step away from religion as a primary enemy of thought, and step up to this larger category of malignant Human Mind Invaders, you not only find plenty still going on, you find more than ever going on.

We still have advertising, corporate lies, political lies, all sorts of things that affect people in real ways. I’ll remind you we just completed a decade-long war in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people died, based on the lie that there were weapons of mass destruction there, and the previous lie that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

All of these HMI’s are spread with the help of the Internet.

Speaking of which, I came up with this new concept recently, something I said at the end of my talk in Ottawa:

People aren’t stupid.

That’s actually a radical idea, in a way. I mean, if you’re educated at all, you come across stuff all the time — stuff that people believe or say — that just takes your breath away. And you kinda come to conclude that some large fraction of your fellow human beings are dumb as rocks. Arrogant or not, I’ve believed it most of my adult life.

But I recently realized, while thinking about some of my old friends back in Texas, that most of them AREN’T stupid. Some of them are damned bright — smarter than me, sometimes MUCH smarter, and in lots of ways.

The difference has to be something else, and I think I know what that something else is.

They’ve been lied to.

And not just a little bit, but massively. In every day, in every way.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

We live in a society where people are lied to so much and so often, and in such a totally-pervasive environment of extreme unreality — projected at us from TV, radio, print media and Internet — that most of us have almost no practice in objectively evaluating statements or situations to determine how real or true they are.

And though we have an organized, socially-approve Crazy School — the church — we completely lack its opposite, Sanity School. We as individuals lack the mental tools to protect ourselves, and there’s nothing built into our society to remedy the shortcoming.

(Side note on Beta Culture: Even if we totally do away with Crazy School, we still don’t have Sanity School, and it’s NEEDED. It’s one of the things I’d like Betas to shepherd into existence.)

Take any one little lie — oh, say, that obsessively collecting and redeeming coupons is a good use of your time, or that diamonds are actually fantastically valuable, or that circumcision is really a good idea (you know, for health reasons), or that we have no population problem and the solution to having 7-billion-people-and-still-rising on Planet Earth is to genetically modify food plants so they produce more, and then distribute it better — and there will be millions upon millions of otherwise very bright people who not only believe it, but will assertively defend it with countless personal anecdotes and arguments, and walk away totally convinced of their own rightness.

No, this is not religion, but it’s the same sort of “believing false, bad stuff.” And I’m not sure the Internet is helping much with that. It may just be spreading the lies faster.

I hope not. But … I worry.

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  • Neil Rickert

    But, but, but … if everybody becomes an atheist, who’s going to read my blog??

    Do you mean that I wasn’t supposed to read it?

  • DLC

    Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship

    Relationship ? if talking to nobody counts as a relationship, then I’m in!

    Oh wait. they mean an abusive relationship with an iron-age conman’s ghost.
    Jesus loves you! he’s just not ready to commit!

  • John P.

    While the article is probably premature in saying that the Internet will completely kill religion, it is certainly making a dent. A good case in point is the plummeting decline in the “church” of Scientology. In the past, that cult got new members by depending on the lack of information prospective marks had about their abusive practices and assorted craziness. They got you in by offering a free personality test or other innocuous means. But today, anybody who is offered a free personality test will whip out their iPhone and search for “Scientology.” And the first page of search results is mostly made up of credible sources that begin to document and expose the craziness. The results is that membership is down to perhaps 20,000 people worldwide, a drop of half in only a handful of years.

    Similarly, I think fundamentalist religions, who depend on information control to keep people in the fold (home schooling, demonizing education, etc) are at greater risk; recent surveys show that less than half the kids of evangelicals keep the faith even a few years after they move out of the house.

    Finally, while it is true that we live in a culture where we are bombarded with cleverly constructed messages that often tread the line to lies (or, if you listen to right-wing talk radio, brazenly cross the line into blatant lies), people are not helpless against advertising. Kids from a very young age can understand that ads are trying to present a rosy picture of reality to get you to buy something; they’re less credible than other information sources.

    While I like your example of the lies of the diamond industry, the reason that people don’t rebel against the inflated prices of the diamond cartel is that for most, diamonds aren’t essential to survival and are often a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, usually not much more than that. So the stakes in understanding the ripoff of the diamond industry are fairly low and people can thus be excused for not fighting back. Incidentally, diamonds do seem to be moving out of fashion. I think the amount of inventory that the cartel is sitting on at the moment is near historic highs; I’m working from memory here but could be wrong. So maybe people are wiser than you think.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Sometimes I decry a religious spiel by claiming to have a “fact-based” (or “reality-based”) orientation.

    Other times I cringe at the hubris of such a claim.

    How could anyone operate a Sanity School without bringing such doubts so far to the foreground that they would have to either shut down or rename the whole project?

    • F [nucular nyandrothol]

      Well, how do you operate without being completely paralyzed by doubt on a daily basis? That’s how.

    • kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

      Well, that’s a feature, not a bug.

      I think the very first thing Sanity School should teach is doubt – the very first step of critical thinking.

      Crazy School gets away with a lot of things because it sells comfy (and false) certainty, and its foremost command is Thou shall not question.

      Doubt drives you to ask questions. Asking questions naturally brings you to search for evidence.

  • Mental_case

    I just want to interject that there is, in theory, something which is suppose to function as “Sanity School”: it’s called school. I am an educator, and this is what I view to be the purpose of schooling, to serve as a counterpoint to the aforementioned “Insanity School.” Of course, in practice this tends not to be the case; sometimes schools peddle as much insanity as sanity, and especially in primary and secondary schools an emphasis on feel-good, nobody-fails, teach-to-the-test curriculum ignores the critical thinking and analysis skills that are so important to instill this sense of sanity in modern children. Post-secondary education can and often does teach sanity, however; I know college is where I learned skepticism and finally utterly broke away from my Catholic upbringing.

    • Karen Locke

      Yes, but as a “recovering Catholic” myself, I think our upbringing might lend itself to insanity-correction more easily than other brands of Christianity, especially Evangelical ones, and certainly more easily than, say, Islam. I did 1st through 12th grade at Catholic schools, but was cured of the insanity by about four years after I got my BS. It wasn’t that college didn’t teach skepticism; I was just a hard case.

      The modern feel-good, nobody-fails curriculum in primary and secondary schools annoys the heck out of me, and if I had children I would desperately search for an economic way to homeschool them. I would not be an easy taskmistress, either. The nuns who taught me were demanding; in response, I did my best. I wish that for all schoolchildren, without the religious conditioning.

    • procrastinator will get an avatar real soon now

      I was going to reply that universities provide the Sanity School. In my case high school did also. Some validation of this view is provided by the recent rants of Rick Santorum (the guy with 3 degrees) headlined as “College Grad Rick Santorum Insists That Colleges ‘Indoctrinate’ Students Against Jesus.”
      I really feel bad for having cited Santorum to make a point.

  • douglaslm

    I have thought that a person can be smart, but people tend to be stupid. It seem like the larger the group the lower the IQ.

  • dgrasett

    oo, oooo, I know the formula.
    I was told that the IQ of the group is determined by taking the highest IQ within the group, and dividing it by the number of people in the group.

  • Bjarni

    If the internet is killing ‘baby jesus’ does that make it infanticide or deicide?

    I think that people are stupid, but only some of the time. I’m often amazed just how stupid I am some of the time. The rest of the time though you’re probably right and it’s the lies-on-lies.

  • brucegorton

    The article misses one important aspect to the Internet that is killing religion – time and space.

    Religion for centuries was the only legal option. Heretics went from being killed, to jailed, to denied access to the courts, to simple social disapproval.

    In this period religion got its grip without real opposition from outside of the religious framework, and thus didn’t really need to explain itself beyond “You will believe in God or I will hit you.”

    So it set itself as the default without the need to develop any really good arguments. The poor arguments it did develop were compressed and not contradicted so they set themselves as being the default responses, because they didn’t have to convince the non-believer, they could just kill or imprison them.

    In most of the first world that ended with the rise of secularist politics, but because of that long history atheist arguments need to go into detail, show evidence and generally take a butt-load of time to produce.

    Which means in debates religion has a major advantage, it can put forward ten points in the time it takes to explain why one point is utter bullshit. The religious proponent can then say “Sure he got me on that point, but what about my nine others?”

    This is William Lane Craig’s debating strategy.

    Mass media didn’t really do away with this restriction until the Internet, because radio and TV spots have limited time for their panelists, newspapers have limited column space etc….

    Sure, books could be written but books are expensive and rely on generally one expert or small circle of experts to tackle an issue, and their expertise could not cover everything, and required space to explain the arguments they were refuting.

    It was physically impossible to go into the detail each argument required until the Internet came along and upset the apple cart.

    Now atheist arguments are able to go into detail the religious arguments never needed, atheists of all sorts of backgrounds can barrage the religious arguments and demonstrate them as being wrong in multiple ways.

    Time and space are now on our side because we can actually reason our disbelief in a level of detail that religion simply can’t.

    That said, religion has been around for a fair chunk of human history, it isn’t going to go away with just a few years online.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    The decline in organized religion leaves yet a general haze of woo untouched. Many people believe what we can consider a “Star Wars theology”, or an “Avatar theology” with an universal living force somehow being felt across the universe.
    We must pay attention too to the plain old superstition, old as the world and older than the organized religions. Don’t forget real witch hunts are happening today in the world, not figurative. The weakening of organized religion may bring a resurgence of old superstition. I know some people from Eastern Europe, where the organized religion was almost suppressed by the communists for a long time, and I was surprised by the extent of the superstitious uses among them. Things like not making the bed of someone leaving your house until you get news they reached destination and many other lucky charms. I think the priests in the rest of Europe discouraged those things, but without their opposition they came up again.
    Anyway, I think the Internet and an improvement in general education and access to information shall cure these things too.

  • rthur2013

    Religion/”spiritualism”/baseless mumbo-jumbo will never completely die away. As you say, there is evidence that human brains are hardwired for belief of some kind. But as science and technology keep moving forward, as information disseminates further, and as living standards improve, religion will find its power eroded at an accelerating pace. Consider this: Europe, the heartland of Christendom for 2000 years, is now the most atheistic region on Earth. In the USA, the most evangelical Christian country in the Western world, atheism has gone from being almost unheard-of to having around 30 million adherents (although maybe “adherents” isn’t the right word). The fact is, when you have modern technology, modern medicine and a decent standard of living to look forward to, the need to devote yourself to an imaginary sky-wizard and his dead Jew prophet becomes rather less pressing

  • coreyfinney

    The apostle Paul was a violent opponent to the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and yet He saw fit to call him. This is what I’m praying for you, Hank Fox. That would be awesome!!! When you reach that point where it’s too hard for you to kick against the spikes before you! The problem IS with religion, on a grand scale, mental conditioning and such, but it’s also much deeper than that.

  • coreyfinney

    Doubt breeds confusion. Atheism is a rigid belief system. Agnosticism, on the other hand, is the final resting place of a mind which is taught to doubt. What can you believe? And why does it matter? Science has its limitations, but I still find it fascinating. There are things that true science cannot fully explain. There are things I don’t understand, as a Christian. I can only offer a possible explanation, based on my belief and knowledge. Atheism does the same thing. An Atheist believes there is no spiritual existence, so everything, according to that belief system, must have an answer that adheres to that naturalist perspective.

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