Josh McDowell vs. Kevin Kelly

Josh McDowell says the internet is destroying the faith of young adults, but Kevin Kelly, of Wired magazine, sees things from the other angle: that human flourishing is connected to development in the technium.

What say you? Do you see a problem with either information or access? What kind of “problem” do you see on the Internet? What are some suggestions for sanctifying technology? Do you think technological developments make the hand of God visible?

“What has changed everything?” asked [McDowell] the apologist from Campus Crusade for Christ International as he spoke on “Unshakable Truth, Relevant Faith” at the Billy Graham Center in Asheville, N.C., Friday evening. His answer was, the Internet.

“The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not,” said McDowell, who is author of two books on Christian apologetics, More than a Carpenter and New Evidence that Demands Verdict.

Too much information, and too much access to our youth he says are problems.

“Now here is the problem,” said McDowell, “going all the way back, when Al Gore invented the Internet [he said jokingly], I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”

McDowell, who lives in southern California with his wife Dottie and four children, said atheists, agnostics and skeptics didn’t have access to kids earlier. “If they wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university.” But that has changed now.

So what to do?

McDowell proposed three ways to deal with the problem. “First, we have to model the truth. If you don’t model what you teach your kids, forget it. If they don’t see it, they won’t believe it… Second, we have to build relationships.” Just as truth without relationship leads to rejection, rules without relationship lead to rebellion, he said. “Kids don’t respond to rules. They respond to rules in the context of a loving, intimate relationship.” And third, he said, we have to use knowledge. “You better arm yourselves to answer your children’s and grandchildren’s questions…no matter what the question is…without being judgmental.” Kids’ greatest defense, he said, was the knowledge of truth.

But in CT, Kevin Kelly moves in the other direction, seeing the hand of God in the development of “technium.”

Amid the din of warnings about modern technology’s impact on the soul, Kevin Kelly sounds like the happy evangelist from Geekdom. “[W]e can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog,” the Wired magazine cofounder claims in his most recent book, What Technology Wants. A provocative title, to be sure, introducing a more provocative thesis: All human artifacts, from words to wheels to Wikipedia, together act like a living, breathing organism that reflects something of the Divine. “Technology has its roots in God’s work through the universe,” Kelly told CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty as she sat down with the San Francisco native at this year’s Q conference, where Kelly was speaking. He believes that as participants in the technium—Kelly’s word for this tech-ecosystem—”when we try to increase the options in the world, we are part of something godly.”

In the same way we would say the beauty of nature reflects God, the technium reflects something of God’s character. Not that the technium is without blemish, because anything we invent can be weaponized and made evil. But overall the technium has a positive force, a positive charge of good. And that good is primarily measured in terms of the possibilities and choices it presents us with. That’s the metric I use to measure goodness.

For instance, love is good. I define love as not just an emotion but an action that helps others achieve some possibility. By love we give people opportunities to express their unique set of God-given gifts. In a certain sense, if you had to objectively measure the love in someone’s heart, what would that look like? I think it would look like increasing choices and possibilities for others….

The fallibility of the human condition means that we tend to destroy as much as we create every year. We cannot even begin to be mostly good. But the good news is that by God’s grace we can, and should, improve our lives a little tiny bit over time. That incremental crawl in the direction of good is all we can expect theologically, and it’s the reason almost no one gives up the advancements of today. In what way would Christ’s redemption be at work if we moved a little bit toward evil every year?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    McDowell is his own worst enemy. Is he really suggesting that his brand of religion only survives so long as people don’t have access to information?

  • mike

    #1 – I think you are being overly harsh, and he couldn’t possibly mean what you are accusing him of.

    The Internet has both its tremendous benefits and its tremendous drawbacks, as I’d suspect we’ve all directly experienced. I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that it’s all good or all bad for our faith, and McDowell and Kelly are commenting on particular aspects of it.

    The thing that is really different now than previous disruptive technologies is its pervasiveness, and the sheer amount of information we are bombarded with. Because most (all?) people simply can’t process that amount of information, we have to fall back to relying on trusted, credible experts to interpret it for us. I think what McDowell is arguing is that the Internet has made it difficult to determine who exactly that is.

  • JohnC

    I at least sort of agree with #1 he makes a fair point. The internet may make it difficult to determine who the “experts” are sure, but anyone with enough brains to do all the work of trying to understand it all should also have enough brains to know that certainty isn’t required for belief. I can’t be certain I am not a brain in a vat, but it is extremely unlikely.

    On top of that, who exactly does McDowell think are the “experts” we should listen to? The thousands of men that come out of seminary all saying things that are different in non-trivial ways? Which ones?

    Each person has to go through their own journey. They have to wade through the stuff that isn’t true, the stuff that is and everything in between. It seems harmful, but it is a process that ultimately produces true and strong belief. In my own journey I certainly felt like giving up at times because of the very thing he warns of. Ultimately what sealed it for me was the more anthropological argument via Renee Girard etc. And for each individual it might be something radically different because each individual is radically different. There is no McDonalds of Theology. You just have to take the time and hammer it out, and for some Christians that is going to mean a long time of wading through information. But if they are the type who makes decisions based on large sets of information, then that is how their belief will best be formed.

  • EricW

    Maybe McDowell is upset that people can now go to Internet Infidels and read essays that engage and critique his and Strobel’s, et al, “Evidence” books and find them wanting and hardly “Demanding a Verdict” or proving their “Case.”

  • rjs

    McDowell’s other comments in the original article – about pornography for example – are much more significant in my opinion. The internet is not all positive.

    And he is right that when anyone has questions and concerns it is easy to find a cohort who will ridicule the faith, sometimes in rather baldly unfair ways. It provides a community of support for skepticism.

    On the other hand there is much that is good – it can provide a community for fruitful discussion. I hope we achieve that here. I’ve found it useful to explore many ideas.

    But I also think it is true that people can find the rebuttals to McDowell and Strobel’s form of apologetics much more easily. We need better and more nuanced answers and discussions.

    The full article with Kelly is rather … well interesting might be the best word.

  • paul

    phil_style #1,

    I don’t think this is what he is ultimately saying (although the piece posted above definitely comes across this way). When looking at his suggestions for “what to do” he doesn’t say anything about limiting exposure to knowledge or the internet (which is what he should say if you are correct). Rather he gives people (parents mostly) ideas in how to help children understand and keep faith as they explore a world with limitless access to information.

    And this is where I think McDowell might have a good point. Our children do have access to a wealth of information but many of them do not have the skills of discernment to adequately process that information…or a knowledge of good Christian answers for many of the questions they have. In addition many do not have relationships built on love to work through these issues. This is problematic (and what McDowell seems to recommend in the article as helpful).

    I don’t think McDowell is right to blame the internet though…that comes across as scared of information.

  • Deets

    The problem with the Internet is you can burn the parts that challenge your beliefs. TV, radio, and paperback books have done all the things that McDowell fears of the Internet. Shall we proclaim them all as evil so the people will only be able to listen to the Knowledgable?

  • wyclif

    #7. Overstatement of the case just a wee bit, Deets? I think if you read McDowell’s entire speech, and not just the cherry-picked quotes, you’ll see that he’s not advocating the burning of books or limiting information, he is questioning what effect total immersion in the Internet has on kids. A question well worth asking.

  • Scot McKnight

    wyclif, I agree.

  • DanS

    The issue McDowell is getting at is volume and access. The proliferation of information. Everyday I scan several news sites, read this blog, Sojo, Tony J (holding my nose), Breakpoint, CT, Christian Post, Biologos, Uncommon Descent,, and occasionally follow a link to places like HuffPo, which I normally avoid like the plague. Most folks in my church don’t have the time or energy to sift through it all and most kids don’t have the critical thinking skills to identify assumptions, presuppositions and flaws in logic. Any claim, expressed with an air of authority can shake things up. Kids who are influenced by peer pressure, will be equally influenced by authoritative pronouncements, but more importantly, will be simply confused by multiple opposing viewpoints. McDowell is primarily saying the volume of information is overwhelming to young minds and when bombarded with challenges to faith in overwhelming volume, kids can be bowled over. He is not advocating censorship, he is saying the landscape is different and parents have to cope with that reality.

  • Jason Lee

    I was surprised this post wasn’t primarily about porn. Porn is the much bigger threat to people’s discipleship and persistence in the faith for numerous reasons.

    Whether the internet is a net loss or gain, it’s not going anywhere. Keeping the porn issue in mind (and other issues such as no one being able to do any quality concentrated work because they’re checking social media every 10 minutes), the main question to me seems to be: how do individuals, families, churches, communities, countries, and international organizations provide appropriate boundaries for the internet and its users such that we can lean toward the net gain side of things? This will probably require deeper more communal thinking than the typical individualistic and moralistic American evangelical fare.

  • Scot McKnight

    Jason, I read these two pieces on the same day, and almost one after the other, and what struck me was the threat the internet posed for McDowell while Kelly saw it as an opportunity to be creative in the creative ways of God.

  • JoeyS

    McDowell’s fear seems reminiscent of a Derek Webb song…

    “Don’t teach me about politics or government, just tell me who to vote for. Don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music.” -Derek Webb-

    Is it that difficult to teach kids to think, to ask questions, to seek truth? Why can’t we model for our children engaging the world in a way that is charitable, patient, and discerning?

  • Phillip

    A few years ago I recieved a call in my office from a distraught father. His son had gone on the internet looking for evidences to prove to his friends that the Bible was “true.”. He found all kinds of material on the history of the Bible and the lack of historicity of the stories in it. The son, as a result, lost his faith. The father wanted me to show him how he could help his son recover his faith.

    All kinds of speculation can be made about the teens upbringing, the depth of his faith, or what the parents should have done before this. But it illustrates afairly new aspect of information access. with the internet (morseso I think than with libraries in the past), there is instant access to a wealth of data that is all lumped together. It is often hard to sort the wheat and chaff or to know what to do once one has. We need to think through ways to help Chistians navigate all this with discernment. What are helpful pastoral responses? I don’t think the internet is necessarily a threat to faith, but it does require new ways of helping people make sense of what they encounter.

  • Amos Paul

    I read the CT piece and, while I think Kevin Kelley has some very interesting ideas, he also has some very strange notions of love and goodness.

    For instance, he’s quoted here as saying that love helps people ‘achieve some possiblity’. While not particularly un-true, the statement is rather un-specific. Anything that happens is a possibility. I could help some fall into a pit of burning lava. That’s certainly one possibility.

    However, what I understood his idea to actually be aiming at in the midst of the article was that technology is good because it expands people’s choices. He said we need to innovate and produce more of it because it gives people more options–and that’s what he defines as good.

    While I’m certainly a proponent that free will is an intrinsic good, this particular argument baffles me. Is the pure expansion of choice what goodness and loving people is all about? Didn’t the Serpent tell Eve that eating the fruit of the tree was a marvelous expansion of her ability to CHOOSE? Didn’t the Babel builders simply desire the choice to be like God?

    Porn is certainly a good internet example, as cited above. With all the choices the internet has added to our repetoire, the choice of watching humans lustuously go at one another in every possible manner is only a mouse click away. Heck, so is learning about black magic and my local wiccan covens. I can order all manner of drugs. Partake gleefully in viewing the violence of the world.

    These are obviously not good choices. But then is the pure expansion of choice really what goodness and love is?

  • rjs

    Phillip (#14),

    I think you hit a real problem here – and McDowell sees it as well. But it doesn’t seem to have made an impact in our churches yet.

    For high school and college youth (and adults for that matter) we need to teach people how to think through the hard questions. My post tomorrow gets into a bit of this.

    Discipleship can’t be restricted to small Bible studies and socialization into the church institution.

  • Josh T.

    I can understand McDowell’s point, though it does sound slightly paranoid. I know that for years I avoided reading any Christian web sources, since it seemed too easy to run into weird stuff via simple google searches (like watch-blog stuff) that is distracting–at least for me. I honestly didn’t begin feeling even somewhat comfortable reading much Christian stuff until I ran into Michael Spencer’s blog in 2007.

    Now, that’s an adult talking. So I’m sure there are plenty of kids out there that will have trouble knowing who to trust. There are plenty of people out there that like to spin things their way (you know, because the internet is populated by humans and spinning stuff our way is part of what we do naturally).

    I think we need to preempt our kids’ internet experience in some ways by encouraging them to be skeptical about what they read and not jump too quickly to conclusions just because somebody on the internet says something that sounds authoritative at the time. People have all sorts of conscious and unconscious reasons for writing what they do, and nobody has a perfect cure-all answer. Kids should be taught that fact, whether it addresses politics, religious subjects, or whatever.

  • Adam

    This blog starts with this sentence:

    Josh McDowell says the internet is destroying the faith of young adults

    If that is what Josh McDowell is saying then Phyl Style #1 is correct. It’s correct in that anytime you point to someone or something else and say “That is the enemy!” you inevitably give it/them more power. So McDowell is only hurting his own cause by blaming the internet.

    But, his suggestions to combat it are more in line with this idea:

    ‎”Virtual Friendship” by John R. Muether says “Friendship demands real contact! Electronic culture separates as it disembodies. The paradox is that it links us to folk far away while it separates those from whom we are closest.”

    So, what is destroying the faith of young adults is a fraud of friendship and relationship. The internet is merely a tool that people are using to ignore real community.

  • Deets

    wyclif #8, you missed my point. My point is that people feel out of control with the internet because it cannot be controlled in the same way as books and radio and TV, but, at the same time, history shows that those who want to control what is being taught have complained about all media.

  • Rick

    Deets #10-

    “history shows that those who want to control what is being taught have complained about all media.”

    Don’t all sides “want to control what is being taught”?

  • Robert

    While I appreciate the ministry of Josh McDowell it is becoming more and more clear that he is deeply out of touch with the young generation he seeks to help.

    Kids understand the internet and technology available differently than adults. They see it as tools that can lead to enrichment or destruction (and many things in between.) I guess speakers and writers like McDowell think they need a high profile enemy to throw stones at in order to keep their crowds. Doesn’t make much sense to me imho.

    Anyways, there is a danger in the technology age that will produce a new dark age where knowledge is in abundance but given the nihilism brought by social networks like Facebook and Twitter which breed isolation and vanity we need to continue to push true education. It is a silver bullet for so much.

  • Rick

    Sorry, that should say Deets #19

  • Amory Ewerdt

    It is never good for a society to suppress knowledge. It’s true that some may leave their childhood faith because they are exposed to other belief systems, but as someone once said “a life unexamined is not worth living.” Yes, the internet makes it more difficult to plug our ears and bury our head in the sand, but for those who persevere through the trials and doubts that it posses to one’s faith there awaits a strong, humble, robust, knowledgeable, and wise faith.

  • brandontheguy

    As a youth pastor, I think that the biggest issue is that, traditionally, churches, youth pastors, youth bible study curriculums, etc. etc., have been underestimating teenagers for a long time.

    In other words, the church, and all of its various publishers, thinks teenagers are stupid. We water truth down. We refuse to answer real questions, or to even make them aware of real questions. I can’t tell you how many times I got fussed at as a teenager by my youth pastor or one of the youth leaders for bringing up questions in front of other teenagers.

    On the other hand, that atheists they chat with on some message board recognize that they are intelligent. Those agnostic teachers see the potential in the potential in the kids.

    The church has seen, for so long, that teenagers are just an accident waiting to happen–say the wrong thing or let the wrong influence in and they’re going to lose their faith and grow up to be agnostic, homosexual democrats.

    Who can blame them that they run away from the church? Who can blame them for running to something that recognizes their intelligence and answers their questions. The fact that the internet is in the question at all is completely arbitrary. We need to begin answering questions, recognizing that questions exist and aren’t all bad, and recognizing that our teenagers are actually smart individuals who are interested in things much deeper than chubby bunny and laser tag.

  • Taylor

    Philip #14, I think the foremost Christian response is transparency. If I teach my son not only why I follow Christ, but exactly why others say that looks foolish, he may decide that it is in fact foolish. I have noticed though that it will usually work positively. Now my son will now have a foundational model of a well grounded faith in the face of a wealth of opinions against said faith.

    Porn is another story, but in the information department, parents deserve more responsibility for unprepared young adults than a wealth of information.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    JM’s comments are alarmist, but taking him on the best terms as possible, I think he hits on an insight that is worth considering: exposure to an overabundance of information produces skepticism. This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Internet, however. One can walk into a bookstore or a library and feel the same feelings of frustration at the overwhelming wealth of information available to an open mind. Largely, this is an emotional reaction, but following it closely is the intuition that for every position there is an equal and opposite counter-position. Worldviews abound, and therefore are diminished in the eye of the beholder by their sheer variety. This is problematic in that it produces cynicism and an attitude of indifference towards them that keeps one from exploring them in a robust way. The machinations of the Internet multiply this phenomenon. Instead of spending hours over a publication by Oxford University Press, you spend 3 minutes perusing a Wiki article and then move on without much reflection. The result is that we presume skepticism towards things that demand a more sustained level of inquiry to be taken seriously. Christianity is one of those things. Therefore, beware of how the Internet shapes our intellectual virtue. Seems reasonable to me.

  • Rob

    #1- I agree completely.

    Why is McDowell scared of “leveling the playing field.” Are we really doing our kids any favors by shielding them from doubt and legitimate hard questions?

    McDowell seems to lament the erosion of certainty brought about by too much information. Are Christians called to certainty? Or faith?

    Instead of shielding our kids from challenges to their faith, we should be engaging them and helping them discern the information they are receiving and seek answers to their questions together in community (family, youth group, church, etc.).

  • AHH

    There are very many important issues associated with the Internet and electronic culture; I find that Shane Hipps has written insightful stuff on some aspects.

    McDowell seems to be in part worried about how the Internet makes available a lot of “chaff” that may obscure the “wheat”. Which is a valid worry — but many of us would say that much of the apologetics McDowell does falls in the “chaff” category.
    Indeed, parents and churches need to help youth navigate these things — but we will not be serving youth well if we simply point them to some of the fundamentalist apologetics (like McDowell and AiG material) that seems pretty widespread online.

  • Patrick

    I like Rob’s view.

    The way I was raised(fundy), I did believe w/o reservation and mainly w/o information and lamentably, would have remained largely w/o information I needed had I stayed in those Churches.

    I went through life for a few years when I was challenged even before the net by a claim that “Jesus is just Mithraism reformatted”.

    That shook me bad because I had not even bothered to see if Jesus was a real historic personality or not, I just believed like I believed in Santa Claus as a child. I gave some credence to the charge, but, held onto my faith. However, I held doubts I never had before, too.

    As I grew older and the net arrives, I see tons of anti Christ polemics and they do challenge us.

    We can more readily research and defeat said challenges to our satisfaction though with the net and at the end of the process, I think our faith has been strengthened and not weakened if we do.

    This is what our Churches should be doing. I remain optimistic myself. Yes the low faith one will give ground when challenged like I did, but, the opportunity to rebut the critics is greater as well.

  • Deets

    Rick #20/22
    Not necessarily. While everyone should aspire to teach from their perspective, not everyone wants to limit all teaching to their perspective. This blog is evidence that Scot McKnight doesn’t want to control what is discussed, but he certainly demonstrates and encourages other to a point of view. Many think that all teaching should come from a select people (we’ll call them the clergy). The clergy is usually limited to those who have passed certain doctrinal test.

    You can’t control the internet, so those clergy are usually fearful of the internet.

  • Dave P

    What does it matter if in the long run the elect come to faith anyway and the rest of us don’t make it in anyway?

  • SteveL

    McDowell is self-defeating: (1) If more information makes us skeptics, how can he be certain, since he too is (presumably) overloaded with this same information? (2) Epistemologically, if you have to “see” truth, then how do I teach my kid to believe in an open system, rather than materialism all the way down?

  • Dale Fincher

    I don’t know Kelly’s age, but I do wonder if McDowell’s comments are a result of being a product of his time. How well has he personally harnessed the internet to do apologetics? Much of our apologetic emphasis is online and we’re finding what works and what doesn’t work. But it has taken time, real-experience, and without formula.

    We get a lot of comments from people, in fact, that our apologetics isn’t like so many others… cause we’re honest with the struggle as well as give direction toward an answer. We’re personal. We show up. People have access to us (many popular speakers are simply inaccessible today and the internet is a way to let that happen). The “here’s the question let me tell you the answer approach” of the older generation of apologetics may actually be making more seekers skeptical. They are approaching their questions more personally and tentatively because it’s so easy to go wrong.

    I don’t see Kelly’s comments as a a counter to McDowell, but as simply different. It’s almost as if Kelly views technology as art, by the way he’s talking about it. I’d have to think on that some more… my first impression is that his language sounds odd.

    The Internet is a tool. Like all tools, good people use it for good and bad people use it for bad. I like the internet. It lets me know what people are thinking. I’ve learned there’s a lot more goofy Christian ideas that I would have guessed. I’ve also learned that people who don’t agree with me can be smart and kind too. :)

  • Holly

    I have four teens. I am going to say….it IS hard. It’s way different than when I was a kid. It takes continual dialogue. It takes a mom and dad really being up on things, being able to explain their thoughts and beliefs. In the end, if you meet that challenge, it is a good thing and your relationships prosper. But it is sure a steep learning curve! Some days, I want to throw the computers/technology out of the window – but I realize that is not the answer. This is one reason I do love homeschooling. I’m always here. I’m able to have those talks. I’m able to help prepare them before they are out on their own. (That’s not saying that others don’t….not at all. Just that I have more time with my teens than if they were away all day.)

  • John

    JMcD says that dramatically increased information flow has led to increased uncertainty. I think he’s right, but I see this as a net positive development.

    Kevin, I enjoyed your CT interview.

    Anyone interested in the robot-soul conversation would enjoy Anne Foerst’s book

    and bio

    and Lanier’s recent NY Times piece