I attended an atheist conference in Seattle about seven years ago and met a woman who was falling away from religion. In the early years of her marriage, she and her husband had both been conservative Christians. Decades later, he still was. She wasn’t.
Openly reading The God Delusion to explore the other side of the issue wasn’t an option—at least not as a conventional book. But using a Kindle, no one could see if she were reading Richard Dawkins or Billy Graham. This was the first time the advantage that technology gave to the spread atheism became clear to me.
Cambrian Explosion, Technology Explosion
Daniel Dennett compared the effect modern technology is having on religion with the Cambrian Explosion. This explosion of new life forms is thought to have been triggered by oceans finally becoming transparent. Evolution could then select for eyesight, and prey could see predators and vice versa. This led to an arms race of not just improved eyesight but camouflage and armor (on the defensive side) and strength and teeth (on the offensive side).
Compare the sea beginning to become transparent 543 million years ago with the early Web in 1991. Now, 28 years later, technology has brought transparency to religion with Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and other technologies, plus the smart phones and computers with which to view it. Secrecy has become much more difficult.
Technology has played a role in religion for centuries. Just decades after Christianity’s beginning, scribes began to create codices (books) instead of scrolls, first on papyrus and then on parchment. The printing press (1455) made Bibles, the Book of Hours, and other Christian books more widespread. The Bible became available in local languages, not just Latin.
As revolutionary as Gutenberg’s press was, its design didn’t change much for close to 400 years until the early days of the Industrial Revolution. But with the steam press in the early 1800s, printing rate increased tenfold. With the rotary press shortly afterward came another tenfold increase. Religious books and tracts of all sorts became economical.
Then radio, then movies, then television—each was used by Christianity to drive its message.
Technology harnessed by atheism
Technology has changed the landscape. Atheists have recently begun getting the message out with books (perhaps the most important “new” in New Atheism is the new bestseller status of some of their books), but with many thousands of new titles per year for the last few hundred years, atheists have always had a voice here.
Instead, it’s the new technologies that have really changed things: podcasts, blogs, e-books, print-on-demand technology, and the searchable internet to let doubting Christians (or even just curious or studious Christians) bypass the traditional gatekeepers of pastors or parents to find the often-embarrassing truth.
Of course, Christians can use this new technology, too, but they’ve always had the technological edge. They’ve had no competition in radio or TV, for example. But with the internet, all voices can get a hearing. The barrier to entry is now much smaller. Information that flows easily is a disadvantage to the group that discourages questions, values faith or unthinking obedience, or has skeletons in the closet.
Sure, potential Christians can search for arguments for Christianity online, but what non-Christian in the West hasn’t heard the Christian message? By contrast, there are plenty of Christians who until recently had no easy way to get a second opinion. The free flow of information helps atheism.
Faith statements vs. reality
Consider that many Christian organizations have faith statements that bind their professors, researchers, or staff. As a personal example, I’ve considered attending Frank Turek’s Cross Examined Instructor Academy for Christian apologists, but it had an obligatory faith statement that I couldn’t sign. (This makes me wonder how these future apologists will fare against someone like me in the real world if they must be protected from arguments from actual atheists in the classroom.)
The constraints of faith statements were highlighted in 2011 when Christian scholar Mike Licona got into hot water over a book in which a single brief topic didn’t come to the conclusions predetermined by his faith statement. Imagine that approach to reality trying to compete against Google and Wikipedia. “But you can’t say that—it contradicts my faith statement!”
How will things change in the future? Technology is infamously hard to predict. (My favorite quote on this subject: “When you get the urge to predict the future, better lie down until the feeling goes away”). Nevertheless, business will continue to demand ever easier access to information and freer flow of ideas. Advancing technology can only make it more difficult for religion to keep secrets.
We’ve seen how this plays out
A few years ago, the man in charge of the Mormon Church in Europe recently faced questions from parishioners. In answering them, he had to deal with how his church’s story differed from what he found on the internet, and his faith failed. The church recently responded to the crumbling dike with honest information about Joseph Smith’s polygamy—common knowledge to historians but startling news to many Mormons.Or consider Scientology. The church’s story had been doled out to students who paid thousands to learn Scientology’s secrets. Now that uninspired story is available for free on Wikipedia.
In some surprising candor, Christian apologist Josh McDowell sees the situation just as we do, that the internet levels the laying field and that Christianity doesn’t like a level playing field.
As another example of Christianity’s pushback against open access to information, consider the response to each of Bart Ehrman’s bestselling books that shine a light into Christianity’s dirty recesses. Christians can’t attack his credentials, so they often try to dismiss the information by saying that this isn’t new. Seminaries have been teaching this to religious scholars and pastors for centuries, they tell us.
Uh, okay, but then why did your flock have to hear this from a non-Christian? Why is Bart Ehrman spilling the beans to the world instead of you? It almost sounds like you’re embarrassed by this information. And for every bestselling Bart Ehrman (or Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris), there are ten thousand podcasters, bloggers, and self-published authors adding to the conversation.
I expect that this clash of orthodoxy and internet is a growing problem for every large Christian denomination in the West and will become one in the developing world as the internet becomes more available.
A Christian response
What if religion simply absorbs the new truth and keeps going? So what if Joseph Smith was flawed and the church covered that up? So what if the New Testament story stands on a poor historical footing? So what if the virgin birth story is false, the Old Testament has two completely different versions of the Ten Commandments, the Jesus in the New Testament had no concept of the Trinity, or Christianity is full of contradictions?
If Christianity adapted by becoming less interested in reality and evidence, it would have abandoned the intellectual question, Is Christianity correct in its claims? If Christianity must simply withdraw from reality because it can’t compete in the intellectual town square, pause and consider what that means. It’s already easy to find apologists who make, “Yeah, but which story would you rather be true?” as an actual argument.
Changes to Christianity over time
I recently wrote about demographic changes predicted for Christianity and other religions. The make-more-babies growth phase is waning, and Christianity will soon have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. It will not be pretty, and technology will hasten the exit of religion. There might even be an unanticipated tipping point where falling Christian belief triggers the growth of the Nones to accelerate.
The Nones in the U.S. have recently become as large a belief system as Evangelicals and Catholics. The difference is that, while Evangelicals and Catholics have been to slowly shrinking, the Nones fraction continues to surge. There’s an interesting chart that tracks the rise in Nones with the fraction internet users.
What does it say about Christianity that it survives best in a hypoxic environment that enables censorship and discourages questioning and straying? Expect technology to continue to provide increasing access, showing religion for what it really is.
I say let it fall.
— Russell Moore, president of the
Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/3/15.)
Image from Sue Clark, CC license