June 27, 2014

Religion on the way out

Religion may not survive the Internet

There's a reason churches are struggling to maintain membership, and it has nothing to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson

By Valerie Tarico
In all of the frenzy, few seem to give any recognition to the player that I see as the primary hero, or, if you prefer, culprit—and I’m not talking about science populizer and atheist superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then again, maybe I am talking about Tyson in a sense, because in his various viral guises—as a talk show host and tweeter and as the face on scores of smartass Facebook memes—Tyson is an incarnation of the biggest threat that organized religion has ever faced: the internet.

A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does!)

Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

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. Here are five kinds of web content that are like, well, like electrolysis on religion’s hairy toes.
Another article says religion has outlived its usefulness and the Internet is only one force hastening its decline:

The Internet isn’t killing religion—religion is

Instead of asking why people aren’t religiously affiliated anymore, we might ask why they ever were

By Elizabeth Drescher
What is missed, however, in the churning of this internet-killed-religion yarn is, first of all, that changes in complex phenomena—like being human or practicing religion in institutionalized membership-based groups—cannot be reduced to one factor or even a set of factors, no matter how diverse. Because I was a humanities major (I just had that one statistics class. Twice.), I turn to the novelist Margaret Drabble to explain what I’m getting at here:You can’t learn everything from the laboratory, that’s what he used to say. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, he told us. The whole behaves differently from the parts, and has different properties. That’s what he taught us, and he was right. It’s out of fashion to say these days, when we spend our time scrutinizing the interactions of eukaryotic microbes, but it’s true, nevertheless. It’s still true. (The Sea Lady)More significantly, the trouble with efforts that seek some root cause for what we have come to think of as an increasing decline in religious affiliation but which, when considered across a wider historical time span, turns out to be something of a normalization in affiliation patterns, is that it gets the question backwards.

That is, instead of asking why people aren’t religiously affiliated anymore, we might ask why they ever were. This question, which brings with it questions about what constitutes “religion” and “religious affiliation,” opens enquiry into the social and political construction of religious groups and the pressures borne upon ordinary people, often violently, to attend worship rather than, say, sitting in the park with family and friends enjoying the warmth of the sun, the smell of the grass, and perhaps the otherwise unlanguagable sigh of the human heart in certain moments of connection, contentedness, and wonder as a sweet piper’s tune sings into the air. It allows us, following Talal Asad’s critique of William Cantwell Smith’s conception of “faith,” to consider what elements of human experience are deliberately and incidentally left out of whatever it is we might understand as “religion” in its institutionalized forms, and why. Who is served by the various exclusions and inclusions of institutional religion? To what ends? And who is harmed?

What we might consider, then, with much more nuance and complexity than mere data manipulation can possibly tell us, is whether the idea of religion along with the institutional and ideological structures this idea has sponsored, has begun to run its course in Western culture. At the least, we might look at they ways in which other social platforms—coffee shops, cycling groups, drop-in yoga classes, and, yes, online social networking sites—have begun to reconfigure and redistribute benefits traditionally correlated with (but not necessarily caused by) religion and to mitigate its associated harms (even if also accruing harms of its own).
Yet another article addresses the claims in the first two articles:

Christianity’s faith-based freakout: Why atheism makes believers so uncomfortable

Rather than respecting the right of atheists to disbelieve, Christians are constantly forcing them to fake it

By Greta Christina
Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. It’s a bad idea, and can’t stand up on its own. But it can, and does, perpetuate itself through social consent. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life. It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion—or pretending to believe in religion—a necessity to function and indeed survive. It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are hard-wired to believe what they’re told.

Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, “Actually, I’m an atheist,” we’re still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion’s engine.

There’s a reason that rates of atheism have been going up as use of the Internet goes up. (According to the MIT Technology Review, the dramatic drop in religious affiliation in the U.S. since 1990 is closely mirrored by the increase in Internet use—and while correlation certainly doesn’t prove causation, this analysis factors out pretty much every other possible causation.) The Internet has created a massive worldwide forum for atheists to argue about religion, to give evidence against religion, to ask for evidence and arguments supporting religion and point out how ridiculously weak they are. But the Internet has also created a massive, worldwide forum for atheists to simply, you know, exist.

In my research for “Coming Out Atheist,” I read numerous stories of atheists who had stayed religious for years—simply because everyone around them was religious, and they never considered the possibility that someone could be non-religious. But this is becoming less and less common. It’s getting harder and harder to keep atheism a secret. If you’re a teenager in a tiny town in the Bible Belt, you can now find out about atheists. You can talk with atheists. You can argue with atheists. You can learn what atheists think and why they think it. And you can simply learn that atheists exist, and are basically good people who love life and find great meaning in it. And that, just by itself, just by denying consent to your religion, stands a good chance of putting a serious dent in it.
Comment:  These analyses apply to other irrational beliefs such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. These beliefs are also on their way out for similar reasons. The world is slowly becoming more liberal and multicultural, and there's nothing conservatives can do to stop it.

For more on the subject, see Conservative Christians in Panic Mode and Conservative Christian Persecution Fantasies.

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