UNITED STATES, Salon, AMANDA MARCOTTE, ALTERNET
While the burgeoning atheist movement loves throwing conferences and selling books, a huge chunk–possibly most–of its resources go toward the Internet. This isn’t borne out of laziness or a hostility to wearing pants so much as a belief that the Internet is uniquely positioned as the perfect tool for sharing arguments against religion with believers who are experiencing doubts. It’s searchable, it allows back-and-forth debate, and it makes proving your arguments through links much easier. Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand.
In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the ’90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it–dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education–increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.
But in the past few months, that hypothesis grew even stronger when a major American religion basically had to admit that Internet arguments against their faith is putting them on their heels. The Church of Latter Day Saints has quietly released a series of essays, put together by church historians, addressing some of the less savory aspects of their history, such as the practice of polygamy or the ban on black members. The church sent out a memo in September telling church leaders to direct believers who have questions about their religion’s history to these essays, which they presented as a counter to “detractors” who “spread misinformation and doubt.” …
The Internet generally gathered around President Obama for his recent comments endorsing an extremely strong version of net neutrality that would make it very difficult for corporate internet providers to give certain people preferential internet access over others. His comments were seen as a victory for political activists, everyday bloggers, and non-profits that would lose out on the ability to compete with moneyed corporations and other institutions in the free-for-all that is internet discourse. But atheists and critics of religion also win out with net neutrality. Giant, well-funded churches would probably love to pay for better access to your computer screen than any atheist blogger could afford, but if net neutrality becomes the law, they won’t have that ability. …
At a recent conference on technology held by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Monsignor Paul Tighe expressed concerns that the Catholic Church is losing out by not being more aggressive online. “If the church in some way is not present in the digital, we’re going to be absent from the experience and from the lives of many people,” he said. “If we withdraw, then we’re leaving those areas to the trolls. We’re leaving it to the bullies.”
Again, it’s hard to believe that trolls and bullies, as irritating as they may be, are the real issue here–trolling is aggravating, but it’s not very persuasive. No, the real threat to the faith is people making strong cases against the Catholic Church and religion in general. Some of those cases are boldly stated and some are more polite and accommodating, but either way, they are real arguments and far more threatening to religion than some trolls saying stupid stuff that is best ignored.