Valerie Tarico explores a very interesting question: Is the internet destroying religion? She argues that the reason why churches are struggling to keep their members from leaving is because the internet is making it more and more difficult for them to maintain the “closed information system” that they require to survive.
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.
She argues that things like cool science videos on Youtube, sites like mine that chronicle the many ways that religion harms people and society, and just the awareness that there are other perspectives out there all contribute to the rapid growth of the nones and the waning of church membership and religious belief. She also argues that the availability of online communities for the faithless gives people support in their transition from belief to non-belief that was rarely available 15 or 20 years ago. All good points.
Will this make religion a thing of the past eventually? I highly doubt it, as I doubt all such predictions of the imminent demise of religion for any reason. Current trends are all but certain to continue and religious belief will undoubtedly continue to decline, but I can’t imagine it will ever disappear. It serves too many functions for too many people, quite aside from whether the beliefs are true or not. The best we can hope for, I think, is for religion to become mostly irrelevant, as it is in most of the countries of Northern Europe. And that’s quite enough.