Last year, Christian apologist Josh McDowell made a remarkable claim about the Internet, stating that “the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism... the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”
He said that like it was a bad thing.
It’s not hard to see why McDowell is afraid, though. Open access to knowledge -- the ability to fact check your pastors and imams and rabbis -- is a death knell for religion as we know it, and the Internet is only hastening the process. (I focus on Christianity in this piece because it has the largest Web presence in the United States.)
It wasn’t long ago when statements made in a pulpit were simply assumed to be true. Now, a child with an iPhone in the pew can find ample evidence contradicting whatever the men of God are saying. That “true story” your pastor is telling? Snopes.com debunked it long ago. Gay marriage is destructive, he says? Thousands of YouTube videos made by gays and lesbians in love -- as well as other Christians -- can attest otherwise. Evolution is a liberal conspiracy? TalkOrigins.org will show you how to respond to every argument on the Creationist side. Abstinence-only sex education is working? Not according to the new scientific study you just read.
It’s not only the abundance of information creating nightmares for church leaders. It’s the simple fact that, with a lack of physical buildings in which to meet, atheists tend to congregate online. Until the Internet came along, we didn’t have a space where we could talk about our (lack of) religious beliefs but between blogs, podcasts, and social media sites, atheists have thrived in the age of the Internet.
All the evidence -- and quite a bit of the commentary you read online -- is in our favor and, unless a church forces members to exist in complete isolation from the rest of society, it’s inevitable that they’re going to be exposed to the evidence contradicting their own beliefs one way or the other. It may have been possible to “protect” Christians from opposing viewpoints before the Internet but it’s hard as hell to do that now. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s easy to find other who disagree with what your pastor may be saying.
Sure, the Internet is a great place to find a church or hear a sermon -- but for every site informing you about a church’s location, there’s a forum with a negative review of the same place. You can post a sermon online, but others will post responses and rebuttals to it. You can blog about Jesus all you want, but anonymous commenters will quickly poke holes in your faulty logic for everyone to see.
Church used to be a one-way street. The pastor fed you information and that was that. The Internet upended that model and gave people the opportunity to talk back. Now, they can weigh their own arguments on matters of faith with that of people who disagree. Many Christians won’t go actively searching for dissenting views, of course, but what about doubters? What about young Christians who aren’t sure they accept what the church teaches them? They’ll be able to come to their own conclusions and they won’t necessarily be the same ones their parents and pastors want them to adopt.
This is why atheists love the Internet. We can tell Christians the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. We can question the dogma they’ve simply accepted all their lives. We can expose religious frauds. We can explain the many unfortunate consequences of unquestioned belief. The Internet is blind faith’s worst nightmare.
The genie’s not going back in the bottle. Religious leaders should be very afraid.
Hemant Mehta blogs at The Friendly Atheist.