Is the Internet really atheism’s greatest tool?

Guest post by Edmund Standing:

In July 2011, Campus Crusade for Christ International apologist Josh McDowell warned that the Internet poses a great threat to Christianity because:

The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have.

Meanwhile, from the atheist side, we find claims such as this:

Want proof that religion is dying? Look no further than the dominance of atheists on the Internet. We own this place, and it’s only matter of time before we mock faith into non-existence.

So, is the Internet really leading to an explosion of atheism and will it really sound the death knell for Christianity?

Perhaps such questions can only be adequately answered in the future, given how relatively young the Internet still is, and given the extent to which the West still dominates the Internet, in terms both of users and content. However, I’m unconvinced that the bold claims about atheism taking over thanks to the Internet ring true.

The Internet is an incredibly fast moving and relatively ephemeral ‘place’. Social networking and video websites are amongst the most used sites on the Internet and both are based largely around superficial trends and fads that come – and more importantly go – at a speed unknown a few generations ago. Twitter, for example, is one of the leading social media websites, where topics and ideas fly around at great speed, rising for a short while as ‘trending’ topics, only to quickly disappear and be replaced by some new fascination. On the Internet, news, ideas, videos, and pictures quickly go ‘viral’, but very few hang around for long. Last year saw the explosion of the ‘KONY 2012′ viral video campaign (which was endorsed by various celebrities). Its popularity led President Obama to make comments about the campaign, yet now, in 2013, it has long since ceased to be a ‘trending topic‘. Then there were the supposed Mayan prophecies of the world ending in 2012, which caused a buzz online and have now – unsurprisingly – disappeared from view. A look at Google’s top searches of 2012 likewise reveals the extent of the superficiality of popular Internet usage.

Just as the Internet moves at a very fast pace, so does the ‘real world’. A few years ago, the world seemed to be going Da Vinci Code mad. People everywhere were talking about Jesus and his supposed relationship with Mary Magdalene. Articles appeared in the press, documentaries appeared on TV, and a feature film was released. But nowadays, who’s talking about any of that? A few years after that, it seemed atheism was everywhere, with a series of books being published (such as The God Delusion and God is not great) that propelled atheism into the media spotlight and led to the claim that this was a ‘new atheism’. The media hype around ‘new atheism’ has now died down, if not died out.

Neither books nor Internet content now seem able to truly hold the attention of the masses for very long, and while the ‘new atheism’ phenomenon has arguably led to atheism having a higher profile online, much of it is of a very superficial nature. Internet atheism seems to be predominantly a trend led by young Internet users, many of whom are not so much philosophical atheists but rather nihilistic youngsters looking for a new avenue for rebellion and a new target for their love of ‘trolling’ and the spreading of Internet ‘memes’. A certain type of Internet atheist seems to love pictures featuring supposedly ‘clever’ put-downs of religion, offering deliberately reductionist explanations of the (Abrahamic) religious worldview, the claim that the Bible contains nothing but ‘fairy tales‘, weak jokes about the Resurrection being nothing more than the story of a ‘Jewish Zombie‘, and claims that religious believers are ‘stupid‘ and that religion is a ‘mental illness‘. This kind of ‘jargonising‘ offers nothing of worth to serious discussions of religion.

Leaving this kind of trivial material aside, it is of course the case that atheists have made very good use of the Internet, in terms of the vast amount of atheist and sceptical material that is now available to the curious searcher. However, one cannot help wondering what percentage of Internet users are willing to give up what spare time they have to trawling through large websites filled with long articles seeking to debunk faith. Religion may appear a minority interest in the dazzling new electronic world, but then atheism is too. There may be plenty who will be swayed to discard their faith having come across Internet atheist material, but it is arguably the case that such people were probably only nominally religious to begin with. The main demographic in the online atheist ‘convert’ community seems to be people who were brought up in some sort of fundamentalism and have now rejected that narrow faith in favour of an equally narrow and passionate atheism (or anti-theism). Such people are already very engaged in some sense with religion or religious ideas and will largely have specifically sought out atheist materials as a result. In order for atheism to truly triumph in the Internet context, it would have to grip a large proportion of people who have not actively sought it out. I’m unconvinced this is actually happening.

Arguably, if anything is triumphing on the Internet (aside from the kind of ephemeral online trends cited earlier) it is actually a kind of irrationalism which, far from being based on serious consideration of issues traditionally at the heart of philosophical discussion (the meaning of life, the existence or otherwise of God, ethics, and so on) leans instead towards conspiracy theories and a kind of ‘scepticism’ that is far from that advocated by atheists. Jonathan Kay, author of a recent book on conspiracism, has argued that the growth in Internet conspiracy theory materials has led to ‘nothing less than a rift in the fabric of consensual American reality’. Interestingly, when recounting his experiences of interviewing conspiracy believers, Kay argues that ‘they wouldn’t be doing this if they had some satisfying worldview that gave them the kind of intellectual and emotional stability they were looking for in their life’. Perhaps it is here that the Internet may actually lead to a revival of interest in Christianity. If Internet users start to desire something real, something that makes sense beyond the shifting electronic sands of the Web, something that anchors reality and truth in an age of speed and confusion, and something that brings rest from the chaotic nature of modern life, it may well be that beliefs that offer a connection between the past, the present, and the future will take on a new appeal. Atheism, in comparison, will never offer a satisfying worldview that provides the kind of intellectual and emotional stability so many crave.

Will the Internet really destroy Christianity?

I wouldn’t count on it!

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6 Replies to “Is the Internet really atheism’s greatest tool?”

  1. Nice post. I can honestly say that the Internet has provide me a refuge and a lighting in my spiritual journey. As someone that was moving away from fundamentalism I have found comfort in the words of those that have come before in that journey. Places like this blog have been a blessing to me and helped talk me down from the edge a couple times.

  2. I’ve thought along those same lines, though I think the internet is ephemeral for those who are ephemeral, and it’s the largest library for those who dig deep. It’s a puddle from which a gnat may drink, and a sea in which an elephant may bathe. And it’s a place for people to sharpen their wits and learn from each other via debate. You can find anyone to debate on any subject on the internet, and if you simply look you can run into some pretty sharp folks you never would have met in pre-internet days. And such discussions usually leads to more reading and research. Sure, I’m not saying all internet debates are scholarly nor that they won’t devolve into more heat than light. But back in the days before the internet you couldn’t fact check political debates easily or speedily. (I suspect Romney and Ryan’s campaign was fact-checked to death, but they probably could have gotten away with of their claims in the good old days. And in the good old days you had to wait for a few wits like Mencken to write columns, but today everyone is writing a column, and it surprises me how articulate some online bloggers can be.)

    I suspect conspiracy theories rise in proportion to how down the future economy or state of the planet seems or how out of control and dangerous it seems. But most people on the internet don’t hang round at any particular conspiracy website for long or they also hang round on other sites, many of which have nothing to do with conpiracies because ringing the same bell gets pretty boring. There’s a zillion other things out there and people to learn from.

    The mind is such that it can get bored and naturally seek something “different” just like the taste buds. And there’s a limitless buffet served all day and night on the internet, comedy, music, theology, philosophy, science, photos, videos, God, dating, sex, and communication with friends and family and with people of similar interests, or people to debate. People like variety.

    I agree that atheism does not provide or ensure emotional stability, neither does fundamentalism, neither does any worldview. That’s because it’s the world itself, not one’s “worldview” that can drive a person nuts, make them frustrated, or depressed. It’s a grindhouse of a planet with its pains, frustrations, all the slings and arrows of fortune, the necessity of labor, bodily necessities, physical and mental needs, and clouds of emotion.

    I think atheism includes learning to live with the ideas that upset us most, and dares us to find beauty in a garden even if it’s not filled with fairies, dares us to linger over connections between us and other animals and the stars, and if one has an agnostic or mystical bent, noting that there is a mystery to this matrix in which we live, of which we don’t know the beginning or ending, or what else is out there besides us and our cosmos.

    Somebody asked Confucius about another world, and his reply was “How should I, who know so little about this world, know anything about another?”

    If you live right, death is a joke to you as far as fear is concerned.
    -Will Rogers

    He deserves paradise who can make his companions laugh.
    -The Koran

    We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
    -Tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, quoted in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

  3. I should add in reference to your musings on the lack of power of internet atheism that the internet DOES have an influence when it comes to the God question. Atheists have never been so noticed before. Atheist bestsellers and websites and blogs. Christian apologists live to debate them. And Christians can be seen debating each other as never before on conservative Protestant blogs and conservative Catholic blogs. On and on it goes. The diversity and exposure that the internet gives to any belief or topic is clearly visible, especially the width of the spectrum of views, so the internet can’t help but have a general moderating or even liberalizing effect, or agnosticising effect on folks who see how few debaters ever change sides and how the rationalizations and assumptions on all sides go on endlessly. And just seeing how MANY sides there are, as in the “viewpoints” series of books by a Christian publisher, adds to the moderating, liberalizing effect I mentioned.

    A recent poll in the U.S. also showed that non-believers were growing faster than a lot of other groups, and that even among Christians, the percentages of those switching denominations, back and forth, was at an all time high. And Protestantism in the U.S. has slipped beneath the 50% mark for the first time ever.

  4. I also like the fact that the internet provides Christians with greater diversity of views, including the newly formed Christian group that is pro-evolution and anti-I.D., the BIOLOGOS website. To start a physical BIOLOGOS institute with a print journal would have required far greater expenditures of money, like the kind fundamentalists at ICR and AIG could come up with. But now even Christians who are evolutionists are speaking out and sharing their views. It’s a fine thing to see, as well as Christians who are not simply spouting that gays are damned, and also Christians who are not demanding that the Bible is inerrant. It’s far easier to find such folks now. While the truly strident folks like the Westboro Baptist Church or other strongly fundamentalist websites and writers can be seen bemoaning the fact that they are losing the next generation. So even conservative Protestantism in the U.S. seems to be shifting more to the left.

  5. From a Mormon point of view with Mormon upbringing one thing we’ve been taught that when it comes to society, don’t bash others and tell them they’re evil, and don’t think you’re the best. Because when it comes down to it, we’re all on the same planet, for the same reason, with the same goal, but with our own mind and way of getting there. The beauty of agency.

    Not all religions are wrong, nor are they perfect. Some find that us mormons in the LDS church beliefs are what they were looking for. Others tell us to go to hell and they continue on, and so do we. I think every religion has a grain of truth to it. I think I remember a quote that said something along the lines of “when one group puts themselves above the others, they’re the ones who are wrong.” Granted, this makes many get the impression we think we’re thinking we’re all above everyone, and sadly there’s members of every church and denomination who thinks that. That’s human nature. You’ll even find it in athieism. I’ve noticed a lot of “internet Athiests” who’ll go up and say that athiests are above religions and everyone else is inferior and needs to die (i’ve had that comment. not good motivation for a teen…)

    It’s kinda like this:

    Regular Athiests (like one of my friends, very nice and cool guy.)
    Internet Athiests (… some question if they’re trolls or actually athiests, including some athiests…)
    Internet thiests (get in to arguements with the internet athiests, and causes the blood (ok it’s text) of the internet to flow swiftly…)
    Regular thiests (Believe in their beliefs and don’t care what others say, it’s their personal belief.)

    And the thing is, there’s no reason to bash science and religion saying they don’t go together… Personally, I say that God’s time is not the same as our time. Com’on? He’s eternal, time must be different. and there’s a scripture somewhere saying something like “one day to God is a great many thousand years to man” (can I point out that creation goes like this: Sun and planets first (day/night)[mind you, 2 days for this part…], Land, plants everywhere, ocean creatures followed soon after by animals on land, then some more animals such as cattle (mammals?) soon after followed by Humans… Very close to the evolutionary timeline, except that plants made it to land before animals in the ocean were really about… but eh, pretty close to me.)

    And let’s not forget the old testament has had the “translation effect” on it pretty well too. Mis Interpretations (illiteracy causing issues) editors adding or glossing over important stuff makes such a book hard to read. It was originally the record of the Jews, and such a book most likely existed. But it was annotated, translated back and forth some estimated what? 500 times? Remember those “google translate sings” videos? Same with the allegories, such as “eve was made from Adam’s rib.” I’ve learned it’s an allegory which says that Man and woman were, and are equal (and woman was the crowning creation of God so… yeah… ) Often times explanations to simplify something to a past people get a bit mixed up with the later dispensation of people.

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