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!