Does the Internet Spell the Doom of Organized Religion?

Religion is in decline in many places around the world. Here’s one theory why.

January 12, 2013  |  

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As we head into a new year, the guardians of traditional religion are ramping up efforts to keep their flocks–or, in crass economic terms, to retain market share.  Some Christians have turned to soul searching while others have turned to marketing. Last fall, the LDS church spent millions on billboards, bus banners, and Facebook ads touting “I’m a Mormon.” In Canada, the Catholic Church has launched a “ Come Home” marketing campaign. The Southern Baptists Convention voted to rebrand themselves. A hipster mega-church in Seattle combines smart advertising with sales force training for members and a strategy the Catholics have emphasized for centuries: competitive breeding.  

In October of 2012 the Pew Research Center announced that for the first time ever Protestant Christians had fallen below 50 percent of the American population. Atheists cheered and evangelicals beat their breasts and lamented the end of the world as we know it. Historian of religion, Molly Worthen, has since offered big picture insights that may dampen the most extreme hopes and fears.  Anthropologist Jennife r James, on the other hand, has called fundamentalism the “death rattle” of the Abrahamic traditions.  

In all of the frenzy, few seem to give any recognition to the player that I see as the primary hero, or, if you prefer, culprit–and I’m not talking about science populizer and atheist superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then again, maybe Iam talking about Tyson in a sense, because in his various viral guises–as a talk show host and tweeter and as the face on scores of smartass Facebook memes–Tyson is an incarnation of the biggest threat that organized religion has ever faced: the internet.

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. Here are five kinds of web content that are like, well, like electrolysis on religion’s hairy toes.

Radically cool science videos and articles. Religion evokes some of our most deeply satisfying emotions: joy, for example, and transcendence, and wonder. This is what Einstein was talking about when he said that “science without religion is lame.” If scientific inquiry doesn’t fill us at times with delight and even speechless awe at new discoveries or the mysteries that remain, then we are missing out on the richest part of the experience. Fortunately, science can provide all of the above, and certain masters of the trade and sectors of the internet are remarkably effective at evoking the wonder–the spirituality if you will–of the natural world unveiled. Some of my own favorites include Symphony of scienceNOVATEDRSA Animate, and Birdnote.