Is the Internet Killing Religion?
Internet killed the Bethlehem Star?
That was the question being discussed last week when The Washington Post’s On Faith debuted a series of perspective articles on the future of religion in the internet age. They invited three contributors to provide their own unique answers to the question of whether the internet is undermining religion in America. Hemant Mehta answers in the affirmative, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. answers in the negative while acknowledging the new challenges that new technology brings, and Rachel Held Evans‘s view is largely inconsequential for my tastes.
Surprisingly, I found atheist blogger Mehta’s article to be the most thought provoking out of the three, but I guess that fact shouldn’t be too surprising considering this guy has actually “sold his soul” on ebay (I’m not gonna explain it here, just Google it if you’re interested). Mehta begins his article by referencing a Josh McDowell statement that appeared in Relevant Magazine last year; McDowell claimed that the medium of the internet has pretty much “Changed Everything.”
I’ve highlighted some quotes from McDowell:
“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… whether you like it or not.”
“If [atheists around 15 years ago] wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university.”
“I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”
Mehta at least appreciates McDowell’s candor in assessing how the internet may yet prove to be a nearly insurmountable challenge for the propagation of a Christian witness to our children and youth. A proud atheist, Metha gleefully celebrates how increasing “open access to knowledge” via the internet medium may well prove to be the “death knell for religion as we know it.”
Mehta’s analysis of the situation is poignant and possibly prophetic:
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. . . .
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. . . .
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.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 famously states that “There is nothing new under the sun.” That is a true statement, but periodically something new really does show up that forever changes the way the world works. Mehta raised a fascinating point about how the pastor’s funny little story or factoid he may have been repeating for the past 15 years can be quickly dismissed by a kid with a mobile device and a Google search. A preacher used to be able to wield some control over his own message, but with the advent of camera phones, anything he might say can go viral on somebody’s YouTube account (either in or out of context). Whereas congregants in past years may have been encouraged to take notes of the sermon for their personal study and devotion, the unleashing of sermons on the internet can open a pastor up to the critiques of the entire online community.
It’s clear that the stakes have already been raised for preachers across the world. Gone may be the days when the preacher could get away with some made-up or loosely-remembered bit of rhetorical gold. The internet has leveled the playing field between the seminary trained preacher and his congregation. Furthermore, spiritual sojourns may not bother to make their pastor their go-to-guy for their theological questions when they view Wikipedia and an online forum as more trustworthy sources of authority.
Unlike Mehta, I don’t believe evangelical Christianity in America is going to disappear anything soon. As Al Mohler notes, “a digital preacher is not going to preach your funeral, nor visit you in the hospital.” Nevertheless, Christians must recognize the new challenges of the Digital Age. We should not be so careless as to say things or quote stories until we’ve first followed due diligence to make sure that information is reliable. Reaching the culture, and most importantly our young people, is going to require that Christians both preach a robust gospel message and pay attention to the pulse of the internet so that we might get a better idea about how people think and act. To quote Mohler once more:
The Internet is now the first and most immediate source of news, the most accessible form of information, and the most efficient way of reaching people. To be absent from the Internet is to be absent from many of the most important conversations and debates of our times. . . . Of course, the dark side is always close at hand. Christians have known for 2,000 years that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” The same holds true for the Internet. There is no way to avoid the Internet and remain relevant to the cultural conversation. . . . You might say that Christians are called to be on the Internet, but not of it.
Knowledge can be a wonderful thing, but we must not forget that humanity’s first parents were seduced by “The Tree of Knowledge.” Perhaps, we’ve been repeating their error ever since. There is no clear guide on just we ought to go about being “on the Internet, but not of it,” but neither are there always clear guides on how we ought to be “in the world, but not of it.” Only Jesus Christ has ever walked that fine line perfectly, and we could sure use more of His grace as we engage in our daily walks both online and offline.