While the burgeoning atheist movement loves throwing conferences and selling books, a huge chunk--possibly most--of its resources go toward the Internet. This isn’t borne out of laziness or a hostility to wearing pants so much as a belief that the Internet is uniquely positioned as the perfect tool for sharing arguments against religion with believers who are experiencing doubts. It’s searchable, it allows back-and-forth debate, and it makes proving your arguments through links much easier. Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand.
In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the '90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it--dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education--increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.
But in the past few months, that hypothesis grew even stronger when a major American religion basically had to admit that Internet arguments against their faith is putting them on their heels. The Church of Latter Day Saints has quietly released a series of essays, put together by church historians, addressing some of the less savory aspects of their history, such as the practice of polygamy or the ban on black members. The church sent out a memo in September telling church leaders to direct believers who have questions about their religion’s history to these essays, which they presented as a counter to “detractors” who “spread misinformation and doubt.”
While there are plenty of detractors who will share their opinions offline, there’s little doubt that the bulk of the detractors plaguing the church are explaining their views online, which is why this has become a problem now for a church that used to act like it could exert total control over believers’ access to information. One of the church historians, Steven Snow, openly cited the internet as the source of the criticisms. “There is so much out there on the Internet ,” he told the New York Times, “that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”
While the memo sent to church leaders strongly implied that the websites bothering believers are full of disinformation, the likelier story is that they’re worried about all the historically accurate information out there. The Mormons tend to be plagued more than other major churches by historically accurate information, because they are a relatively new church and the historical records on their founders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are intact and hard to deny. This concern is reflected in the nature of the essays, which openly admit a lot of information that the church used to spend a lot of effort in minimizing, facts like exactly how many wives Joseph Smith had or the fact that polygamy was practiced by many members long after the church officially banned it. Not that they had much of a choice. If members of the church learn this stuff from Wikipedia instead of from their own religious authorities, it will likely sow more anger and distrust of the church for misleading them.
The Internet generally gathered around President Obama for his recent comments endorsing an extremely strong version of net neutrality that would make it very difficult for corporate internet providers to give certain people preferential internet access over others. His comments were seen as a victory for political activists, everyday bloggers, and non-profits that would lose out on the ability to compete with moneyed corporations and other institutions in the free-for-all that is internet discourse. But atheists and critics of religion also win out with net neutrality. Giant, well-funded churches would probably love to pay for better access to your computer screen than any atheist blogger could afford, but if net neutrality becomes the law, they won’t have that ability.
The Mormons might be the most obvious example of a church that has had to deal directly with non-believers using the Internet to get unprecedented abilities to publicize their critiques of religion, but there’s good reason to believe that the feedback religions are getting online is hurting other churches. Is it any coincidence that Pope Francis is undertaking the monumental task of trying to make the Catholic Church seem a little less forbidding in the age of the Internet?
At a recent conference on technology held by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Monsignor Paul Tighe expressed concerns that the Catholic Church is losing out by not being more aggressive online. “If the church in some way is not present in the digital, we’re going to be absent from the experience and from the lives of many people,” he said. “If we withdraw, then we’re leaving those areas to the trolls. We’re leaving it to the bullies.”
Again, it’s hard to believe that trolls and bullies, as irritating as they may be, are the real issue here--trolling is aggravating, but it’s not very persuasive. No, the real threat to the faith is people making strong cases against the Catholic Church and religion in general. Some of those cases are boldly stated and some are more polite and accommodating, but either way, they are real arguments and far more threatening to religion than some trolls saying stupid stuff that is best ignored.
It will be interesting to see how religions adapt to the fact that the Internet makes it that much harder for them to control their believers’ access to information. Some will probably be adaptable, like the Mormons, realizing that a little more information-sharing and transparency is the only way to keep trust alive. Others, like Pastor Mark Driscoll of the fundamentalist Mars Hill Church in Seattle, will react by doubling down, trying to convince their followers to stay off the Internet rather than read persuasive cases against their beliefs. But the Internet’s beauty is it makes satisfying basic curiosity as easy as typing some words into a search bar. Odds are that’s a temptation fewer and fewer believers will be able to resist.