Does the Web Lead to Skepticism?
Will the availability of information on the internet spell the end of Christianity? How does one sort through the avalanche of information available today and arrive at truth?
Does the Web Lead to Skepticism?
Kevin Harris: Well, he's a very friendly guy. In fact he's got a blog called The Friendly Atheist, and he's got a piece, Bill, in the Washington Post that got our attention: “How The Web is Killing Faith.” Hemant Mehta also is famous for selling his soul on EBay and that got him nationwide press. Widely read. And this is quoting Josh McDowell (something, Bill, that also made it in the press) and that he,
made a remarkable claim about the Internet, stating that “the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism… the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”
Well, this writer says that,
He said that like it was a bad thing.
It's not hard to see why McDowell is afraid, though. Open access to knowledge – the ability to fact check your pastors and imams and rabbis – is a death knell for religion as we know it, and the Internet is only hastening the process.
That's how this article begins. Let's talk about Josh McDowell's statement.
Dr. Craig: Alright. I think that here it is very important that we understand what the original context was, which is not given, because we know, Kevin, as we've explained in previous podcasts that sentences lifted out of context can be given a very different interpretation than what the author meant. And I can think of an interpretation of Josh's statement with which I would be in 100% agreement. Notice that he does not say that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information leads to atheism; he does not say that. What he says is that the abundance of information will not lead to certainty, it will lead to pervasive skepticism; and I think that's absolutely correct. I get emails all the time from people who are suffering from what I call information overload. There is simply so much information out there on different topics that students feel utterly overwhelmed and they don't know what to believe. And so it isn't that there are no good reasons to believe in God, it's not that knowledge has somehow exposed that religious belief is false, as Mehta would portray it; quite the opposite, it's that there's so much out there that it's hard to know which way the truth lies. As one student said to me, for every argument, there's a counterargument, there are representatives on both sides, there's websites on both sides, books on both sides, people just feel utterly overwhelmed by this information overload that exists today, and so they have little course but skepticism. It's not that they become irreligious or think that atheism is true, it's simply that they don't know what to believe, they're confused. And very often they will ask, “How do I get out of this? How do I work it out to find out what really is true?” So this kind of information overload really is just as much a death knell and threat to atheism as it is to theism.
Kevin Harris: Oh, the sword cuts both ways.
Dr. Craig: Of course, yes, the sword cuts both ways. And I think McDowell's prediction – and that's what it is, it's a prediction – is probably sociologically correct. What it also might lead to, interestingly, Kevin, would be fideism, because, you see, if you can't make up your mind based on the evidence because of the overload of information you may be tempted to just make a leap of faith and just follow your emotions. So it could lead to skepticism, it could also lead to fideism in many cases where you just make a leap in the dark. So this is a problem for anybody who holds to a certain position. It's really even true with regard to non-religious issues, say, for example, about what foods are healthy to eat and will help prevent cancer. Should you be a vegetarian, should you eat meat? What sort of antioxidants are best? Should you be juicing, should you take vitamins? Just the amount of information requires years of study to make determinations about that, and it seems like the medical studies are changing all the time. So information overload is a problem for any sort of position that takes a view.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, being that the sword cuts both ways there. And we're entering a new era, Bill, that we'll have to be even more diligent about the information that we receive due to the information overload, because there's as much disinformation as there is information.
Dr. Craig: Exactly, and that's part of the problem, is that the philosophically or historically or scientifically untrained person doesn't know whether or not that YouTube video he's watching is disinformation or not, or whether it's accurate. So it takes discernment, it takes training and patience in order to discern where the truth lies.
Kevin Harris: Now, he's also leveling this age old accusation of controlling the media and controlling information, controlling knowledge so that you can control the people, and so on. And obviously, though, Bill, open access to knowledge, the ability to fact check and things like that, is a good thing.
Dr. Craig: Sure.
Kevin Harris: But that's just one of the good things that can be culled from the web, but you certainly have a lot of stuff to parse through. So your response to those who feel that they're overwhelmed and can't make up their minds because of all the information and contra-information out there, what do you typically encourage one to do?
Dr. Craig: Well, as a Christian I explain to them that according to my religious epistemology Christian belief is not primarily based upon evidence, it is based upon the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit, and that is available to anyone whether he has no evidence, whether he has contrary evidence, whether he is overwhelmed with evidence and doesn’t know which way to follow the evidence. A loving God who wants us to come to know him would not leave it up to us to work out by our own ingenuity and cleverness which way the evidence points, where the truth lies. Rather an all-loving God would seek to draw us to himself by his Holy Spirit, and that's exactly what the Bible says God has done.
So while I encourage people to look at the evidence, ultimately I think it's important to explain that we are not prisoners of simply following the evidence which can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing. There are non-evidential ways of knowing truth, and the witness of the Holy Spirit is one of these.
In addition to that I would say, however, that if you want to figure out which way the evidence points then I'm afraid there just isn't any alternative, Kevin, to patient, diligent study of the issue and taking your time to work through it. You can do it. For example, if you take a digestible bit of information, say just one of the arguments for the existence of God, and read the people who are proponents of the argument, read the replies of the opponents, and take notes on this – don't just react emotionally – write down the arguments, write down the premises, and then write down the specific objections that the unbeliever would level against this argument. And then read the responses of the original proponents to the objectors. I have tried in my own work to be very forthcoming in responding to critics of my arguments. I want to be responsible in responding to good criticisms of the arguments that I offer. And so those are available. By contrast, someone like a Richard Dawkins levels all of these objections in the book The God Delusion but you will look in vain for any response of Dawkins to the criticisms of his objections. He has yet to respond to the published criticisms that have been offered. And that ought to tell the sincere seeker something. In exploring this he will eventually come to a point where he should be able to decide for himself which way the evidence actually points. But that can be a long and toilsome process, and on evidentialism there's no way around it.
Fortunately, I think, as I say, that we're not just prisoners of evidence, that God has provided a non-evidential way to know him which is available to all persons everywhere, even to the illiterate, to those who have no library resources, those who are so over-worked they have no leisure time to study, those who are suffering from information overload.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, you've pointed this out before, that that would just relegate the majority of Christians in the history of the world and in the contemporary world to irrationalism. God in his grace has seen to it that this problem is addressed by him. There are people who don't have the resources, and they didn't have the internet in the middle ages or the first, second, third, fourth century, and so on. So it's actually a grace of God that the witness of the Holy Spirit objectively can bring us to faith in Christ, and then all the arguments and evidence are there as well, you'll find that there are no defeaters.
Dr. Craig: Right, I think that as Christians who have the leisure time, the education, and the resources to investigate these issues, we have a kind of double warrant for Christian belief. We have the primary warrant, which is the witness of the Spirit, but then we have a dual warrant, which is the force of rational argument and evidence confirming that. And so we are the beneficiaries of a kind of double warrant of Christian faith. But for many people they may not have that second warrant because of the contingencies of history and geography. But they will have that first warrant.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, you've said, also, that criteria of evidence changes from person to person and era to era. I mean standards of evidence, of what people will accept as evidence – it varies from person to person and era to era. And so God covers that problem as well.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's right. An omnipotent and loving God who wants people to know him isn't going to just abandon them to sort through, in this case, information overload, without his help.
Kevin Harris: And, Bill, it occurs to me, I'll run this past you, that even though there are billions and billions of bites and articles out there on the topics and on the big questions and the question of God, it still seems to be limited to only a few basic things anyway that are contemplated over and over and over. Occasionally a new insight will come up. But what I'm saying is, despite the flood of information, when it comes to something like the problem of evil there are narrow parameters of what needs to be considered when considering the problem of evil. It's not like there's all this stuff.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and I would encourage people to take bite-sized bits, as you just said. Don't try to assess everything. Take one argument, one objection, and work on it. That's doable. In fact if you're a college student this would be a great subject for a term paper in one of your classes where you can take one these issues and begin to really explore it. The other thing I want to advise students about is to beware of using the internet alone as your source of research information. I sometimes despair when I hear students say, “Well, I researched this topic by going on the internet.” And so what they do is come to all these blog sites and YouTube videos and so forth, which are many times put up my amateurs, there's no peer review, and they're grossly unreliable. Students need to get familiar with peer-reviewed professional journals and academic books that are published by responsible scholars, and not just go on YouTube and watch some person's video that he's made at home supposedly refuting a certain argument.
Kevin Harris: By the way, Mehta says this:
It’s not only the abundance of information creating nightmares for church leaders. . . . Until the Internet came along, [atheists] didn’t have a space where we could talk about our (lack of) religious beliefs but between blogs, podcasts, and social media sites, atheists have thrived in the age of the Internet.
Now, that's a pretty good point, and it might make you feel like the whole world is becoming atheistic when you go online sometimes. But Christians and people of faith generally had our congratulation and our fellowship very important to us. Our poor atheist friends just haven't had that. Now they're all getting together and, you know, yucking it up, and exchanging ideas and arguments, but hopefully they will come to ReasonableFaith.org and other sites and look at that information as well.
Dr. Craig: Yes, that's the hope.
Kevin Harris: Otherwise they're going to do what they accuse the Christians of doing – getting into their own ghetto. And suddenly you're in an atheist ghetto and you're in a bubble, and you are absorbed into the Borg and assimilated.
Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. I actually think that this article is quite one-sided in thinking that the internet is a promoter of atheism exclusively. I think that the internet is the most powerful tool for evangelism that exists today. Through the internet the resources of our ministry, Reasonable Faith, a web-base ministry, is penetrating countries that are closed to traditional Christian missionaries, to the Gospel. Muslim countries, for example; communist countries like China and other atheistic countries. And it is so encouraging to me to get emails back from people in these countries saying, “I saw something of yours at Reasonable Faith and it's helped me, and here's a question I have.” So I am very, very excited about the potential that the internet gives us for completing the task of world evangelization in this generation. We have the technology to reach the entire world with the message of the Gospel, and I am excited about the tool that the internet provides.
 Total Running Time: 15:57 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)