Will the Internet Destroy Christianity?

Will the Internet Destroy Christianity?

Many claim that the information available on the internet will destroy theism, religion, and Christianity.

Transcript Will the Internet Destroy Christianity

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, what was life like before the internet? That's akin to having indoor plumbing. [laughter] Several philosophers, particularly atheist philosophers, are arguing that the internet, the process and the flow of communication, is going to spell the end of, well, theism or religion. I think that this article we'll looking at here from AlterNet by Valerie Tarico kind of synopsizes a lot of these contentions.[1] And I hear this a lot so let's look at this. One of the main contentions, it seems here, is that religion depends on a closed-system – kind of jumping to the middle of the article, here – closed information system that hones defenses to keep outside information away from those in the system.

Dr. Craig: Right. The author of this piece is a self-identified ex-evangelical who is now a psychologist. And what's noteworthy about this article, Kevin, is that there is no empirical evidence at all cited in the article that suggests that the internet leads to the destruction of religious beliefs. Instead what I think we see here is an autobiographical rant by someone who is very bitter about her evangelical background and upbringing and is now in rebellion against it, and perhaps indicating some of the reasons which led her to her liberation from her evangelical beliefs. And this notion that religion depends upon – she even says “requires” – a closed information system is just silly. I wonder if these people are aware that there exist Christian universities, scientists, philosophers, historians, literary critics, sociologists, psychologists; the idea that religious belief depends upon a closed information system is just so ignorant. She must not have any sort of association with other Christian academics in order to believe this. And so I find the whole premise of the article to be quite incredible, that the internet is going to destroy religion by opening up these closed information systems to wider sources of knowledge and information.

Kevin Harris: I wonder if it's possible, though, for this to happen, Bill, but in a disingenuous way, in a sinister way. You put enough disinformation and falsities out there then you might be able to destroy some things until it recovers.

Dr. Craig: Well, fair enough. I think that some of the factors that she does mention are valid points and especially when, as you say, Kevin, it's disinformation. There is a lot of garbage on the internet that can be very destructive to religious belief. And I'm thinking, for example, things like that Zeitgeist movie and this almost cult claim that early Gospel traditions about Jesus are derived from Egyptian mythology and Horace worship, a claim that no contemporary scholar in ancient comparative religions would defend and yet which is propagated all over the internet.

Kevin Harris: That's number one. That's the number one meme, if you want to call it that, that has been spread. In atheist camps in particular, that is number one on the list. You can trace it all the way back to some website that first began to bring that back up. It's nothing new. Frazer's Golden Bough kind of dealt with that.

Dr. Craig: Right, right. But the point is that that kind of approach to ancient religions and mythology has been dead for over one hundred years. That has been exposed as really a gross misunderstanding, not only of ancient mythology but also of early Christian origins.

Kevin Harris: It comes back, makes the rounds, and can sometimes be difficult to put out—it's like trying to put out a fire. By the way, number two is: you and I are both atheists, I just believe in one God less than you do. [Laughter] That's the number two meme, and it's a close second.

Dr. Craig: Which is, again, so silly because atheism is the belief that there is no God and monotheism is the contradiction of that, the belief that there is a God. So in no sense can one say that a monotheist is some sort of atheist.[2]

Kevin Harris: It's just a rhetorical sound bite.

Dr. Craig: Sure.

Kevin Harris: It's been rather effective. This author thinks that some of the decline that we've seen in certain segments of religious society as indicated by Pew Research and also the rise of the nones in October 2012. “For the first time ever Protestant Christians had fallen below 50 percent of the American population. Atheists cheered while evangelicals beat their breasts and lamented the end of the world as we know it.” And she goes on to say, quoting other authors, that “fundamentalism is the ‘death rattle’ of the Abrahamic [religions].” Again, if the internet and the flow of information is what is doing it, but it's also fundamentalism, I really don't know what she's trying to say there.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's very curious – isn't it? – that that's pulled in. I think that, again, is an expression probably of her own personal dissatisfaction with her evangelical or fundamentalist background against which she is now apparently in rebellion. And you and I have talked on this podcast before about these Pew results and how they don't bear their interpretation on their sleeve, and that this is considerably more subtle than what might at first appear.

Kevin Harris: It really is. I mean, so many people who answered “none” are followers of Christ but they like to think of themselves as non-denominational.

Dr. Craig: Exactly, and others even who say they’re atheists engage in prayer and believe in God. So you need to really ask people what they believe and not just for labels. But let's talk about these six kinds of web content that she thinks are destructive of religious belief.

Kevin Harris: By the way, if it weren't for the internet, how many millions of people would not know about the kalam cosmological argument?

Dr. Craig: That's exactly right. That's one of the points I wanted to make in response to her – is that what she underestimates is the degree to which the internet has made religious resources like those offered on ReasonableFaith.org available all over the world, and the millions of views that, for example, our YouTube videos get of debates with prominent secular scientists and philosophers and biblical critics. I get emails all the time, Kevin, from people who say, “I was an atheist (or I was an unbeliever) and then I saw one of your debates with these vaunted figures of secularism and atheism, and these people were so weak and had such paltry arguments.” This shocked them into beginning to explore the truth of Christianity for themselves, and in many cases has led to their coming to faith. So the power of the internet to make these resources available to people is one that must not be underestimated.

Kevin Harris: She's going to go the other way and show her bias by saying the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product that religion is selling, that Christianity is selling. So here are the six things that she lists out. “Radically cool science videos and articles.”

Dr. Craig: Right, and certainly some of these – as you and I have talked about with Stephen Hawking's Grand Design which are promoting the picture of scientific naturalism – can be destructive of belief. On the other hand, I think the more people learn about the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, I think the more they can see how modern science is supportive of theistic belief. I think we are living at a time in history when natural science is more open to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe than at any time in recent memory. So I applaud the availability of these videos and interviews and so forth that promote what modern science is telling us about the universe.

Kevin Harris: Her contention on number one – radically cool science videos and articles – is that what religions used to provide – a sense of transcendence, joy, wonder, and so on, what Einstein was talking about when he said that “science without religion is lame” – that now can be fulfilled on radically cool science videos and articles readily found on the internet. You can get your source of awe and transcendence and joy from videos and pictures.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and some of these do promote that. For someone like Carl Sagan, you'll remember, the cosmos was an object of religious devotion, the same sort of emotions that a religious believer might have toward God. It was really a religious object for Sagan. And I think some of these contemporary science programs do attempt to make the universe or the multiverse, especially, a sort of god surrogate.[3] So that's quite, quite true. But on the other hand, as we provide accurate information about what modern physics is telling us about the universe, I think this can be supportive of theism.

Kevin Harris: Bill, let me tell you something interesting that I've noticed, at least I think it's interesting. There are now on websites (like Pinterest and Facebook and YouTube and everything) pictures of birds (actual birds), butterflies, wildlife (plant-life, flowers) that are enhanced by readily available software that colors the contents of the picture and changes the color pattern and things like that. So you are seeing butterflies and birds and animals and plants presented as though this is what they really look like, but that is not what they really look like. They're passed as real, but they've been colored and enhanced. There is not a butterfly with that particular coloring pattern and things like that. Now, God did a good enough job on butterflies, and birds, and flowers, and outrageous colors, but we're actually passing these things around as if they're real. And I've had people show them to me and go, “Look at that,” and I go, “That is not what a luna moth looks like. That is not the color of a luna moth. A luna moth is not pink.” And they go, “Oh, really?” I just wanted to bring that up in that all this awe is great but you can see it . . . we need to have reality too. I mean, the world is awesome and beautiful but we don't need the internet to color it for us and make it something that it's not. So, anyway, something that I've noticed. And so she goes on to say that it's no surprise then that many fundamentalists are determined to take down the whole scientific endeavor because they see it as competitive to their truth claims – we've been over and over that.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's nonsense.

Kevin Harris: When are we going to get over that? Number two: “Curated collections of ridiculous beliefs.”

Dr. Craig: Right. Here she's talking about materials that call attention to stuff that makes you roll your eyes, shake your head in disbelief, laugh, and so forth. I think of Bill Maher's Religulous, for example, which holds up extreme religious beliefs to mockery. And, again, she's quite right in saying that that stuff is out there and it does gather attention and it is destructive. On the other hand, the internet also serves to propagate truth about religious beliefs, particularly websites like ours. So that's right, I would agree with her that that's a factor.

Kevin Harris: That kind of dovetails into number three. Not only does it expose things up to ridicule and often caricatures of what people believe – holds them up to ridicule – number four: “Supportive communities for people coming out of religion.” Without the internet, Bill, you wouldn't have a worldwide community, and now you can have that and replace what you got at the church fellowship—fellowship online.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we saw this when we did the podcast the other day on that mother who wrote the column about raising her children without God. She felt marginalized until she found the internet community of secular atheists, and that provided a community for her. And the author's quite right to point that out. But the other side is that churches are also using the internet to promote their communities, and I dare say there are far more many websites that are available for churches that are extending their communities and using the internet to build up their local fellowship and build a strong sense of community than there are these atheist supportive communities. So while she's right to say that there are supportive communities on the web for people who are exiting religion, there are many, many more on the internet for helping to foster community among religious believers and inviting folks into those communities.

Kevin Harris: Number five says the same thing, that once you get out of the religious ghetto you can go online and find that there's a whole secular world out there just waiting for you.

Dr. Craig: Yes, the “lifestyles of the fine and the faithless,” she says. You know what I think, though, Kevin, is quite honestly when I go outside and look on the internet for this atheist community, what I find is a community of rude, uncivil, nasty, and often vulgar people. I don't find the atheist community that's out there on the internet to be at all attractive. I find it to be quite repulsive.[4] And so she might be attracted to the secular community on the web but, boy, my contacts with it have led me to quite the opposite reaction.

Kevin Harris: Very true. And many atheists are working overtime, really, to get rid of that. The same way that we work overtime to get rid of things in our community that can be an embarrassment, I do know there are some people who work really hard to have some integrity on there. But, boy, if you want to see the underside of the web that would be there. Number six: “interspiritual okayness.”

Dr. Craig: Yes, here she's talking about promoting religious relativism and basically undermining particular religious confessions. But while she makes a good point, I think that the other side of the story is that there is no tool more powerful for the cause of world mission and fulfilling the Great Commission than the internet. The internet is taking these Christian resources throughout the entire world to peoples and language groups that we would never be able to come into contact with personally. And so I think she just has no idea of the degree to which the internet has abetted and furthered the cause of world mission. Just think of this, Kevin: my debate with Christopher Hitchens was live-streamed on the internet to four countries of the world—we thought that was remarkable about four years ago. My debate with Alex Rosenberg this year was live-streamed to sixty countries of the world. I was just bowled over by that. To think that in sixty countries around the globe they're watching this debate live at Purdue University defending the reasonableness of belief in God. So I think that the internet is a tool of incalculable power for the cause of world mission and spreading the Gospel, and particularly I would say this with respect to closed countries. The only way to penetrate the Muslim countries and the so-called 10/40 window, between the tenth and fortieth parallel, is through the internet, and also into countries that are closed to missions because of communism like China and North Korea. It is the internet that is penetrating these countries and getting resources to these people in their own languages, and folks are responding to these. So this article is just very naïve, I think, about the tremendous impact that the internet is having globally in the task of world mission and particularly in penetrating closed countries with the message of the Gospel.[5]

[1] http://www.alternet.org/belief/does-internet-spell-doom-organized-religion (accessed January 8, 2014).

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:07

[4] 15:00

[5] Total Running Time: 18:21 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)