The Internet has affected most human interaction in a way never thought possible. Can this sharing of knowledge really lead to the end of religion?
Short answer: No.
The internet will likely not be the undoing of all faith in the supernatural in the world. However, the internet has and will continue to have a large and growing effect on the amount of Atheists/Agnostics in the world. the result will be most of the world abandoning organized religion, and to be honest, that’s good enough for me.
One can already see the effect daily of the internet’s effect on Atheists. Most obviously, you are reading this post on a website dedicated to talking about issues of Atheism – a forum that literally didn’t exist twenty years ago. By allowing Atheists to join together and talk about news and issues, it encourages more Atheists to “come out”.
Websites like ThinkAtheist and many others serve a very important and direct function in the world for Atheists, but they cannot do all the work to change the world’s views about God. These sites provide people the opportunity to feel like they belong to a group, even if their community is very antagonistic about Atheism. Furthermore, it rallies us around causes that we ought to know about and gives us knowledge we can act on. Examples range from political statements by elected officials to charities. Thus, we have become a voice that refuses to be shut out.
The direct effect of Atheist-themed sites cannot be overstated and I intend no offense when I say that they will not change the world. These sites help us atheists immeasurably, but the information doesn’t reach those who need it most. The vast majority of traffic on Atheist sites is obviously atheists, thus something else will have to occur for theists to give up their beliefs.
The internet will still provide the answer. People giving up their faith is an indirect result of internet access. It will take some time, but it will definitely happen.
To show why, one must look at who atheists are. We tend to be younger, wealthier, better educated, and more worldly (I can’t find the link but I saw a study recently that said almost all people who are atheists carry passports, compared to places in the Southern U.S. where only 10-20% of people in some states have passports). We tend to be smarter – almost all the members of Mensa call themselves atheists – and even smarter about religions – I’m sure everyone has seen the PEW study** where atheists placed the best out of all people in the U.S. about knowledge of world religions. It’s also important to mention that most of us are ‘first generation’, meaning our parents tried to convince us of something other than Atheism first. Given this information, we can conclude that, generally, people who know more call themselves atheists.
So why then would I say that the existence of the internet will eventually cause people to give up religion? Because the internet makes us all “smarter”.
Knowing about other cultures in the world is the fastest way to undo organized religion. By learning more about other people, we see how different we are from them. But with enough access to information about other people, we see how similar we are as well. It’s easy for one religion to vilify another, but in the age of the internet, it’s a lot harder to make it all stick.
If a religion functions on exclusivity – and almost all of them do – it’s hard to convince your patrons that anyone not baptized will all burn in hell if they know any non-Christian that does a lot of good in the world. It’s harder to vilify another group if the people you’re trying to convince have access to their point of view. This method worked a lot better before the 1990s, when people who were different from us were far away, rather than at our fingertips.
Scientific knowledge is also counter-productive to religion. Even the popes throughout the middle ages saw this coming. By understanding just how little of our world is left shrouded in mystery, there’s a lot less room for belief in God.
Historical knowledge might be the final nail in the coffin when it comes to religion. The religious who come to learn all of the travesties carried out in God’s name must eventually question how their religions will be described 100 years from now.
The proof is everywhere. Atheism is spreading significantly faster than it ever did before the creation of the internet. The fact that we are mostly young and spend a significant amount of time on the internet is not a coincidence.
Religions have changed to adapt to this as well. We’ve seen in the past two decades a gradual softening of religion, and they are doing these things to keep people in the fold. Catholics were recently enticed to stick around because Pope Benedict said people of any religion can go to heaven (still not us atheists, though). Though many people still suffer under the oppression of Sharia Law, most Arab states have been forced to give up on this old way of doing things. This represents a dramatic shift away from how the governments have been structured for the last few thousand years. It is no surprise then that the average age in many of the Arab states is between twenty and thirty years, about 10 years lower than a Western country.
So the next time you are in an argument with a theist and they are frustrating you with their lack of knowledge or logic, be thankful that at least one of those things will probably be changing soon.