Why isn’t the free flow of information sufficient lethal poison for religion?

| January 18, 2013 | Reply

At Salon, Valerie Tarico makes a case that the free flow of information is poison to religion:

A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does!)

Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

Tech-savvy mega-churches may have twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.

I am sympathetic to Tarico’s arguments but they just aren’t enough to explain the continued vitality of many religions and political-religions that dominate America. Many people have this strange tendency to self-filter, and strong tendencies to cherry-pick according to what their tribe urges them to do. Thus, I think Tarico has it half right–free-flow information is gnawing away at oxymoronic beliefs. This information is harmless until and unless something further happens–until believers open up their minds just a bit to entertain these toxic-seeming ideas that clash with their traditional beliefs. ‘

I don’t know how or why that happens (or doesn’t) in individuals. I’ve certainly known several people who have described that the overwhelming weight of information became too much for their religious beliefs to bear. Skeptic Michael Sherman and agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman have described the process this way. But for every convert to free-thinker there are many who still cling to to their fear-induced religious beliefs. The article that will win awards in my mind is the one that will identify the “something more”, combined with an Internet full of ideas, that turns a believer in gods into a believer in healthy skeptical inquiry.

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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