16 January 2013

The end of religion?

A provocatively-titled article came across a social media site today and caught my eye. In "Religion may not survive the Internet", Valerie Tarico lists several reasons why conservative religions are threatened by information flow. That - the free exchange of ideas and instant communication -  not the internet per se, is more accurately the threat, if any, to the survival of certain belief systems.

Religion has been with humankind for at least some 20-30 thousand years, if interpretations of cave art in southern Europe are correct. Given its long history and the high percentage of people that still identify with some religious tradition in the 21st century, I do not think it is going anywhere anytime soon. Thus, Tarico's title is hyperbole. However, she does raise some interesting points in the article:

(1) The mechanisms (overt, covert, intentional or otherwise) that some religious traditions have relied on to maintain homogeneity of belief may not be as effective in an age when information can flow much more freely than ever before. Insularity may be one such mechanism. When people form cohesive groups that more or less cut off discourse with the outside world, it may be easier to maintain certain religious beliefs. It is hard to know how much this really goes on today. It would seem that in our information age virtually everyone would be exposed to just about any set of ideas. However, even in a sea of information, are some people so selective in what they read or hear that they very rarely encounter perspectives that contradict their own beliefs?

I think that Tarico's misstep is to equate this free-flow of information with the internet. Yes, the internet has accelerated the pace of information exchange, but information exchange has been possible for a long time by a number of different vehicles. The data on evolution, for example, have been out there for some time. It just required more work to find it in the past. She also seems to indict religion generally, but some of her arguments probably only apply broadly to more fundamentalist religions traditions. I see the free flow of information as a threat mostly to religious systems that are adament about doctrinal orthodoxy.

One potential causalty of information exposure is religious literalism. Specific narratives like Noah's Flood have no credibility scientifically. A young curious mind raised on stories of Noah (and mind you, curiosity is a key variable in the equation!), isn't going to find much support for such traditional religious ideas in information from the outside world. At risk too, are antiquated social constructs that are an important part of a specific religious tradition but which cannot withstand the scrutiny of empirical evidence or informed discussion. Being a gay blog, I'll mention homosexuality here as an example. When, by the freer flow of information, people find out that gay people are often law-abiding, charitable and accomplished citizens, or that practically to a person gay people relate that they never "chose" their sexual orientation, an archaic belief that homosexuality is a Satan-inspired threat to humanity becomes very hard to sustain.

The solution for religious systems in an age of information overload is simply to adapt. My guess is that many mainstream religions are doing so - they learn to embrace science, evolution, rational inquiry, and increasing social equality. Religions, like languages and genes, must evolve to survive.

(2) Tarico points out that science represents a threat to religion, and not just because it might directly contradict certain religious claims. She writes:

"Religion evokes some of our most deeply satisfying emotions: joy, for example, and transcendence, and wonder....Fortunately, science can provide all of the above...[thus] it should be no surprise that so many fundamentalists are determined to take down the whole scientific endeavor. They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance." (1)

I think that these thoughts are the highlight of the article. Religion's most powerful claim to its continued value for humanity is it's ability to provide a transcendent experience for individual believers. If that transcendence can be achieved elsewhere - in a classroom, in nature, through a microscope - then one of the most important functions of religion is lost.

In my own experience this makes a lot of sense. As a scientist I find such fascination in the natural world that there seems no need to call upon the supernatural. Whether ecology, geology, or the diversity of life, I find such an unending wealth of questions and discoveries that I can connect with the broader world around me in profound ways. Steeped in science, I am left to feel miniscule - much like I would by believing in an all-powerful God who watches over me. Yes, I am still swayed by the need for love and purpose - intangibles that science may have little to say about - but I've also found that specific religious systems are not necessary to appreciate and seek after such things.

Religion seems to be here to stay. Yet I do hope that it will continue to evolve to be a more rational and loving human enterprise. Maybe the internet will be part of accelerating that process. Thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. One thing that has always resonated with my religious mind is that on the few occasions that I've looked through a microscope or seen the celestial landscape through a telescope, I am confronted with the love of a supreme being who would create or manage a universe where such things could exist. Therefore, I don't think that transcendence in understanding science leads me further away from appreciating religion, but that could be coming from a pretty closed-minded perspective, I admit.