Friday, 11 April 2014

The Internet Is Making Theists Think

Top: Internet use. Bottom: Religious affiliation
How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion | MIT Technology Review

Americans are following many European countries in losing their faith. The change hasn't been so spectacular as in many European countries where Atheists/Agnostics are now in a clear majority, but the growth has been a steady 0.5 percent per year over the last 20 years, rising from just 8 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2010.

The obvious question is, why is this happening? There are many social and psychological factors involved in relative religiosity, not the least of which is income inequality with those in the lowest income groups and forming the lowest social strata tending to be more religious and more fundamentalist, while those in the higher social strata tend to be less religious and more moderate.

Similarly, some studies have shown a correlation between educational attainment and religious belief with those receiving only basic education again being more religious and more fundamentalist, and those with higher degrees of education being less religious and more moderate. But then there is an obvious correlation between education and income, and so between social position and education.

Relationship between countries' belief in a god and average
Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
A third factor, as found by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2008), is a correlation between IQ and religious belief with a higher IQ tending to correlated with lower religiosity. Again, though, there is an obvious link between IQ, educational achievement, income and social position.

Now Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has analysed data from a widely-respected American General Social Survey carried out by the University of Chicago and has found a correlation between religious belief and time spent on the Internet which suggests that, as the time on the Internet increases so religious belief falls. Downey says this can only account for about 50 percent of the fall in religious belief but nevertheless, there are several possible causes.

It is always possible that the correlation does not indicate a causal relationship but that both are causally related to a third factor - like income, IQ, education, etc, but it doesn't come as a surprise. I and many others have often remarked on how the exposure of the 'moderate' or thinking theists to the mindless gibberings and downright dishonesty of the fundamentalists must surely cause them to ask some fundamental questions about the origins of their own beliefs. Exposure too to the blatant money-making scams being perpetrated on line by pseudo-pious frauds clearly seeking to exploit the credulous gullibility and thirst for cognitive dissonance-relieving confirmation bias in the ranks of fundamentalism and creationism, must cause honest and intelligent people to wonder just how much credulous gullibility played in their own religious beliefs.

It is noticeable to people like me who cut our teeth in the early days of the Internet in serious debate fora, or user groups as they were then known, where some serious theologians, scientists and philosophers participated and debate was mostly polite and good natured, that, as access to the Internet increased and the fundamentalists began to come on line, how the standard of debate deteriorated.

Within a few years debate had become almost ritualised name-calling, cursing, hysterical shrieking about burning in Hell, Satanism, "Darwin was a Communist!", "WE SAVED YOUR BUTT IN 2 WORLD WARS, U F**KING COMMIE!!!!!", etc, etc, followed quickly by creationist scam sites, people selling prayers, trashy books full of copy and paste Bible quotes, begging for donations to "help spread the word of the Lord" or using religion as an excuse for far-right political extremism. The serious theologians equally quickly melted away, being subjected to the same abuse as the scientists and atheists from the same religious fundamentalists and people using religion as a cover for their behaviour.

It's hard to believe that this didn't have, and still isn't having, a negative effect on the intellectually honest theists of whatever religion. If it didn't then they have much to be ashamed of. When your 'faith' can give rise to, and permit, such behaviour isn't there something fundamentally wrong with it? When your faith can't be defended with polite respect, honest argument and an open-minded willingness to understand the other point of view, is it worth defending? And when your faith is being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable attitudes and behaviour and has become the tool of the fraud and the sociopath, shouldn't it be actively opposed? Or was it ever thus?

And then there is the exposure to the high-profile professional religious apologists who earn their living peddling long-refuted fallacies to eager audiences, often with a clear right-wing political, even subversive, agenda seeking to overthrow, for example, the US secular constitution, and replace it with a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. People for whom having an argument refuted or shown to be lies is not regarded as a reason not to try it on someone else. It must be hard for the liberal or left-leaning theist in the USA to see his faith becoming more and more the domain of the swivel-eyed, often racist, usually misogynist and invariably anti-science, anti-choice, anti-welfare, anti-liberal, pro-wealthy, pro-corporate, pro-war, selfish and greedy - in short, nasty - right, and probably the antithesis of everything they thought their religion stood for.

So, no, it's not hard to see why increased Internet access and the time spent on line is correlated with reduced belief in the supernatural and an increased dissociation from the fundamentalists.

Then of course there is the ready and free access to information. Even those lacking much in the way of a formal education can quickly educate themselves in any subject they wish. The association between ignorance and superstition is well-established and a parasitic memeplex like religion which thrives in an ignorant culture has an obvious antidote in the form of knowledge, hence the association between (lack of) education and religiosity.

The Internet is providing that antidote.

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