Does faith require a "closed information" system?

"Nones" are getting a lot of attention these days (so much so that I probably don't need those quote marks to describe people whose religious affiliation is "none"). Salon presents an interesting piece by Valerie Tarico (originally posted at Alternet) positing that the flood of information available on the Internet makes it near impossible to maintain one's religious beliefs-- there is just too much information out there that runs counter to anyone's ancient, tightly woven doctrine.This is bad news for organized 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.

She notes that in the information age, hipster atheists like the brilliant Neil DeGrasse Tyson have multiple platforms on which to make a convincing case that religion and science are incompatible. She goes on to list five threats the Internet poses to organized religion, expounding on each in her piece:

1) Radically cool science videos and articles.
2) Curated Collections of Ridiculous Beliefs.
3) The Kinky, Exploitative, Oppressive, Opportunistic and Violent Sides of Religion.
4) Supportive communities for people coming out of religion.
5) Lifestyles of the fine and faithless.
6) Interspiritual Okayness.

The Episcopal Church is poised, I believe, like no other, to withstand the information threat because of our invitation to embrace Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Religion and science incompatible? I'm an Episcopalian. I don't buy that. We are not a "closed information" system. So how do we get the word out about that? Um, well, the Internet isn't a bad place to start...

Read Tarico's full post here.

Comments (7)

I had much the same thought when I read that article. It strikes me that the author doesn't have much personal experience of a faith community. Like many, she equates Evangelical/Charismatic Christianity with all of Christianity and doesn't appreciate that there are traditions open to the expansion of human knowledge.
But I think this is also a good lesson to us to not assume we understand those outside of church, relying on stereotypes in our evangelism. We really need to get to know the Nones as individuals.
And btw, I totally love really cool science videos - they make me think God is amazing.

Jon White

The faith has survived Nero, Diocletian, the Great Schism, the Black Plague, the Reformation, the French Revolution, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao (among others). I think it'll survive YouTube.

The author fails to distinguish between denominations that rely on a closed information system, and those that do not. The Episcopal Church has for many decades told folks not to leave their mind at the door.

I wouldn't say the Salon author has proved her case. Closed system denominations are attractive to those who don't want doubts and who want to be told what to believe. Those folks can always choose to believe that science is a hoax and nothing on the internet can be trusted unless it comes for a like-minded individual.

There could even be some perverse effects. An open information world poses a threat to closed information churches. Threatened churches often grow using the threat against them as an evangelism tool. To give a recent example, check The Church of the NRA.

Will Episcopalianism survive because we are somehow different? I doubt that. I remain an internet Episcopalian (keeping up with Episcopal blogs and online friends in the Episcopal sphere) yet this piece really highlights the big stumbling block to showing up on Sunday mornings. When I go it seems that the church (the Episcopal Church included) has missed the big picture. For majesty and grandeur I can watch educational videos on science and astronomy, wonder at the magnitude of our own tiny galaxy, and speculate on the awesome distances and stunning physics of the universe. Not only can I turn to those sources, I do, regularly. God, at least the god we meet on Sunday mornings, seems too small for that universe. I hear the creed and the hymns and feel that somehow to participate in the old doctrines and rituals is to ignore the big picture. It no longer feels comforting to go to church, even (the last straw that I held onto when I finally let go of theism). Now it just seems small, too small. And when I think "Maybe I will go to a service this morning" I stop myself and wonder why. A faith that can't acknowledge the vastness of interstellar space, the excitement of the search for the Higgs Boson, or the stunning knowledge that we now have of the workings of the brain is too small for my Sunday mornings. I go in looking to be reconnected to my tradition and my background. And I leave annoyed that I have wasted my time, again. I won't quit trying, and I want to come back, really I do, but I just wish that we had more to offer than "Oh we like reason, too" and Tallis anthems. Those are all nice. They aren't enough.

Dennis Roberts
Chicago

So how do we get across to these Nones that we aren't Evangelicals--that we aren't puritanical bigots with "closed information systems"?

One thought. As Putnam notes, we're bowling alone these days: younger people especially aren't joiners. Maybe it's time to jettison the model of church as "community" in favor of a more flexible one in which churches, among the other things they do, provide "community" for those who want it but also serve other interests. This is essentially what successful megachurches do: on any given Sunday, most who attend aren't members, and never become members. They's casual attenders who visit the megachurch in the same spirit that they go to the park or the mall. And of the minority who are members, only a smaller minority get involved the the small groups that megachurch promoters think of as the core of the whole enterprise.

Reading the Salon article and other material on the "Nones" is seems that one of the features of "organized religion" that's off-putting is the perception that one joins a religion and that that means buying into a package of obligations, for belief and behavior. I'd suggest a radical rethinking of what church is--think of it as a semi-public facility, and that "joining" is essentially no more than a Communion ticket--license to use that facilities. And really even that isn't necessary. Arguably the very idea of joining and belonging might be eliminated. Instead we should think of "organized religion" as providing facilities people use--like supermarkets, libraries and such, that don't involve any commitment, or obligation to make contact with other users.

A faith that can't acknowledge the vastness of interstellar space

?!

:-O

Dennis, have you NEVER celebrated communion w/ Eucharistic Prayer C?? You're practically QUOTING it!

Yes, yes we Piskies DO acknowledge "the vast expanse of interstellar space", and more besides. (Ever sung "Earth and All Stars"? 412 Hymnal 1980)

More to the point, I think the increase of "Nones" in an Age of Media Saturation, has less to do w/ fact-based "arguments against" (though those are deadly to various fundamentalisms), than w/ distraction: "amusing ourselves to death" (as Neil Postman wrote about w/ such dead-on accuracy re television, and has become even more true re the internet).

JC Fisher

I may put together an extended blog post on this but i think we all need to question the basic assumption of the Salon article. They seem to argue that the veritable smörgåsbord of content the internet provides opens people's worldview up. That was what people thought the internet would do but the opposite has happened.

The fact that we are discussing this on a website devoted to a church that, as of this writing, makes up less than 1% of the United States is indicative of this.

The general tendency of internet behavior is not to open us up to different perspectives but, in fact, to ghettoize us into smaller and smaller pockets of people who can relate to each other because we are nonthreatening to each other. If you wish to live a life of epistemic closure, denying facts like global warming, President Obamas citizenship, evolution and the like theres a place for you on the internet. In fact there are literally thousands of places for you on the internet.
Honestly I suspect the increasing number of "Nones" is a product of this ghettoization. It isn't so much that people have changed as much as they have found their pigeon hole and hundreds of people like them and dont feel the need to connect with others who arent like them.

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