I’ve really changed and been challenged by what I’ve read on the internet. I’ve . . . really had my faith rattled by some of the science articles . . . and the associated comments. It seemed that most thought Christians (or anyone who believed in God) was a fool. I remember one comment to the effect that ‘one day all our religions will look as stupid as believing in Zeus or Thor does to us today.’ . . . Being a life long believer . . . I started to question . . . was pretty miserable for a while. You could say I lost my faith.The world of Internet Atheism can have that effect on people. By “Internet Atheism,” I do not mean every instance of atheism on the Web, but rather a new social and religious phenomenon that arose with the Internet and could not thrive without it. It is a world that points insistently at its own bright intelligence, and by doing so it undermines the faith of many. Yet it is strangely simple, perhaps even simple-minded.
I do not say that lightly. Consider, for example, the black-and-white simplicity of one Internet Atheist’s chart of “50 Years of Progress In Science and Religion.” The “science” side of the chart lists advances in medicine, space travel, communications, astronomy, computing, and other marvels of modernity. The “religion” side includes only one unequivocally positive event, which was all the way back in 1963. Apparently religion has seen no progress of any kind since then.
There’s nothing said about religion’s work in advancing prison reform, feeding the hungry, taking the lead against human trafficking, or making advances in philosophy, history, archaeology, and other disciplines. The chart lists nothing but negatives: the Roman Catholic abuse scandal, Islamist violence, evangelicals’ supposed opposition to science, embarrassing end-of-the-world predictions, and a brief history of Christians’ opposition to homosexual rights.
It’s an astonishingly simple picture of reality. Science is good, religion is bad—and that’s just the way it is.
In fact it’s even simpler than that, for in this fine specimen of Internet Atheism, all of religion is depicted as one unified thing. The chart lumps Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and Buddhism all together in one undifferentiated lot. Never mind that classical Buddhism is atheistic, and the other religions mentioned have vastly different beliefs and social structures. Religion is religion is religion, seems to be the message, and why make it any more complicated than that?
The rest of the message is that science is smart, progress-oriented, and generally good for the world, whereas religion is reactionary, opposed to the progress of knowledge and ethics, and really quite monolithically stupid. It’s all so black-and-white. It’s all so simple.
It’s far too simple to be real. But this is the strangely simple world of Internet Atheism.
Of course this is just one graphic on one website, which raises the question, how representative is it? Plenty, in my experience: I’ve seen the same kind of thing repeatedly. More telling than my opinion, though, is that Jerry Coyne, biology professor and atheist activist at the University of Chicago, strongly endorses it, describing it as a “lovely graphic.”
Coyne is hardly uneducated or unintelligent, yet here and in many other posts on his Why Evolution Is True blog, he has adopted and endorsed the same unrealistically simple picture of reality. Commenters on his blog cheer him on. If there is dissent, it disappears: It has happened to me and many others.
Social theorists know that the collective intelligence of a group is often lower than that of any of its members. Groupthink is a familiar manifestation of that effect. Less well-known is the polarization effect, in which social pressure, selective presentation of information, and seeing others as outsiders can lead a group to adopt extreme positions that no one person would take up on his or her own.
It seems to me that it’s this kind of group effect, operating through blogs and social networks, that makes Internet Atheism different from other forms of disbelief. It’s what makes it a uniquely Internet-based phenomenon, and justifies giving it the name “Internet Atheism.”
It’s an image that will look familiar to anyone who has spent any time on Dr. Coyne’s site, the Pharyngula blog of P. Z. Myers, Reddit’s atheism pages, or any number of other atheist sites. They convey a common message; they live in one world. In that world, atheists can think. Christians cannot. Atheists build their knowledge upon science. Religious people build their beliefs on blind faith. Time and again, atheists on the Internet have said of my Thinking Christian blog, “Thinking Christian? What a joke! There’s no such thing! If he were thinking, he’d be an atheist.”
Uninformed . . .
There’s a lot that could be said about this. I could mention committed Christians like Wernher von Braun and Francis Collins, scientists who led the way in rocketry and genomics. I could point to the lively and deep academic debates going on between real thinking Christians and real thinking atheists. I could go back to the foundations of science, and show how deeply science has depended on a Christian way of viewing reality.
I could point at library after library of works from great Christian thinkers: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, Faraday, Maxwell, and many, many more, in philosophy and the sciences. I could tune our ears to the music of Bach and Handel.
And then I could ask, if atheists are supposed to be those who base their beliefs on evidence, what do they do with all that?
. . . and Absurd
But Internet Atheism has even more obvious problems: problems any intellectually aware person could see, without needing to know any of Christianity’s intellectual heritage. (And there are many who know nothing of that history.) Think about it: How likely is it that the world is so simply divided? How likely is it that no Christian in the past fifty years has noticed how lost he is in religion’s vast ethical intellectual emptiness? How likely is it that Christianity is only bad, whereas science is only good, and yet real people persist in following Jesus Christ?
Of course Christians arrive at different answers than atheists—but could that be simply because none of us has ever been concerned about the deep questions? Obviously not! To think that it could be that way is to stereotype all Christians as irrational, unthinking, uncaring, something rather less than human. And yet that’s the message of much Internet Atheism.
Still they continue with their “certainties built on unquestioned absurdities,” to quote a line from Brian Bell’s poem “Religious Conviction.” That poem begins,
The comfort of conviction,
Is the simplicity of ignorance . . .
There is indeed comfort in seeing the world as a simple place, regardless of what’s real. The irony could hardly be more striking.
Responding to Internet Atheism
It could hardly be more troubling, either. Internet Atheism is a frontal attack on Christianity, operating on many levels. Recently Jerry Coyne mounted a blog-based campaign to have a Ball State University astronomy professor barred from teaching a course on the "borders of science," because it has implications that could support Intelligent Design theory. The university has undertaken an “investigation,” the results of which remain to be seen.
More often, though, the attack takes the form of blogs and social networks representing atheism as intelligent and all religion as dimwitted. Our best defense is careful study, clear thinking, a presence of our own on the Internet, and quality teaching in our churches. Internet Atheism is too simple to succeed in the long run—provided that we do our part to show it for what it really is.
Image courtesy of More than WE Know.
Tom Gilson is the incoming National Field Director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.