Sunday, May 30, 2010

On the decline of religion

We live in a world of flux, and nothing truly shows that more than how the internet is affecting the way we live our lives.  Here in America we are seeing some pretty dramatic effects now that nearly 50% of all Americans have access to the internet. As that number proceeds to 100% within just a few years, those effects will be even more dramatic.
What effects might I be talking about? Primarily access to information. Until recently, we’ve relied on newspapers and news programs to keep us informed of our world, and we are now becoming aware of how sadly little those venues choose to tell us. On the internet, not only can we find far more of the story, we can find out how much or how little the other news sources are telling us.  Because of that, American politics are in the process of undergoing a turbulent time as they are having to adjust to a different reality than just a few years ago. It’s going to take a few more years, but the move from a secretive, hidden from the public, government to an open and transparent system is starting.
But Politics is always in flux. It’s always had to adjust with the times. What is truly interesting is going to be the effects the Internet has on those human institutions which actively refuse to adjust, particularly hierarchical religions.
Understand that not all religions are the same, which is why I make that division. Hierarchical religions are those which maintain an active priesthood who serve as “Gatekeepers of Knowledge” and maintain dogmatic laws and traditions which are designed to promote unquestioning obedience to religious authority. Of these religions, the Judaeo-Christian derivatives are both the most numerous, and the most rigid of examples due to their being “Religions of the Book”
2000 years ago, such religions of the book served a valuable function for society. By codifying their beliefs in written form, they preserved them against modification and mutation. In addition, by revering the printed word, they acted as repositories of knowledge during an era when knowledge was scarce and too easily lost due to accident or death of the knowledge holder.
However, they did so by creating a system to dispense knowledge on a limited basis, using it in drips and drabs to influence and control how people thought, behaved, and believed. Abandoning their role as guides to spiritual seekers, they became instead spiritual dictators, demanding rigid conformity of their congregations.
That dictatorship was shaken severely by the invention of the printing press, which removed the religions holds on knowledge itself, but it did nothing to prevent the dictators from creating new methods of control which relied on the unwillingness of their congregation to invest enormous effort into seeking out the knowledge which they did not wish known. Control of knowledge is the most crucial component of any dictatorship, and so long as congregations were willing to take the priest’s words over spending the effort to search out the truth on their own, this continued to work.
At which point we arrive at today. Unlike a book, the knowledge available on the internet is growing as quickly as the internet itself. We are rapidly approaching a point where the sum total of human knowledge is available to anyone who can use a search engine. And those tools which enable us to sort and find data out of this vast online library are growing both more powerful and easier to use. In other words, the amount of knowledge you need to have to find the knowledge you want is decreasing rapidly. Ten years ago, you had to be a geek to use the internet easily. Now anyone can access it and function competently in the datastream.
And that is why the internet is such a danger to hierarchical religions. The knowledge that they have been “gatekeepers” of is no longer behind a gate. The printing press blew a hole in the wall, but the internet removed that wall altogether. The Gatekeepers are standing before a gate to nowhere, a portal through a wall which no longer even exists.
But it is also more than just that.  Religions had power because people formed groups within them. They were the social hubs around which humans gathered, allowing them to exert the combined power of all those who were members of their religion. As the internet continues to grow, it is becoming the new social network, the common ground of the world at large.
This is not to say Religions have become powerless, as any look at our world will reveal, but they have lost control. Even in those extremely fundamentalist groups such as the American rightwing, and the various Islamic theocracies, the chokehold on knowledge has failed. The monolithic unity of the "church" is fragmenting into thousands of smaller groups, which lack the same power to dictate social norms, and thus world policy.
That chokehold is only going to become weaker as the internet continues to grow and reach more people. Knowledge is power, and no-one knows that better than a dictator. By removing the restrictions on knowledge, the Internet is going to become one of the true agents of change in our world. As it grows in power and reach, those forces which seek to prevent knowledge from reaching the masses will find themselves pressed harder and harder until they either change drastically, or perish.
More than any other force, the internet will become the ultimate equalizer. There will be fights against it, and probably even bloodshed, but in the end, we’re all going to be part of the wired world and finally understand that we all have to exist on the same planet.
And just maybe those who were once only guides before they chose to become dictators, will return to the role for which they are much better suited.

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that it is the decline of the big three religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. There are a plethora of minor beliefs that have been holding their own in the shadows of the big three. All of which are more tolerant of knowledge and sharing info.