Saturday, January 29, 2011

Becoming Critical Consumers of Information

Perhaps you know people who are constantly falling for scams and hoaxes on the Internet. These people just can't wrap their heads around the idea that, just because you read something in print somewhere, by somebody with a cheerful picture who sounds sincere, doesn't mean that you can trust what that person is saying. Human culture has never before had to deal with so much information, so we have not yet developed norms and attitudes that emphasize the need to be critical consumers of information. In fact, unfortunately, to a great extent, present day culture still often is oriented toward the opposite extreme. We still see it as a virtue to accept claims with little evidence. To challenge a claim would be seen as rude, as well as risky for most people. It requires effort and information, so it is much easier to just passively accept what one is told than to question it. However, if we do not develop these skills then people will continue to fall prey to all manner of urban legends and nonsensical claims which circulate around the Internet with increasing frequency.

I maintain that, once these skills are instilled into the general culture that people's attitudes will necessarily change about religion and politics, at least to some degree. Right now people still hold religious beliefs that were formed at a time when believing claims on shoddy evidence was still looked upon in a charitable light. The same applies to many of the political policies that prevail today. Most were formulated in a time when you could get away with making lots of questionable claims without the average person being able to check the facts very easily.

Once people get used to questioning each new piece of information they receive and looking at claims critically, they are bound to do this, at least to some extent with religion. I know that psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance where people can compartmentalize their thinking so that they they can be skeptical of some things but not others. I also know that the things that young children learn, before they develop critical thinking skills, are often less subject to re-analysis later in life. However, I suspect that neither of these systems are perfect.

Religion is successful right now because they insinuated some of their attitudes and worldviews directly into the culture, so that people would think certain ways automatically, with barely ever a question. Once the culture changes to value the ability to reject bogus arguments and unsubstantiated claims, which is necessary in order to avoid getting conned online these days, then religion is sure to start taking some harder knocks.

I know that, right now, religious people like to crow about how they have survived the onslaught of Enlightenment science and technology. They even boast that religion is resurging, after being pronounced on the way out, a century or two ago. However, like many comforting illusions they believe, I think this fantasy is pretty easily dispelled.

The reality is that Churches have less and less power than ever before. Many of their gains are won in temporary skirmishes, but the long term trend is still away from religious authorities being able to call the shots for how society is run. The prestige of religious figures and their authority is nowhere near as high as it used to be. What we call Roman Catholicism or Episcopalianism today is not what it used to be 100 years ago. Even fundamentalists have been forced to make concession after concession to science and modern scholarship, making their naive literalism increasingly less tenable. Therefore the so-called resurgence is hollow at best.

Of course, populations will continue to grow. One is often told about the increasing number of Muslims or even Mormons who seem to be on the march. But even these groups continue to make concessions to the modern world. Young muslims today do not go for the strictness of the last century. The notion that women shouldn't be able to drive or that they must be covered from head to toe and escorted around by males is something that even the most devout muslims find inconvenient, which means that they will find reasons to work around it theologically.

Religions might keep the same names, but they continue to be massive altered by the modern world. They have been pushed and pushed on issues like gay rights, contraception, abortion, feminism, sex out of wedlock, genetic research, and a whole host of other issues. The Catholic Church, for example has taken a reactionary view on pretty much all of the issues mentioned above, and has been forced to make ignoble retreats on pretty much all of these issues, to some extent, and contribution levels and membership plummet.

Unlike religion, which has a very unsuccessful track-record of making legitimate prophecies, I will not pretend that I can predict what religion will look like in coming decades. However, with accelerating technological change, it is clear that the challenge to it has only just begin, and their premature victory whoops are really just preening over surviving total annihilation, despite massive casualties from the first wave of the assault. Those who think they will restore the place of religion to its former glory are truly living in a fantasy realm.

Like Pat Robertson and George W. Bush they might say, "bring it on", but it is already coming at them every day whether they choose to issue invitations or not. Continued breakthrough in stem cell research, contraception, and abortion technologies, for example, will continue to put them off balance. The potential that HIV vaccines might be developed fairly quickly will mean that they can stoke even less fear about sex. The potential that fossilized cellular life may be found on Mars, for example, will be a significant threat to creationism, despite the verbal gymnastics they may use to apologize for the embarrassing results.

These are just a few of the challenges which the future of religion will face, coupled with an exponentially greater ability to communicate those embarrassing results.

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