The Internet is Forcing Religious Groups to Address Unsavory Aspects of Their History November 18, 2014

The Internet is Forcing Religious Groups to Address Unsavory Aspects of Their History

There is a sort of online adage I’ve seen more than a few times, that the Internet is the place that gods go to die. Amanda Marcotte, in a piece republished by Salon, makes the argument that it’s at least a way-stop on the road.

While the piece contains a number of fascinating points, of particular interest are the faith leaders’ views on (and response to) the availability of information and dissenting opinions afforded by the Internet. She cites, for instance, the Mormon Church’s recent admission of certain unpalatable facts about its founder and early practices — and the reason that such facts were finally acknowledged by the church.

In September, the Church of the Latter Day Saints instructed churches to share a set of online essays (about topics from the Mountain Meadows Massacre to early church polygamy) with questioning Mormons. The essays, they were told, were

… presented as a counter to “detractors” who “spread misinformation and doubt.”

While there are plenty of detractors who will share their opinions offline, there’s little doubt that the bulk of the detractors plaguing the church are explaining their views online, which is why this has become a problem now for a church that used to act like it could exert total control over believers’ access to information. One of the church historians, Steven Snow, openly cited the internet as the source of the criticisms. “There is so much out there on the Internet,” he told the New York Times, “that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”

Now, the fact that an organization posturing as a moral authority would only admit unflattering facts when they became too well known to suppress should cause more than a little thought for members. That, though, is another post. Suffice it to say, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognized that the information it had hitherto downplayed or concealed was out there, on the Internet, readily available. They had, then, the choice to acknowledge it and hope that the faith-promoting nature of the discussion of these “difficult aspects” of Mormon history was sufficient to quell doubts… or leave people to find out on their own, with no apologist spin to put things into a “safe” perspective.

Of course, it would be folly to suppose that the Mormon Church finds itself in a unique position as a religion having to account for inconsistencies or questionable behavior. Other religious organizations seem to be catching on to the threat that the Internet poses. Marcotte writes:

At a recent conference on technology held by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Monsignor Paul Tighe expressed concerns that the Catholic Church is losing out by not being more aggressive online. “If the church in some way is not present in the digital, we’re going to be absent from the experience and from the lives of many people,” he said. “If we withdraw, then we’re leaving those areas to the trolls. We’re leaving it to the bullies.”

Again, it’s hard to believe that trolls and bullies, as irritating as they may be, are the real issue here — trolling is aggravating, but it’s not very persuasive. No, the real threat to the faith is people making strong cases against the Catholic Church and religion in general. Some of those cases are boldly stated and some are more polite and accommodating, but either way, they are real arguments and far more threatening to religion than some trolls saying stupid stuff that is best ignored.

(My own personal experience is very much in line with Marcotte’s suggestion: trolls affected my beliefs in a minimal fashion if at all, but thoughtful, reasonable people armed with facts and clear logic had a profound impact.) I have to agree. The Internet is not a threat to organizations that lay claim to absolute truths because of ignorant, hateful people or misinformation; the Internet is a threat to those people for precisely the opposite reasons: because it gives immediate access to new information, new perspectives, and new communities. It provides a forum for doubters to explore their doubts and for questioners to ask their questions. It provides the information and arena to challenge what religions have claimed as absolutely true. “Because we say so,” isn’t a sufficient answer anymore, when five minutes on Google can provide you with significant evidence and argument to the contrary.

“The Internet’s beauty,” Marcotte writes,

… is it makes satisfying basic curiosity as easy as typing some words into a search bar. Odds are that’s a temptation fewer and fewer believers will be able to resist.

That is beauty indeed.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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