Scepticism about Online Scepticism

Categories: angry atheism apologetics atheism Blogging

conspiracyIs the internet really a benevolent playground of truth about religion?

Some people read conspiracy theory websites and magazines. In fact, I’d wager that more people than ever before read them. As a result, more people than ever before believe ridiculous conspiracy theories. Although I have no desire to see people forced to stop reading such trash, I really wish they would. The fact that more such theories are available now than ever before does not increase the likelihood that people who read this material are going to stumble onto a true theory. It just means that there is more nonsense to choose from, leading to paranoid, sometimes hysterically funny, and often sad, unscientific and damaging beliefs and practices. I have little sympathy for anyone who would reply by saying something like “Dude, you’re just threatened. The truth is out there and now that it’s out there, you can’t stop people finding out.”

I suspect that my perspective on the proliferation of conspiracy theory websites and magazines is shared by most people. At least I hope it is. Such material gives a platform to views that frankly do not deserve it.

Josh McDowell is concerned about the proliferation of comments of a different sort on the internet.

Every pastor, youth pastor, and every parent is in competition with the Internet and the information it is spreading,” said McDowell. “Most young people don’t get their news from CNN or CBS, they get it from bloggers. There are about 181 million bloggers vying for the attention of your children.”

The unlimited amount of online information that people have access to has caused an increase in skepticism that will only continue to become more pervasive, says McDowell.

“Twenty years ago, the phrase was, ‘if you don’t reach a young person by 18, you probably won’t reach them.’ Now, atheists and agnostics have the same access to your kids as you do, it’s just one click away. The internet has leveled the playing field and now if you don’t reach a child by their 12th birthday, you won’t reach them.”

The “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta sees this as a good thing, understandably. Here is where a predictable case of bias confirmation kicks in, because as everyone should know (especially atheist bloggers), “There’s no doubt Christians are threatened by atheists.” Of course, no doubt at all. We’re downright terrified. Mr Mehta is, after all, an atheist blogger, and the fact that larger numbers of people have their perspective on religion shaped by what he and others write is a good thing, a force for reason, so naturally people who believe stupid things should be afraid. The ideas and arguments that find their breeding ground online and which young Christians are likely to encounter there, he thinks, are likely to lead to a more enlightened perspective:

The 181,000,000 is a tad high, but McDowell is wrong about something more important: The access to all the online information doesn’t (generally) lead to skepticism about all ideas, only bad ideas. The truth has a better chance of emerging when all the viewpoints are out there, not when you’re sheltered and only hearing what your pastor wants you to hear. If Christianity is losing that battle, it’s not the Internet’s fault.

Some of these remarks reflect a fairly clear (and surely not accidental) misrepresentation of the concern being expressed. Notice that McDowell didn’t raise the concern that young people aren’t getting their information from their pastor, but instead from the unbridled world of the internet. The concern was that instead of getting their information from sources like CNN or CBS (which I take to be a general reference to respectable sources with standards that they are required to meet on pain of legal and career consequences), but instead from bloggers, people who have a platform that they never earned (we bloggers didn’t even have a job interview!) and very few standards of accuracy that they are required to meet (beyond very basic legal restrictions). But hey, let’s re-cast the contrast as one between the church that wants to protect you from reality and give you a slanted perspective on the one hand, and the free, democratic internet with no axe to grind on the other.

But more to the point, if he genuinely believes his own comments here, Mr Mehta is living in a rose-tinted world with perpetual rainbows, marshmallow clouds, lollipop trees and Kool-Aid streams. The idea that the massive number of personal blogs out there promoting the arguments of the blogger is not likely to lead to people encountering and perhaps being persuaded by bad ideas, coupled with the idea that the only sort of ideas that are under threat because of the internet are bad ideas, is a nice idea. But like a lot of nice ideas, it is naïve and wrong. For all the good that it does – and I would not be without it – the phenomenon of the internet and the ease with which it gives a microphone to anyone who desires one has created a looney, ill-informed, at times sensationalist, generally repetitive echo chamber of ideas that only have a following because of their online presence, and they have adherents because people have formed the disastrously false impression that getting a degree from the University of Google is a substitute for an actual education. Sceptics generally realise this when it comes to scientific matters (take for instance some of the anti-vaccination claims that many people believe because they “did their own research” online). When it comes to religion, however, a number of those same sceptics, apparently including Mr Mehta, do an about-face.

I share Josh McDowell’s concern, and not at all because I have a problem with young Christians doing research. I share it because of the sheer nonsense that they will encounter online and the dishonesty with which that nonsense will be presented, in a context where the uninitiated will think that they are being presented with facts. There is no code of ethics on the internet. The “Christ myth” view, for example, would have virtually no following today were it not for the internet. In any history classroom the online move Zeitgeist would be laughed hysterically out of town, and yet on the internet it has accumulated an army of credulous believers (those who, ironically, would describe themselves as “sceptics”!). Theories that would not pass peer review and which would not have respectability in the world of genuine scholarship will have a free pass online. The bar is low – in fact there is no bar at all.

“But people should know better, and if Christians are dumb enough to believe this nonsense when they read it, that’s their fault!” you might say. But remember that McDowell has been misrepresented and taken out of context. He’s talking about kids as young as twelve or ten. If a twelve-year-old who has no knowledge of ancient religions surfs the internet and watches Zeitgeist, then they may well believe chunks of it. They don’t know any better, and when you’re a kid it’s fun to believe sensational stuff (something that some people, unfortunately, never grow out of). I have received messages from people asking questions about it, simply because it is presented as known, accepted fact, in spite of the fact that its level of historical accuracy makes Darwin’s deathbed change of heart about evolution seem positively ironclad. It is virtuous, rather than a sign of weakness or cowardice, to raise the concern that such material needs to be countered and that it presents genuine risks to young, as-yet uneducated and impressionable viewers.

Religious sceptics get it when it comes to teaching creationism to children or evangelising kids with the fear of hell. But for some reason they (or at least some of them) don’t get it when it comes to passing off anti-religious nonsense to kids as fact.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 16 comments… add one }

  • Jason October 18, 2013, 12:31 PM

    Dude, you’re just threatened. The truth is out there and now that it’s out there, you can’t stop people finding out. The ancient aliens are among us.

    Sorry Glenn. I couldn’t resist. :)

    You’re right. Given that the number of right answers is necessarily smaller than the number of wrong answers, an unlimited range of ideas are going to contain a far greater number of wrong ideas than right ones, and there’s no way of distinguishing between them on the Web.

  • nick October 19, 2013, 6:50 AM

    This post high lights perhaps the need for parents to have done their own research about what is good and useful content. Teach their kids about a variety of subjects. Including critical thinking. Give them a good overview of many topics. And then be proactive with the material. Teach them about what good material is and what junk is. The problem with the internet is there are so many experts, and few real scholars. And the experts are over represented.

    I can’t help but critique churches attitudes here. Last night a general discussion was started amongst the congregation members of my church to what type of qualities’ a potential Youth Pastor should have (they are looking to appoint someone). They were talking about the persons character. It appeared to a high priority for them. And rightly so. My reply was what they know counts for a lot. Considering they have the chance mould young minds, and have such an important role to help them in so many ways. A leader needs to have good character and be well informed at the same time.

  • Marius October 20, 2013, 2:22 AM

    “But people should know better, and if Christians are dumb enough to believe this nonsense when they read it, that’s their fault!” you might say. But remember that McDowell has been misrepresented and taken out of context. He’s talking about kids as young as twelve or ten. If a twelve-year-old who has no knowledge of ancient religions surfs the internet and watches Zeitgeist, then they may well believe chunks of it. They don’t know any better, ”

    I think another way of putting it is simply that you don’t know what you don’t know. there are reasons for peer review: to remove the “not knowing what you don’t know” factor. you can only do research about stuff that is already on your radar. peer review helps to point out the things not on your radar yet.

  • Roy October 22, 2013, 1:45 AM

    Mehta is bang on when he says ‘The truth has a better chance of emerging when all the viewpoints are out there’.

    The take homes are surely that a) Christians need to have a strong presence on the web; and b) to teach our kids how to think through arguments, evidence, sources, and logical fallacies.

    Hugely disappointing to see the line ‘Sceptics generally realise this when it comes to scientific matters (take for instance some of the anti-vaccination claims that many people believe because they “did their own research” online)’ in this post.

    While I’m not anti-vax, I do have live questions about their safety and efficacy and these questions would not have emerged if it were not for researching online. There seems to be a lot of gaps in vaccination science and as such I’ve found this comment quite offensive.

    Re gaps … Did you know they put formaldehyde in some vaccines? On what planet would that be best practice? Let alone the question of safety! Did you know that most of the side-effects of vaccinations are measured in the space of *weeks*? If the antibodies are meant to last a lifetime then why don’t they study the side-effects of vaccinations over a lifetime? If vaccination science is so stitched up, why do different countries have different vaccination schedules? Did you know vaccination studies most often screen out unhealthy people, but then the policy is to apply vaccinations to all people? As far as I know, there have been no significant studies comparing vaccinated and non-vaccinated populations! And the list of questions go on …

    There are flat out deceptions too – take for example the confusion between the words “mortality” and “morbidity” … so often the pro-vax group put up morbidity stats and people confuse it with mortality. Then, they zoom into the graphs which show a drastic drop off in morbidity after the introduction of vaccines (eg http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/graph-us-measles-cases) but then when you zoom out to a longer time-line and look at mortality, vaccines are actually a very small part of the a much larger picture eg http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm4829.pdf).

    And these questions and data are just the tip of the iceburg … Most people when they see me raise questions and data as I did above brand me “anti-vax”; it’s not the case. I’m just …. well, sceptical ;-) .

  • Glenn October 22, 2013, 1:13 PM

    All of these concerns have been discussed and addressed before, and I’m not about to go into the vaccination issue here. A number of common concerns and myths are covered here: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/content/uci-myths-guideprov or http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2012/04/demystifying-vaccine-ingredients.html (re: formaldehyde), although if there are still questions after reading it, the best people to contact would be the authors.

    My point in mentioning that issue is that sceptics frequently appreciate that many false beliefs, conspiracy theories and junk science claims only have a following because of the lack of real peer review at various websites, so it’s strange that suddenly some of them assume that the internet isn’t a threat to true beliefs when it comes to religion. Often it is. But I certainly do agree, Roy, that it increases the responsibility to educate kids about absurd beliefs that they may encounter. Still, it’s a frustration, rather that an aide, to truth. It’s like having to warn people “now there’s this belief out there that the earth is flat…”

  • Sven October 23, 2013, 4:47 AM

    Is this a proper reconstruction of Roy’s argument?

    1. Vaccines contain formaldehyde.
    2. Formaldehyde is not safe.
    ————————————-
    3. Therefore vaccines are not safe.

  • Glenn October 23, 2013, 2:39 PM

    Yes Sven, that looks like it. But I do not want this to become a debate about vaccinations. That was just the example I used in passing in this entry.

  • thom waters December 16, 2013, 12:11 PM

    Glenn,

    Intriguing post. When you state, ” . . . when you’re a kid it’s fun to believe sensational stuff,” I’m wondering if this statement might not apply to the “sensational stuff” that is the Resurrection Hypothesis. I’m trying to imagine something more sensational, but I am unable to come up with anything. Perhaps you can help me out.

    Having said that, it appears that a belief in the resurrection is especially something that someone would want to believe in, at the very least. I think it good advice that anything you want to believe in should be something that you should question the most. It is this aversion to questioning and critical thought brought to the Resurrection Hypothesis by those who promote it that strikes me as most dangerous and most fascinating.

    I’ll be happy to make an argument against the Resurrection Hypothesis. Your challenge is to refute both the logic and factual nature to what I have to say. Certainly this can’t be much of a challenge or a danger to your belief. We can even do it in a public forum, other than the Internet. After all, the Internet is nothing more than a new kind of public forum. I’ll make an argument and you show me the error of my ways. What could be more simple?

    Unfortunately, the rejoinder mostly made by apologists and promoters of the faith on the Internet is silence. I have discovered that any substantive argument against the Resurrection Hypothesis is met mostly by an end to the conversation, as if silence ends the matter. Especially is this true when the defenders of the Faith encounter an idea or thought not previously considered. It can be rather unsettling to come face to face with a new idea that promotes, at the very least, a new insight.

    I think it both unwise and uncharitable to cast all contrary thought into the category of ” . . . anti-religious nonsense.” Perhaps you are not doing this, but it seems likely that this might be the case. Ultimately, the question to be asked is this: What is more important, what can you get people to believe, or the truth of a matter? Hopefully we all seek the truth of a matter. That is something that none of us should shy away from in our quest.

    And the Resurrection Hypothesis? Happy to engage you in the arena of ideas and facts.

  • Glenn December 16, 2013, 7:35 PM

    “Unfortunately, the rejoinder mostly made by apologists and promoters of the faith on the Internet is silence.”

    That isn’t even a serious observation (and it’s certainly not true). The resurrection hypothesis as you call it is out there and there are numerous places where it is defended (I have even done so at this blog). At any point you are, I am sure, able to interact with the case, but instead I have seen you lately simply declaring that you can do so, and that the defences are inadequate. Thom, can you point me to any resources online where you have interacted with the case in any detail?

    Incidentally, I do have a policy (one that you’ve read) against bringing up pet topics in threads.

  • thom waters December 18, 2013, 10:13 AM

    Glenn,

    In no way did I perceive this subject matter, the Resurrection Hypothesis, as a pet topic meant to intrude upon your blog. I used it only as a response to the idea that only “nonsense” could be encountered on the Internet with regard to opposition to Christianity. As someone who has a Masters Degree from one of the leading evangelical seminaries in the country, it is simply my contention that too often a critical exchange of ideas about the Resurrection Hypothesis is ultimately met by silence from those promoting the position or belief. My actual internet involvement began some time ago when confronting the Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus as promoted by Gary Habermas and others who followed. This even led to a significant correspondence with Michael Licona. I disagreed with Michael’s assertion that one could only disagree with the RH on theological or philosophical grounds. He felt, wrongly in my opinion, that one could not develop a substantial historical case against the proposition.

    My position against his stance and others who promoted the Minimal Facts Approach was two-fold. First, it involves challenging those “facts” introduced or accepted by the proponents of that position. Secondly, and more importantly, it involved the introduction and presentation of those “facts” not discussed by Habermas and others, facts which when considered as a body of evidence could reasonably lead on to conclude that the Resurrection of Jesus most likely did not happen as conventionally believed or taught by Christian apologists. In fact, I have gladly challenged Michael and others to a public debate on the matter, and all have gracefully declined.

    With regard to those online resources that reflect some of the interaction I have had with apologists and their cites, you can certainly find them. Among them are Mitchel Kirchmeyer and his section on historical Christianity, Jason Tilley, and Bryan Drake to name a few. All are easily accessed. I also carried on a detailed discussion with Neil Shenvi, who simply refuses to engage me any longer.

    I apologize if in some way I have violated the conditions for blog posts. I felt and still do feel, however, that there are to found legitimate exchanges and ideas on the internet that bring to task the Resurrection Hypothesis. Since the great claim of Christianity is a historically founded Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I think it important that a substantive case can be made on historical grounds for questioning it. Something that seems more significant than “nonsense”.

    thanks

  • Glenn December 18, 2013, 9:29 PM

    Thom, what triggered the suspicion is that you recently started commenting on an old blog post where the resurrection was mentioned, and gave the impression that it’s something you discuss a lot (although I was unsuccessful in getting you to share your arguments) – and then on this blog post that had nothing to do with the resurrection, you posted a comment that was all about the case for the resurrection, and now you’ve indicated that it is a subject you contact people about in order to debate them. So it does seem like a bit of a pet topic. :) You even took my remarks about online nonsense and sought to apply it you your argument about the resurrection (an argument I still haven’t seen), so I’d say you’re pushing hard for people to give this argument, whatever it is, a bit of attention.

    I’d be grateful if you could provide a link to somewhere you’ve laid out your argument(s) in detail.

  • Ciaron December 19, 2013, 7:39 AM

    With regard to those online resources that reflect some of the interaction I have had with apologists and their cites, you can certainly find them.

    I’ve just spent about a half hour googling and exploring the names he mentions. Can’t find a trace of any comment by Thom Waters… I can see a post on Mitchel Kirchmeyers blog with 40 comments, but it won’t load for me.
    http://mitchgk.com/category/historical-christianity/

  • Glenn December 19, 2013, 8:01 PM

    Thom, could you help us out with a link?

  • Glenn December 20, 2013, 12:21 PM

    http://mitchgk.com/dead-or-alive-was-jesus-really-resurrected/

    Thom has some comments here. Basically he says it’s plausible, but not certain, that the soldiers crucified Jesus, he hung there for perhaps 6 hours (here he assumes the accuracy of the New Testament account), but they messed up by allowing him to be taken down from the cross while he was still alive. Without debunking the burial and the empty tomb, presumably that would mean that he was entombed alive but escaped and his followers mistook his survival for a resurrection. Of course, this is a very old hypothesis that has been addressed many times before.

  • thom waters December 24, 2013, 7:40 AM

    Glenn,

    With regard to links.

    Why the Mitchel Kirchmeyer link won’t open for Ciaron, I can’t say. The 40 comments refered to are mostly those that I carrried on with him over the course of several years.

    Others: Minimal Facts Approach? Step into the mind of Bryan Drake

    Did Jesus Die on the Cross? Consider the Evidence. Jason Tilley.

    Chronological Snobbery and the Resurrection of Jesus.

    See also: Michael Gantt

    Anyway, the Resurrection of Jesus, rather than my own pet topic, is the linchpin for all of Christianity according to those in the know. The challenge to become involved in its discussion and to dialogue with believers was one that they offered up. I have simply responded to it. Again, sorry if this was not the place. However, it seemed to be a topic that you were inclined to discuss.

    By the way, I am happy to discuss the claim to resurrection and even grant you the death of Jesus on the cross. The point to the matter about Jesus’ death on the cross is that it correctly belongs to the realm of belief, not “fact”. There is simply no compelling historical or forensic evidence to support the claim as a “fact”. It is, after all, very different than say a beheading, where if you can establish that someone was beheaded you don’t need further proof to their death. Especially is this true if you have a potential victim of crucifixion taken down before the “normal” process was played out. Here I refer to the circumstances where a victim was left up for days and their body was then torn to pieces by scavenger animals and birds. From the documents themselves we know this was not the case with Jesus. We even discover that the method specifically used to accelerate death, the breaking of a victim’s legs, was not used. All circumstantial evidence to suggest that irregularities might have allowed for the victim to live. Remember, I’m not saying that he did not die. You and others are claiming that he did and I am simply asking you to provide the “evidence” for your position. A crucifixion was much like a stoning. Among other things, it was a process filled with torture and suffering, but demanding the element of Time among other things. Paul was stoned in Acts 14, thought to be dead, and dragged out of the city and left. Not only was he not dead apparently, but the very next day he traveled with Barnabbas to another town to begin preaching. Quite a recovery.

    Anyway, sorry again for the intrusion. I’ll not repeat the mistake.

  • Glenn December 24, 2013, 7:09 PM

    Thom, that’s not plausible. The suggestion that in the special case of Jesus, the Romans crucified a man but failed to kill him, flies in the face of common sense. Had they intended to execute him, we ought to assume that they did, and once the crucifixion is granted, the death of Jesus should be treated as a fact.

    This is to say nothing of the incredible suggestion that Jesus escaped the tomb and convinced his followers, not that he had managed to survive, but that he had been resurrected in glory, and that this beaten and bloodied man was the almighty victor over death.

    No dice. Jesus’ death is a fact granted by even the most sceptical New Testament scholars.

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