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How The Internet Has Weakened (But Not Destroyed) Organized Religion

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The current state of organized religion is ripe with conflict and mixed messages. On one hand, religious affiliation has significantly declined over the past 30 years. According to a 2018 survey from Eastern Illinois University, around 23 percent of the US population identifies as having “no religion.” For comparison, that number was only 5 percent in 1972.

In other industrialized countries, the decline is even more pronounced. Throughout Europe, more and more people are drifting away from organized religion. That’s especially true of young people, who are one of the least religious demographics in modern history. In terms of the bigger picture, organized religion is facing a generational time bomb that’s just starting to go off.

At the same time, however, religion still exercises an absurd amount of political power. Religious groups, particularly those who align themselves with conservative politics, have enormous influence. Its platform is tightly woven with that of a major political party. Many people in positions of power identify as religious. Many more rely on a religious base to get elected.

It’s a strange trend that seems counter-intuitive. How can something be weakening due to declining adherents, but still wield so much power? In an age where the egregious crimes of religious institutions have been exposed and more people are educated on the many absurdities of various holy texts, it feels as though organized religion should be on its death bed.

While there are many factors behind this situation, I believe that one particular factor is more influential than most. It also happens to be the same factor that has done the most to weaken religion while helping to sustain its political and social influence. It’s a force that has already radically changed everyone’s life, regardless of their affiliation.

That force is the internet and its impact on religion cannot be overstated.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like to talk about religion in the pre-internet days. You listened to your parents, relatives, priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks. They told you the history and tenants of their religion. You might ask questions. You might not understand the philosophy behind it. No matter how curious or skeptical you were, you could only do so much to question it.

Most of the time, you just had to trust your elders that they knew what they were talking about. You also had to trust that they wouldn’t lie to you, which is often a risky bet. If you were really motivated, you might go to a library and do some research. Even then, you’d have an uphill battle a head of you, given the many complexities behind religion and why people believe in it.

These days, it’s exceedingly simple to fact check an absurd religious claim. If someone were to claim that a 900-year-old man built a 300-foot wooden boat that housed two of every kind of animal for 40 days during a global flood, you wouldn’t have to spend years in college to learn why that’s absurd. You could just pull out your phone, do a few simple searches, and find out why this claim is completely wrong.

Even a kid who has only taken a basic science class can look up any of the stories their priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk tell them to find out whether they’re based on real history or embellished folklore. Religious institutions, parents, and schools can fight to control the information their young people receive. Many organizations do engage in activities that are outright indoctrination.

However, as demographic trends show, the effectiveness of those efforts only go so far. The information about the absurdities, inconsistencies, lies, and agendas is still out there. It’s widely available to anyone who can access a smartphone or a computer. There’s only so much anyone can do to prevent someone from accessing that information.

As a result, organized religion will never have the same sway it once did in centuries past. No matter how much conservative reactionaries complain, it’s impossible to go back. The combination of modern education and accessible information ensures that major religious institutions will never wield the power they once did.

Given the complexities of modern societies and the geopolitics surrounding it, it’s just not practical for a centralized religious institution to exist. The Vatican can still make statements about morality, ethics, and spiritual matters. It just has no means of enforcing them, as evidenced by how little typical Catholics follow their edicts.

Even without this power, the same internet that has permanently weakened religion is also the same thing that sustains some of its considerable influence. In fact, the internet might act as a catalyst that can turn certain individuals from nominal adherents to ardent zealots.

Think back to the young people sitting in churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. While some might casually look up the religious claims out of curiosities, others might go out of their way to find information that confirms these claims. Even if they’re factually wrong, they’ll look for any bit of information that they can twist to make it seem true and cling to it.

This is why creationism still persists, despite extensive resources that thoroughly debunk it. If someone is really determined to find information that affirms their beliefs, they’ll find it on the internet the same way people find cat videos and knife-wielding crabs. There will even be unscrupulous people to exploit them, including those who are convicted felons.

Like it or not, there are people who sincerely want to believe their preferred religion and will cling to anything that strengthens that belief. Given the open nature of the internet, shaped by the whims of users rather than objective truth, it’s distressingly easy for someone to customize what kind of information they receive.

If someone only wants news and memes about how their religion is true while everyone else is doomed to eternal torture in Hell, then that’s what they’ll get. They can get their news and information from exceedingly bias sources while brushing off others as fake news. There’s nothing from stopping anyone from using the internet in such a manner.

We already see how this has divided people along political lines in recent years. I would argue that this has been going on with religion for even longer. The rise of the religious right and the prevalence of religious media has done plenty to tighten their grasp on ardent believers. While less people may identify as religious, those who do tend to be more dogmatic about it.

Since those kinds of believers can be mobilized and pandered to, they’re a more unified political force. As such, appealing to them means gaining power. That power may be tenuous and limited, but it’s still viable power that plenty of politicians exploit, sometimes to an egregious extent.

In a sense, the internet has made it easy for both the extreme zealots and the inherently skeptical. Those who might have identified as religious out of tradition in the past are more comfortable identifying themselves as non-religious today. It also helps there’s not as much stigma to being a non-believer as there used to be.

At the same time, those who were devout before can become outright zealots if they consume enough extreme content. In fact, their declining numbers in the general population might give them more reasons to become zealous. History has shown that small bands of religious zealots can do a lot of damage. The internet might hinder their ability to gain adherents, but it might also make them more desperate.

It’s a scary possibility, but one I tend to believe is remote. While I might not be a fan of organized religion, I still have many friends and family members who are religious and wonderful human beings. The internet hasn’t changed that. In the long run, I believe that basic humanity that binds us all will win out in the long run. The internet won’t always help, but it’s certainly a valuable tool.

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Filed under extremism, human nature, philosophy, politics, religion

The Attention Economy (And Why It’s Ruining The Internet)

Here’s a little pop quiz that most people will probably fail. What is the most valuable asset in today’s modern economy? Go on, take a few minutes if you have to. I know it sounds like an easy question to answer, but it’s still worth thinking about.

Is it gold? Historically, it is one of mankind’s most valuable materials.

Is it money? That makes sense. People call it the root of all evil for a reason.

Is it knowledge? Smart people can be pretty damn successful.

Actually, it’s none of these. Even money, that one major driving force behind every major heist movie, is not nearly as valuable in today’s economy as it was 50 years ago. If anything, it’s losing its value and becoming an increasingly esoteric concept, so much so that we consider bits of computer code to be money.

There is, in fact, one other asset whose value exceeds them all. We know this because businesses, artists, and even horny people trying to get laid go to obscene, if not annoying, lengths to get it.

That’s right. I’m talking about that most precious of assets that drives the entire modern economy. I’m talking about attention.

Yes, that word deserves bold and italicized fonts. It’s just that important. It may seem like hyperbole to those still used to picking out pocket change between couch cushions. It’s not like you can tip a stripper with attention. However, give it just a little bit of thought. It won’t take much to realize just how important it is. It doesn’t just drive the economy. It drives (or hinders) our love lives.

I know this because it ties directly into my ongoing efforts to be an erotica/romance writer. It also ties into my efforts to make this blog a successful supplement to those efforts. There’s a good reason I try to avoid overly boring topics and talk about kinky things that both raise eyebrows and moisten panties. It’s a way for drawing attention to my work. It is, without a doubt, the greatest challenge I face as a writer.

Talk to anyone who has ever worked in marketing, whether it’s selling books or diamond-encrusted dildos. They’ll probably say the same thing, although the people selling dildos will probably have better stories. The hardest part of selling anything is getting peoples’ attention.

I know I keep referencing this same famous movie clip, but it’s just that powerful. It keeps finding new ways to be applicable to so many things, from making money to finding love. There’s a reason why Alec Baldwin won an Oscar for it. It’s the same reason why you don’t hear from a lot of other Baldwins these days.

Between the bragging, bullying, and brass ball props that Baldwin’s character uses, the most important part of his distinctly de-motivational speech is the A.I.D.A. method he describes. That’s attention, interest, decision, and action. Every major marketing method follows this model to some extent, but it’s that first step that is most vital.

It’s also the step that is most difficult, especially in the era of 350 channels, YouTube celebrities, and internet memes. For most of the modern era, we had only a handful of TV channels, newspapers, and methods for disseminating information. It used to be that a few strategically placed commercials during the Super Bowl would be enough to generate the attention you needed.

Those days are deader than analog cables and betamax. Instead, you have hundreds of channels containing countless shows, stories and sites doing anything and everything to get every last second of your attention. Is it really that surprising that the gratuitous violence/nudity on “Game of Thrones” and iconic franchises like “Star Wars” have become the new standard?

These things get your attention. These things get people talking. It’s only after you have someone’s attention that you can even begin to plan on how you’ll get them to pay for your product and/or have sex with you. In an era of so many choices and so few opportunities, attention might as well be encrusted in polished diamonds.

It’s because that attention is so valuable, so much so that it’s become the main currency of the modern era, that the internet is changing and not necessarily for the better. Spend more than five minutes on the internet, whether you’re checking your email or watching porn, and chances are you’ve run into a little something called clickbait.

In the attention economy, clickbait is akin to the muggers who beat up sick orphans while drunks throw pennies at them. It is the clogged toilet and overflowing septic tank of the internet. They are sites, ads, and shady tactics meant to draw you away from productive activities, like checking your email or reading this blog, and into some buggy, browser-crashing site meant to extract your attention and credit card information.

We’ve all seen them. The names of the sites and the annoying ads they post are ridiculous. Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious. However, it’s still tempting at times to click on them and that’s exactly what makes clickbait so evil.

Like it or not, people need to make a living. Websites need to make money. I need to make money. I can’t tell sexy erotica/romance stories without a roof over my head, food on my plate, and a reliable internet connection. That’s why I promote my novels every chance I get. I haven’t resorted to clickbait yet, but it is tempting. It’s also very frustrating.

I’ve seen the same internet as everybody else. I’m just as annoyed by the abundance of clickbait as everyone else. It’s hard to even trust the text within a link these days. At the same time, however, I can understand the intent behind it.

People are trying to make money. They can’t do that unless they get the attention of customers. The problem is that as the size and prevalence of the internet has increased, our capacity for attention has not. We humans only have so much brain matter in our skulls. That brain can only give a finite amount of attention to a handful of things at any given time.

Until we can start augmenting our brains, which Elon Musk is working on as we speak, this limitation isn’t going to change. We’ll still only be able to give a certain amount of attention to ourselves, mass media, and each other. As such, the amount of clickbait we see on the internet is only going to increase. The sheer absurdity of the headlines is likely to increase as well. I’ll give everyone a moment to shudder.

It’s unavoidable, but understandable. The internet may seem infinite, if only because of the varieties of porn it stores, but it’s not. It can’t run itself for free either. It needs to make money somehow and nobody seems to want to pay for it. Why else would some people resort to Kickstarter, which is basically digital begging, to fund movies?

We’re all guilty of it. I certainly am. I’ll whine constantly about pop-up ads and video ads on a site, but refuse to pay the extra $10 for the “premium” version that removes the ads. While some feel that kind of service is exploitive on the same level as price gouging for medicine, it makes sense. Again, the people managing these sites need to make money and nobody seems keen to want to give it.

The internet will continue to evolve, as it always has. That evolution will be driven primarily by a desire to turn a profit. Unfortunately, no profits can be made unless someone gets enough attention first. As evil and annoying as clickbait may be, we have only ourselves to blame for its existence. At least for now, it’s here to stay. The best we can do is grit our teeth, read some sexy novels, and endure.

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