Monday, March 12, 2018

How Technology Threatens Spiritual Life

One more excerpt from Mere Science and Christian Faithnow available. 

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(To state what is perhaps obvious, this is ironic)
A drop in religious affiliation and a rise in Internet use seem to be correlated. Why might this be the case? Philosopher Daniel Dennett has surmised that the Internet disrupts religion’s hegemony over the information its adherents receive. 
“Religious institutions, since their founding millennia ago, have managed to keep secrets and to control what their flocks knew about the world, about other religions and about the inner workings of their own religion with relative ease. Today it is next to impossible.” Daniel Dennett (behind paywall)
But that strikes me as somewhat simplistic. Studies also find a strong correlation between empathy and religious belief—that is, believers tend to show higher levels of empathy. Can God make himself known to people despite their technological distractions and decreased empathy? Naturally. At the same time, some studies suggest that the use of technology reduces empathy, and since emerging adults are digital natives and use technology throughout the day, this is a particularly pertinent issue. I’ve been persuaded that we grow in the virtues through practice, and the virtue of empathy is something we must cultivate. Conversely, interacting virtually and not in real relationships numbs our empathy. One can note the division at Facebook specifically created to mitigate against cyberbullying by its one billion plus users. I can affirm that the comments to my blogs can be highly negative—and almost never informed by what I wrote—to a degree that never happens in my public speaking.

In other words, if using technology decreases our empathy, and empathy is correlated with faith, maybe technology decreases our capacity for spiritual life. We need more studies on this, but I can report anecdotally that the college students I teach and the emerging adults that have been part of my ministries seem increasingly anxious, even twitchy. They’re less present to one another and therefore diminished in their ability to care. There seem to be correlations between screens and these behaviors, and while I certainly have my intuitions, more scientific data would be helpful. There’s also the simple issue of how we steward our time: If we play hours of Grand Theft Auto, there’s less time to go to worship services, undertake Bible studies, and take part in service projects.

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