I had heard of The Blasphemy Challenge somewhere, recently, but had set it aside without looking into it until being reminded of it while reading Daniel C. Dennett‘s response to this year’s Edge question.
The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion
Why am I confident that this will happen? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion. With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory–the inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated “rebound” of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases–there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents. That trend will continue, especially when young people come to know how many of their peers are making this low-profile choice. Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.
Those who are secular can encourage their own children to drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads them, confident that only a small percentage will rebel against their secular upbringing and turn to one religion or another. Cults will rise and fall, as they do today and have done for millennia, but only those that can metamorphose into socially benign organizations will be able to flourish. Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness. The fact that these adapting religions are scorned as former religions by the diehard purists shows how brittle the objects of their desperate allegiance have become. As the world informs itself about these transitions, those who are devout in the old-fashioned way will have to work around the clock to provide attractions, distractions—and guilt trips—to hold the attention and allegiance of their children. They will not succeed, and it will not be a painless transition. Families will be torn apart, and generations will accuse each other of disloyalty and worse: the young will be appalled by their discovery of the deliberate misrepresentations of their elders, and their elders will feel abandoned and betrayed by their descendants. We must not underestimate the anguish that these cultural transformations will engender, and we should try to anticipate the main effects and be ready to provide relief and hope for those who are afflicted.
It strikes me as something tantamount to the 60’s and even before, as the television, radio, the music industry, the automobile, and modernity in general all converged on the "traditional" family and Johnny grew his hair long and Sally got a miniskirt. Outwardly, it was rebellion, pure and simple; and many surmised, purely for rebellion’s sake, peer pressure, following the crowd, and so forth. While I’m certain there was some of that, nobody ever seems to ask: what value were they acting for, primarily and fundamentally?
My guess is that they were acting for the value of independence from a social structure that no longer made sense to them, given their own perspective on a new world that their parent’s clearly lacked. Was there a lot of foolishness, stupidity, and even cruelty involved? Absolutely. Was this a consequence of deep wisdom? Certainly not. It was simply a migration that was bound to happen.
And so I think Dr. Dennett is correct. I sense it, too, and that whole YouTube Blasphemy Challenge is just the sort of thing that leads me to sense it. It’s not the fact that there are now kids willing to blaspheme. There have always been at least some of those, but most people –especially other kids — were never exposed to them. Now it’s out in the open, in your face, raw, insulting — stomping with a vengeance on other people’s values and letting the chips fall where they may. Perhaps there are better ways, but it seems to me that by pure inertia alone, things deeply rooted in culture require these sorts of "extreme" measures before anyone is willing to pay any attention.
I think that if you thought that breaking the authority structure of the traditional family (so that, eventually, people could return to strong family bonds, but without the pretense of the past) was tough on society, imagine what breaking the authority structure of — not the traditional church; that was broken long ago — mystical religious dogmatic literalism, guilt and its anthropomorphic God is going to do to things.
I’m quite certain this is in our future, and I believe the process has already begun, for better or worse. Me? I plan to enjoy the ride.
Oh, BTW; completely coincidentally, my Amazon order arrived yesterday and included that same video those blasphemers are damming their souls to acquire. It’s good. Curiously, it was written and produced by a product of a fundamentalist Christian private school, as was I. He related some of his young experiences in worrying endlessly about whether he was actually "saved," or not; a condition that, while perhaps not purposely perpetuated by family, church, or school, is nonetheless seemly beneficial to all three by virtue of the extra measure of piety to be generally observed in such self doubting (and scared) kids. I can relate.