6/21/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsBy ThinkTank ~
When people ask, “What made you lose your faith?” it’s always a little challenging to know what to say. How do we compress 5-10 years and 100 reasons into a short response when we really need several hours (or days) to talk about the process of losing our faith?
Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on opte.org. Image via WikipediaThere is also a similar question that ex-christians ask themselves -- “How could I have believed something so improbable for so long?”
It turns out, we were far from unintelligent and there is a very good reason why we believed for so long.
We did not have access to information.
No Information = Problems
For most of human history, people have had very limited access to information. Most people were dependent on some type of authority for information because it was difficult to find information or to verify things on one’s own. Being dependent on others for information had lots of problems.
It was hard to learn things independently
People were dependent on what other people wrote, taught, said, did, or presented via TV/movies. Even something as simple as looking up the definition of a word meant stopping to find a dictionary. Most people skipped the hassle and learned to be content with ‘not knowing’.
It was hard to verify simple facts
Without the Internet, people had to rely on what they could only hope was credible information. Actually verifying a fact required investigation, research in a library, or travel to the site of an event. Checking the accuracy of a political statement such as "I can see Russia from my house", meant a complicated and lengthy process of trying to talk to the reporter or somehow locating witnesses. It was much simpler to accept things at face value than to check the facts.
It was almost impossible to confirm complex ideas
Before the Internet, verifying a single fact like a political statement was difficult, but verifying a complex idea was almost impossible. Think back to 1990. With no world wide web, what were the options to confirm whether or not Pluto was a real planet?
People could talk to a science buff; request books and magazines at the library; try to find a scientific conference on planetary science; and/or wait 10-15 years while scientists published their research in books.
In the end, researching complex ideas proved to be too difficult and time consuming for most people. It was much easier to simply evaluate someone’s credibility and accept their point of view. And that is what people did. They judged the credibility of the source and accepted their point of view because there weren’t any other real options.
It was hard to share ideas
Communication was limited to meetings, mail, and the telephone (don’t forget that long distance calls were expensive). This further limited the amount of information that was available to people.
It was hard to avoid conflicts.
Without an easy way to verify information or to communicate with other people, simple questions were often seen as a lack of trust and/or a challenge to someone’s credibility. Questions or differences of opinion could easily imply that the other person was confused, wrong, lying, manipulative, etc. and it was likely that people would become defensive and argumentative.
When people ask, “What made you lose your faith?” it’s always a little challenging to know what to say. How do we compress 5-10 years and 100 reasons into a short response when we really need several hours (or days) to talk about the process of losing our faith?Attempting to clarify information or discuss other perspectives was not a productive option for most people because the potential for conflict was so high. It was safer to nod in agreement and keep questions to oneself.
‘In-groups’ and ‘out-groups’
Without the ability to verify information, people felt vulnerable about their ideas and viewpoints. People formed groups to quiet these feelings of insecurity and to bolster their confidence in the information they had. People with shared ideas were part of the ‘in-group’ and seen as right, good, and safe. People with other perspectives were part of the ‘out-group’ and seen as wrong, bad, and dangerous.
Denominations, political parties, and team rivalries are a few examples of how belonging to a group helps us feel better about what we think we know.
It was dangerous to ask questions
Because asking questions was easily perceived as a challenge, questions carried a certain level of social and physical risk. It was important for people to know when it was safe to ask a question and which people were safe to ask. It was not smart to ask too many questions. Most people learned to keep questions to themselves to avoid being seen as a suspicious trouble maker; ending up as an outcast from the group; or in extreme cases, eliminated.
‘Might’ meant ‘right’
Without the ability to verify facts or confirm complex ideas, people could not actually resolve differences of opinion. Instead people and groups had to resolve differences by verbally or physically eliminating people who didn’t agree. However, this didn’t mean their ideas were accurate. It only meant they had silenced the questions.
It was better to sound right
People became authorities based on how credible they seemed, not based on the actual accuracy of what they said. It was much more important to sound right than to be right because that was really the only option. It was possible to sound credible. It was not possible to verify the accuracy of what was being said.
To stay in power, authorities protected their credibility at all costs. This was usually done by projecting as much confidence as possible, rewarding supporters, eliminating dissenters, and carefully managing their reputation.
Without access to information, people had to be content knowing there were many things they could not know and questions they should not ask.
Access to Information Changes Everything
With the advent of the internet, all that has changed. Instead of depending on someone else for information, people now have the ability to research, verify, and share information on their own.
People no longer have to be content with ‘not knowing’. Now it’s easy to learn new things and research topics of interest. Ideas can be discussed, evaluated, and commented on in blogs and forums. Different experiences, perspectives, and world views can be compared. People can share other perspectives and work together to solve problems.
Verifying simple facts
The accuracy of quotes and stories can be verified on sites like FactCheck or Snopes. Historical and scientific facts can be checked and people can safely and anonymously ask questions.
Confirming complex ideas
It is much easier to verify a complex idea like Pluto’s planet hood by checking out the Wikipedia page on Pluto, reading professional journal articles online, and even directly contacting scientists.
Communication has become so easy that it’s difficult to stop communicating. Text messages, email, video phone, blogs, YouTube, status updates….Most people even have a good number of friends that they have never met.
With easy ways to verify information and to communicate with others, a question or difference of opinion does not need to imply that someone is wrong. A difference of opinion can mean a lot of things. It can mean that someone doesn’t have all the information they need, they haven’t verified their information, or they have a different perspective. It can also mean someone is having difficulty accepting new information.
Although access to information is available like never before, not everyone accesses information in the same way. People who were raised with limited access to information approach life in a completely different way than people who were raised with open access to information. Loosely speaking, people fall into one of three general groups of information users.
The first group is made up of ‘information cave dwellers’ who still live in a world of limited information. Roughly speaking, the majority of this group was born long before 1990. These people were raised with limited access to information and were dependent on others to provide information. They tend to think, “I don’t need the Internet”.
Information ‘cave dwellers’ have a restricted knowledge base, aren’t particularly motivated to research, and are usually resistant to new ideas. They are unwilling to change in response to new information and they fear and avoid conflict. They do not realize they are not participating in reality.
The second group grew up as information ‘cave dwellers’, but are now information ‘hunter/gatherers’. Generally, this is a portion of the people born before 1990. These people were raised without access to information, but are now learning to find and verify information. This group is proud to say, “I can use the Internet”.
When we as ex-christians talk to believers about the information that dissolved our faith, sometimes the resistance (and occasional unkindness) we hear is really them saying, “Help me understand.Information ‘hunter-gatherers’ have a developing knowledge base, a growing interest in finding information, and feel uneasy with new ideas. They have difficulty integrating new information and are uncomfortable with conflict. They are unaware that they are the only group that is able to understand what life is like with both limited and open access to information.
The third group is made up of information ‘urbanites’ who move freely in the world of information. By and large, this is the vast majority of people born after 1990. This group grew up with unlimited access to information. People in this group understand “I am the Internet”.
Information ‘urbanites’ have an expansive knowledge base, instinctively research topics of interest, and are comfortable with new ideas. They are able to consider new information and are better able to weather conflict. They are not fully aware of the information gaps or limitations of the other groups.
If we were to talk to each of the three groups about a topic such as the Sistine Chapel, we would find wide differences in each group’s knowledge and thinking abilities.
Information ‘cave dwellers’ have no expectation of seeing the Sistine Chapel. They are probably aware it is in Europe and that it was painted by a great master. They will be surprised, but uninterested, to know it's possible to see it online.
Information ‘hunter/gatherers’ are amazed when they take the virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. They might discover it is part of the Pope's personal residence in Vatican City and that it was frescoed by four Renaissance painters. They will probably show the virtual tour to their spouse.
Information ‘urbanites’ are way ahead of both groups. They have already taken the virtual tour, posted the link to Facebook, and tweeted something like, "This is where the dudes in the red beanies elect the Pope."
They will inform their younger siblings that two of the Ninja Turtles were named after Sistine Chapel artists. They are likely to come across an article proposing that "Michelangelo's 'Creation of Adam'" resembles a human brain. But before they post the article to Tumblr, they will skim the source article to make sure it’s not a parody from The Onion.
Information ‘urbanites’ will wrongly assume that their parents and grandparents know what they do about the Sistine Chapel. They will also wrongly assume their parents and grandparents know how to take the virtual tour, find the article about the brain, verify the source article, share on social networking sites, and look up the names of the four Ninja Turtles.
Information Aids Accuracy
A major part of why people lose their faith is because they have access to information in ways that were impossible even 10 years ago. When we were believers, we weren’t stupid or crazy. We simply didn’t have the information we needed, a safe environment to ask questions, and the ability to communicate with others.
It can help to be aware of the important role that access to information plays in the lives of people who are still believers. Believers aren’t stupid or crazy either. Most believers need information they do not yet realize is available and a safe way to integrate that information into their lives.
A lot of believers are stuck. Important life decisions were made when information was not available. Career paths were chosen, relationships founded, and communities built. Discovering information that does not fit with one’s current belief system can be very frightening and disconcerting. People need help and support to find ways to transition to more accurate beliefs without losing their family relationships, friends, and jobs.
When we as ex-christians talk to believers about the information that dissolved our faith, sometimes the resistance (and occasional unkindness) we hear is really them saying, “Help me understand. I’m still under the influence of things that make sense to me and I can’t see a way out without destroying my sense of self and all my relationships. I am bound up in the life I made when I didn’t have any other information.”
Ex-christians are uniquely qualified to help believers cope with new and sometimes unsettling information. Ex-christians are the only ones who speak fluent ‘Christian’. We already know what their questions and objections will be and why they have them. We understand what it means to believe something with our whole heart. We understand the difficulty in letting it go. We understand the devastation that loss of faith can create in marriages, families, friends, and careers. We also understand the freedom and happiness that is possible once the shackles are broken.