THE BLOG
01/07/2016 02:20 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

The Internet Is Killing Religion (and Science, Too)

The Internet is a killer: Adam Conover from Adam Ruins Everything

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It is true.

The Internet is killing religion not because it exposes people to new ideas, and not because it tends to draw out everyone's inner troll, and not because parts of it are rabbit holes of pornography and hate.

It is killing religion in the same way it is killing science.

It may appear that the Internet has been nothing but a boon for science: results are shared immediately and democratically, in the best scientific tradition. And the raw data now available online are unbelievably rich, comprising a deep mine from which fresh knowledge is regularly drawn (this is true for astronomy, at least; I assume it's true for other branches of quantitative science).

But the Internet is killing science as well as religion because it aggressively discourages the practice of sustained, undistracted attention to the real world.

This is not a new lament but the depth of the problem, I believe, is unappreciated. The practice of paying continuous and undivided attention to people, nature, and ideas is the taproot of all worthy religion and science (as well as creative work of any value).

Three years ago I wrote a New Year's post. In it I mentioned Simone Weil (a spiritual writer and activist) and Isaac Newton (a scientist). Both of them were absolute masters of paying attention, of not being distracted, and both credited non-distraction as the source of their insights.

Weil's idea of paying attention is subtle and theologically oriented. She argues that paying true attention to anything -- a suffering human being or even a problem in geometry, say -- is essential for the development of our capacity to see and know others and God, too. The idea is to hold the object of one's attention at a (short) distance from other thoughts that threaten to crowd it out:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached and empty... Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything.

And James Gleick wrote about Newton that

[His] patience was limitless. Truth, he said much later, was the "offspring of silence and meditation." And he said: "I keep the subject constantly before me and wait 'til the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light."

Not everyone can be a Simone Weil or an Isaac Newton. But we all have capacities for meditation and attention, and the Internet is antagonistic to their development. It is not a neutral medium. I think this is pretty obvious.

In that same New Year's post I wrote about my desire to live more deliberately in 2013, to be, in my own little way, more like Weil and Newton. Things were pretty heavy in my life -- my dad had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and I did not have steady work. In the face of this I renewed my effort to pay attention, to not be distracted by a hundred trivial things, to do what I was doing and to be where I was.

I'm not sure how that worked out. On one hand my dad's cancer and my insecure financial situation did make reality more real for me, which is always good (update: today I have steady work and Dad's scans are clear). And I did make a conscious effort to calm down, to listen, to not snap at my family, and to be more attuned to the always-present "divine solution," as a dear friend puts it.

On the other hand I got an iPhone and began to carry the Internet around with me. Smart phones, of course, are diversion distilled, the very essence of agitation. Mine is a fly banging around inside my skull as I try to read, write, listen, think, walk, eat, talk, and sleep. I find it very difficult to pay attention -- real attention -- to anything other than the Internet for more than five minutes (I have therefore become exactly what the phone makers want: a slave of commerce). Today my attention span has been reduced to approximately that of a squirrel monkey.

Maybe it's just me. I don't know. But I'm not the only one staring at his phone at red lights. I see it every day, and I'm sure you do too. This is unmarked territory for us. It really is a new thing, this relentless distraction. I wonder what the long-term cumulative effect of non-stop mental disturbance will be, and how it will shape our next generation, and particularly its religious leaders and scientists. I would like to be optimistic about it, but even here at the new year I'm finding that pretty hard to do.