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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Wed 27
Aug
2008

Making Sense of Babel

What Max Reckons Atheism seems to be on the rise lately. I say this as someone who has examined no studies nor historical data, but who reads a lot of web sites. I see more people more comfortable with declaring their atheism than ever before. I think it’s at least partly because of the internet, which provides a meeting-place for sharing and reinforcing ideologies: that’s something new for atheists, whereas people of various faiths have always had churches, plus, in many places, pervasive support from their community.

And the internet is not only good at uniting geographically dispersed but like-minded people: it’s also disproportionately popular amongst people with technical and scientific backgrounds, who in turn are disproportionately atheist. So, on balance, the web seems to me to be a net negative for major religion.

Which got me thinking of the Tower of Babel*. According to the Bible, a great tower was built long ago in the city of Babylon; the builders of said tower were a little too pleased with themselves and their achievement, at least for God’s liking. There’s a whiff of the Titanic about this story: arrogance so great that it practically begs for comeuppance.

Which God delivers, of course. It didn’t take much to set God off in the Old Testament; he’d smite you for a backward look. But here, he reacts in a way that at first seems a little odd: no smiting, no plagues; he doesn’t even—stop me if I have this wrong—destroy the tower:

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

God is not concerned about the tower itself, or even the arrogance of its builders. That makes sense to me: you can be arrogant in any language, just look at France. God’s issue is with the ease of global communications.

So, as a story about the internet’s role in the decline of organized religion, the Tower of Babel makes perfect sense. I think that’s nifty.

(* Note: Religion is one of those touchy subjects you can’t write about without people looking for hidden agendas. Which is a shame, because religions are crammed full of stories that are interesting and meaningful regardless of how true you consider them to be. In the interests of full disclosure, I personally don’t believe the Bible to be a non-fiction work, but I hope that doesn’t bother you too much, and we can still be friends.)

Comments

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John Reynolds (#2534)

Location: New York, USA
Posted: 3922 days ago

Oh Max, you and your food for thought. Very interesting connections you made there.

With the infrequency of your updates I always get very excited when you pop up on my Google Reader.

Super (#600)

Location: The Netherlands
Quote: "I'm not deaf I'm just ignoring you!"
Posted: 3922 days ago

As far as I know, The Tower of Babel isn't just Bible-y. Many (old) religions have stories/myths/prophecies about this phenomenon.

Leonie (#1816)

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: ""The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." - Einstein"
Posted: 3922 days ago

I may have declared my atheism on the web, but I'm still a wuss in that I haven't declared it to my parents (even though I haven't lived with them for over a decade...) I'm sure all hell will break loose the day they get an internet connection. (Pun completely intended.)

Anyway, I've been spreading this podcast link all over the internet of late — http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2008/07/29/tell-me-a-story/ — I'm researching the links between science, religion and storytelling for my artwork, and came across this WNYC podcast about the need to create a compelling story for science. Good stuff.

shabooty (#637)

Location: D.C./V.A/M.D.
Quote: "I will shake your foundation. I will shake the f**cking rafters. Nobody'll be the same -Danny Bonaduce ....& go visit my blog @: http://www.shabooty.com"
Posted: 3922 days ago

Ah gotcha. I thought this post was going to be about the Brad Pitt movie (Babel). I really wanted to hear your thoughts on the deaf asian chick. Those deaf broads are freaks!

Meghan Johnson (#2004)

Location: Roanoke, Virginia
Quote: "If they didn't get a puppy in the end...."
Posted: 3922 days ago

So, you finally post another blog, it makes me scratch my head and thing. How come I have an inkling that we'll have to go another couple of months before you blog again.

IN some ways I could see the internet having an effect on religion in a negative way, but I also see it as having the same ability to have a positive effect. It's all a matter of perspective.

The point is, the internet brings together crazies of all sorts. It brings out the Fred Phelps (way to go www.godhates<insert noun here>.com) And it brings out the atheists (www.gaytheist.com is my favorite). It's really just a crazy melting pot of ideas.

Annnd I'm rambling.

Tim (#3178)

Posted: 3922 days ago

It's funny but as an atheist myself, at first, I was kind of pleased to discover online forums and communities of various sorts for non-believers. But I kind of soured on them after a while because I got slammed by some of the more vocal for not being too much of a religious apologist, ironically enough. My basic view is religion is human fantasy but that it shouldn't just be dismissed out of hand, that just maybe it's worth exploring got me branded as something of a hand-wringing wuss who was part of the "problem." My words, but here I was in effect being told that I wasn't enough of an atheist or that I didn't understand the true nature or severity of the problem. I backed away slowly.

The thing about the Internet that I find tiresome is that it can increase factionalization and create these self-sustaining ego pools of opinion that kill real discourse rather than encoraging it. I connect with anyone from around the world... who has the exact same thoughts about botanical porn as I do!

Uh-oh, my blowhard alert software on this computer telling me to kindly shut the hell up. But then... maybe somewhere out there there's a group of people who feel exactly the way I do! I needn't ever have my version of reality challenged again! I've gotta go surfing.

Tim


Tabor Henderson (#3670)

Location: college land
Quote: "The knowledge may or may not exist, but it either exists, or is useful to assume it does"
Posted: 3922 days ago

I like that you've posted this while leaving your views generally ambiguous. Very writerly. :D

Anyhow, I think this is a topic Neal Stephenson touched on in Snow Crash. Almost the same way you did. Granted. Stephenson wrote about before the advent of forums full of angry militants, but the idea was there.

But alas, now some neo-Luddite Christian group is going to start attacking t3h wubs, ruining it for the rest of us.

Sven B. (#2792)

Location: Paris, FR
Quote: "If you did not make it, don't try to fix it."
Posted: 3922 days ago

Well, I do like that post, as usual, but there are two things that bother me a little. The writing is good, and it makes an interesting point.

First, I resent your comment about France. We're not all arrogant jerks. Except with Brits (our best enemies) and Americans (but that's just because they're bigger jerks).

Second, I am a computer engineer, an Internet addict and a firm believer that, somewhere, somehow, there is something I can only call God, for lack of a better word. Long story short, I'm an agnostic deist (which means I do not believe the Bible to be entirely non-fiction either). Then again, I don't think this particular stance about religion is that common among the general public and it might be even more scarce among the "people with technical and scientific backgrounds".

Anyway, it's always nice reading from you. I like your style.

Mark Tran (#3249)

Location: Canada
Quote: "If you lived here, You'd be home."
Posted: 3922 days ago

That's really interesting. I myself am a theist, and I've seen quite a bit of God bashing online myself. The thing I resent about it is that there seems to be a lot of atheists, who don't actually know why they're atheist. It seems to be a trend amongst young people nowadays. Sort of a "rebellious" bandwagon thing that they're jumping onto simply because it makes them seem more mature. There are a lot of atheists who are genuine, but the majority that I talk to are the kinds that just say F*ck God, mainly because their favorite comedian happens to be an atheist, or because their favorite eyeliner wearing alternative band are atheists, or something similar involving media of that sort being more available.

Sophie (#891)

Location: Devon
Posted: 3922 days ago

I'm agnostic, and pretty comfortable declaring it wherever and whenever. Agnosticism is like Marmite ... lots of people think it's awful, but it's surprisingly fun if you're in the right mood for it. Although I did know a guy who was so agnostic that he wouldn't even believe in agnosticism, which was possibly somewhat excessive.

Also, I would guess the rise of anti-theism on the internet is partly due the internet being used mainly by people with access to some standard of education and social opportunities. Even if they're not scientists or techies, if they've been made to feel they can understand the world around them witout using myths, and they have economic opportunities and ways to get self esteem and group identity without using religion, they'll probably be more secular in their outlook than the people living in grinding poverty without access to the internet.

Gregory (#1530)

Location: Forest Hill
Quote: "I think therefore I am, I think"
Posted: 3922 days ago

Ah yes Max(x),
but many self-confessed atheists are in fact agnostics but do not yet know it.
G

Stephanie (#909)

Location: Canada
Posted: 3922 days ago

Hi Max, been a while..;)

I believe that atheism is a lot like religion actually. Both say they know for sure! One says they know there is a god and the other says they know for sure there is not. I'd like to think I quite frankly don't know, and either does any one else.

However, I like your post all the same..:))

Peace - Stephistan!~

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 3921 days ago

I'm always so impressed with the comments. It's like all the internet's smart people come here. The ones with excellent taste in modern literature.

Super wrote:
> As far as I know, The Tower of Babel isn't just Bible-y.
> Many (old) religions have stories/myths/prophecies about
> this phenomenon.

That's very true. There are many stories that appear in only slightly different form in almost all major religions, which is interesting in itself.

Meghan wrote:
> How come I have an inkling that we'll have to go another
> couple of months before you blog again.

Hey! I'm not that bad. I haven't missed a month since 2003. I've just been posting only once or twice a month lately, instead of three or four times.

Sven wrote:
> I resent your comment about France. We're not all
> arrogant jerks.

I didn't say jerks. I love the arrogance of France. I also like cats, for the same reason. No, no, you don't want to lose the arrogance.

Sophie (#891)

Location: Devon
Posted: 3921 days ago

That 'France' comment made me lol. (and I agree that France is cool)

And sorry for teh double postin', but I just felt the need to add that something I'm less keen on about internet debates on religion (and 'real-life' ones for that matter), is that they force people, including atheists and agnostics, to collect a number of different issues within quantum physics (the creation of the universe, matter and infinity, et al) and simplify them into one rather black and white concept of 'god' and then answer with a 'yes', 'no' or 'maybe'. Criticism and debate is always good, but I can't help feeling that one of the biggest victories that theists have had over non-theists is getting to choose the framing for the debate.

Simon (#3192)

Location: Melbourne
Quote: "I'd rather be arrogant than wrong"
Posted: 3921 days ago

Stephanie (#909) -

>One says they know there is a god and the other says they know for sure there is not.

Actually no. Atheists say that God is extremely unlikly. You can't prove god doesn't exist any more than you can prove that Santa doesn't exist.

Amber (#3671)

Location: Oregon, U.S.A
Posted: 3921 days ago

I am now in mortal fear of god changing all the letters on my keyboard into some strange sort of symbols I cannot comprehend or work with.

Interesting read and theorys. I have also noticed the seemingly high rate of outspoken Atheism on the net. It is not a bad thing either, a nice breath of different air in a way.

Sven B. (#2792)

Location: Paris, FR
Quote: "If you did not make it, don't try to fix it."
Posted: 3921 days ago

@Simon (#3192) > While I agree that most atheists are just saying they don't believe there is a God, some of them actually claim they believe there is no god.

@Max >
>I'm always so impressed with the comments. It's like all the internet's smart people come here. The ones with excellent taste in modern literature.

Hey, I'm here, so that must be true ! (Or am I proving your point about arrogance ?)

>I didn't say jerks. I love the arrogance of France. I also like cats, for the same reason. No, no, you don't want to lose the arrogance.

Uh, okay. It doesn't make much sense to me, but since it seems you meant that as a compliment, I'll take it as such...

Jane (#321)

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "Which is worse: Ignorance or apathy? Who knows? Who cares?"
Posted: 3921 days ago

I like your analysis of the Internet's role in uniting geographically-dispersed, like-minded people. It makes sense to me. And I like that you are confident to make generalisations based on personal observations, with no data to back you up. Seriously!

I'm a happy atheist-Humanist-skeptic... not jumping on any bandwagon though - came to this conclusion on my own when I was about 12, despite my parents attempts to raise me as an Anglican.

The thing that really annoys me about atheists on the Web is that so many of their Web sites look like someone vomited on the home page (which is often the ONLY page): eg. www.positiveatheism.org
The bad design and disorganised thoughts/opinions/statements/links make many atheist sites pretty much indistinguishable from the religious sites that are also a vomit of bad design and disorganised thoughts/opinions/information/links. It does not inspire me to 'connect' with like-minded atheists!

Clearly we don't need a Tower of Babel to disrupt global communications - just leave it to excesses of amateur web publishing!

Jennifer M. Dambeck (#3061)

Location: NJ, USA
Quote: "Rock on"
Posted: 3921 days ago

You're right religion is touchy, so I did not read everyone else's comments. I just wanted to say that I think you are an interesting, funny and smart person, and I see the Bible differently (but you gave me a challenge in untangling the negatives in that sentence! I suppose that makes me a thinking person too, I hope.) Regardless, we can still be friends. Geographically challenged or not! :)

Meghan Johnson (#2004)

Location: Roanoke, Virginia
Quote: "If they didn't get a puppy in the end...."
Posted: 3921 days ago

Max:

You may post once a month, but it feels like years to your adoring fans...

</fangirl>

Have you discovered Twitter yet?

Tim (#3178)

Posted: 3921 days ago

Another double-post, forgive me, but it's a good thread. As an atheist myself, clearly I think that the non-believers are more correct (or less wrong) when it comes to the nature of existence. But at the same time time, I don't think rationalists or anti-theists or what-have-you are immune to some of the same kind of dysfunctional psychology and iffy patterns of thinking that shape the behavior of a lot of the more problematic religious folk. In fact, I there's nothing worse than someone who uses their absolute certainty on a subject to justify an unwillingness to compromise or empathize--and you get those types pretty much across the board. Even if the non-believers have got it right, that hardly dictates a straight-forward moral imperative on how to deal with religion in the world.

Everybody could do with a healthy dose of doubt.

Tim

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 3921 days ago

I don't think there are any more atheists than there were a generation ago - probably less. In this country at least, the influence of traditional religion certainly doesn't seem to be declining, in spite of the growth of neo-paganism and other New-Agey beliefs that are more or less religious.

What's happening is simply that online, people who would otherwise be obliged to keep their mouths shut can be more visible. It's not just atheists, it's gays and Moon Landing Hoax nuts and monarchists and anyone else who would be unemployed (or worse) if the "community" found out that they were nonconforming.

It also allows people to be just as rude as they would like to be in real life. Thus you see what appears to be a disproportionate number of obnoxious atheists, fundamentalists, or whatever class of insufferables you notice because they are picking on /you/ - but it's really just what plenty of people around you are thinking all the time, they're just afraid to say it. The world is full of repressed Frenchmen.

BrONnErS (#3628)

Location: right here/right now
Quote: "yep, that's about it."
Posted: 3920 days ago

I like the bit about God being interested in the arrogance of the builders, rather than the tower itself. Yo me THAT IS IT, in a nutshell. Its all about the message, and for mine- I think organised religion on the whole has forgotten about that. They seemed obsessed with their tower being bigger, better, taller, stronger than the next person's tower. Surely the buliders and their motives are more relevant????
Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm


Like the comparisons. An interesting read.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 3920 days ago

It's interesting that in the Babel story, God is clearly not omnipotent - he's afraid that mankind will get out of hand and smack him down. This links the Babel myth to the older pagan Prometheus theme, and the possibility that the ruling deities can be overthrown (like Zeus did to the Titans). Babel belongs to the eary polytheistic phase of Judaism, when other major gods - and even rebellious humans - present a real threat to Yahweh's dominance.

Linnea1928 (#2654)

Location: Rosemount, MN
Posted: 3919 days ago

Hey Max,
Interesting as always. I really like your thoughts on the community of the internet acting as a place where atheists can communicate and share in place of a meeting space such as a church... I like that. I've seen some rubbish articles lately blaming the decrease in church membership on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I guess the accessibility of the net makes more sense, to me anyways. I myself am atheist (and like Leonie, I am not trumpeting that fact to the 'rents), but I am fascinated by philosophy, religion and devotion. Your observations lead me to much pondering. Thanks!

Michael Ricksand (#2212)

Location: Terra
Quote: "You do not have a right to be stupid."
Posted: 3917 days ago

I'm not particularly stupid, but the sentence "I personally don’t believe the Bible to be a non-fiction work" took me some thinking to understand. :)

Yoyodyn (#2480)

Location: TN, USA
Quote: "Yay though I walk through the valley of Gates, I shall fear no Windows."
Posted: 3916 days ago

So god created Lawyers first in Babylon?

I don't know if there is a word for what I believe. I believe just about everything. Take all the parts from all the various views that are not mutually exclusive, and that's about where I sit.

Coenraad Vlietstra (#3681)

Location: South Africa
Quote: "Hunny what can I say? They look nice, firm and inviting to touch. But I'm not going to write a book about your new tits."
Posted: 3915 days ago

I believe in God and I believe in the bible. BUT I also believe in the Islamic bible and many other writings about God. People tend to read the bible very shallow and start attacking Christians etc. And some just read to deep in to it and seem crazy. But that said I also believe in monarchy and that democracy is just another form of communism...but secretly I also believe communism could work and or democracy. The fact being that finding yourself on either left or right will bring you under fire and being in the middle even more so. The thing is who are we to dictate what others should believe or think. Even the bible is against it...so point being...I don't know....I'm just stuck in the middle as lets see who is going to flame me now?

P.S I love the French...God bless you all!

HRJD (#3684)

Location: Northern Ireland
Quote: ""In a capitalist society, two wrongs do make a right.""
Posted: 3913 days ago

I couldn't care less about if you're Atheist, Muslim, Christain, hell, even 'Pedro's Coffeeist', as long as you can have a laugh.
The internet is a mutaual meeting ground for everybody, I believe.

Super (#600)

Location: The Netherlands
Quote: "I'm not deaf I'm just ignoring you!"
Posted: 3911 days ago

Max, Fingerprint of the Gods by Graham Hancock.

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