Letter: Information and Misinformation – Part 2

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With our global mess of political imbroglios, progress eludes formal leadership. An amazing number of Americans also lack faith in broadcast news, science, or other facts presented for responsive public scrutiny (as manifested by COVID-19 vaccine refusal rates). To find answers to the great questions facing society, one might do research” online. However, hidden algorithms guide internet researchers to worldwide networks of beliefs supported by misinformation.

Others take a more spiritual approach. Though many Americans have abandoned established churches, people with natural inclinations of faith turn to religion of the internet”, Vox reported on Dec. 14, 2021. Common religiosity has thus found a new platform. Especially through social media, widely varied religious themes show up in feeds. Conspiracy acolytes join with fake prophets and shamans, spreading the good word.

Religious misdirection is not new. It can be seen for example in the experience of the Puritan pilgrims who inhabited the frontier villages of New England. Pioneers in those harsh times were largely ignorant of the boundary separating body and soul, living with superstition everywhere. Settlers were also under threat from Indian raids, freezing and poverty. In constant torment, Puritan leaders deemed some ladies to be witches.

Puritans and subsequent Great Awakenings fashioned the American legacy of piety and also individualism. The Protestant ethic” emphasized the individuals personal relationship with God. Modern charismatic preachers promote a prosperity gospel” online, emphasizing individual responsibility for ones own circumstances.

On the internet today, spiritual messages proliferate much as cultural and political ones do. Witchcraft and demonic spirits are also imagined and promoted. Of course even atheists are interested in morality. The aesthetics of good and evil, devils and angels, and also prosperity, even health, all have worldwide religious application. When people feel powerless against evil, they may turn to simplistic internet explanations—communist plots, satanic symbolism, etc. Indeed, government today is seen as a vast conspiracy (including public-health policymaking).

It has been an eternal human tendency to organize uncertainty within spiritual frameworks. However, spirituality of course is shepherded by humans and is apt to be disposed to human impulse to scapegoat, manifest hatred, distinguish between good and bad, even foment violence. Traditional churches are subject to human frailty too but may have institutionalized better coping doctrines and mechanisms.

Douglas Sikorski, Laguna Beach

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