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April 2006
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Opium of the People?

This article was sent to me with the request that I publish it. I agreed with the proviso that I would accompany it with a counterpoint essay. My essay follows the one by Johann Christoph Arnold.


Opium of the People?
Johann Christoph Arnold
February 25, 2006

America is in a deep spiritual crisis, like never before. The threat really isn't terrorism. It's something a lot more devastating--the spread of technology and the Internet, particularly to high school students and younger children.

This has one aim: to raise a generation of children and young people who are spiritually dull, who live according to logic and forget about God. We are raising a nation capable of any and every atrocity in the end, without raising an eyebrow, because of our own spiritual dullness. Every human being has a conscience, which is far superior to the intellect. If the conscience is silenced in us, we are doomed.

Technology is our Achilles heel, which in the end will be worse than any weapon of mass destruction. It will destroy us from within. This frightening trend can only be reversed if more and more citizens listen to their consciences and say, "Enough is enough." Technology puts the "I" in the center and ignores the fact that life is only worth living if "I" depend on my neighbor.

The classics were once an integral part of education. Just about every student read writers such as Aristotle, Novalis, Shakespeare and Dickens. Now, in schools in which every child has access to a computer, children are not even being taught the basic skills of life, such as how to express their thoughts and feelings in writing.

The website "MySpace" alone receives more hits than Google and AOL together. It has 90 billion visitors and about 4l million young users. On the outside it looks beautiful. It supplies anything children might want, giving them the false illusion that they are having community and fellowship with others all over the globe. Yet it does nothing but isolate children and put them emotionally out of touch with reality.

We are infatuated with the ability the Internet gives us. To be able to obtain everything that is available with the click of the mouse gives us power and makes us feel invincible. We also feel that the Internet is the solution to all of our emotional and spiritual problems. For every emotional disorder there is a self-help website or a group blog.

In 1843, Karl Marx said that "religion is the opium of the people." Today the Internet is the drug that cures all ills. We forget too quickly the old saying that "not everything that glitters is gold." The Internet has become our god, our idol. Yet we have never been lonelier or more isolated from other human beings.

What use is it to have all the possessions the world offers right in my living room if they separate me from other people? The essence of community is being systematically destroyed. If in any culture the minds and hearts of the children and youth have been captured, the war is already won.

The greatest challenge of education, the greatest challenge to parents and teachers, is not to teach our children reading, writing and arithmetic, which are important, but to see that they do not become spiritually dull.


Point Counterpoint
Richard Harter
April 1, 2006

One of the merits of Arnold's essay is that it is mercifully short. A fault of shortness is that it leaves no room for properly establishing claims. Since it is doubtful that the claims could ever be established shortness is no defect.

The second paragraph begins, "This has one aim:", an unfortunate choice of wording at best. The word "aim" suggests agency, an agent aiming at a target. It fits poorly with "spread of technology" as a threat. I don't suppose Arnold is advancing a conspiracy theory, even though some do think that Satan is behind technology.

The lament that "The classics were once an integral part of education" is one of those chestnuts that surfaces every now and then. The "classics" haven't been a significant part of American education since the nineteenth century. It may well be that American education is not very good, but, then it never has been, or so go the complaints. "Why Johnny can't read" by Rudolf Flesch was written back in 1955. Don't blame the internet for a problem spanning centuries.

Let us look at that second paragraph more closely. I quote:

This has one aim: to raise a generation of children and young people who are spiritually dull, who live according to logic and forget about God. We are raising a nation capable of any and every atrocity in the end, without raising an eyebrow, because of our own spiritual dullness. Every human being has a conscience, which is far superior to the intellect. If the conscience is silenced in us, we are doomed.
I have already commented on the peculiarity of "aim". Let us remove the spectre of conspiracy theories and replace "aim" by "effect". Arnold is claiming that the effect is to raise young who are "spiritually dull, who live according to logic and forget about God." Apparently Arnold and I agree on one thing - logic and belief in God are incompatible. However I have to say that I have no idea what it means "live according to logic". Does this mean that he thinks that young people are Spock wannabes? Or perhaps that they walk about with miniature computer on their belts and calculate every choice of action to maximize their material happiness? Or perhaps there is no meaning, that it is a mere boojum?

It is peculiar to talk about raising a nation capable of atrocities as though that were something new. America has had a long tradition of atrocities, often, I might point out, perpetrated by people who thought they were Christian.

I will grant (with some reservations) that we all have consciences and even that if our consciences were silenced we would be doomed. Human society cannot exist without at least a minimal level of decent human behaviour. It makes no sense to compare conscience and intellect and proclaim one superior to the other. That is like comparing cake and bicycles.

Arnold's argument is that the internet provides a false and illusory sense of community while isolating individuals from their neighbourhood thereby promoting egocentricity and dulling spirituality. One could just as well argue that the internet provides an expanded community that goes beyond the parochial physical neighbourhood, and open the minds of people to a greater diversity of thought and spiritual potential.

There is a real issue here - that of the expanded virtual community. What is the effect of narrowing the communication channel to the computer monitor screen and the cell phone? The internet permits companionship without physical presence or mutual physical activity. What are the consequences? Arnold does well to raise the issue and poorly to lapse into the pointing with alarm that has been practice of professional moralists for millennia.

I like the notion of the Internet having become our god and idol. It is such delicious hogwash.


This page was last updated April 1, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 by Johann Christoph Arnold

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