Religion has always had a close relationship with writing technology. The first thing Guttenberg printed was the Bible and the first thing printed by the Chinese was religious charms to ward off spirits.
But today we tend not to associate the Internet and computers with religion. Perhaps this is because they were primarily developed to compute mathematical equations or for military communication. But even today with the personal computer and wide-spread internet access we tend to associate the internet with commercial and business activity, but a growing group of religions are integrating the internet with their church or are forming global communities with unprecedented ease.
What effects will the internet have on our religious and spiritual lives?
Well no one really knows, but many people are eager to makes some predictions and explore what effect the internet has already had on religion.
“Online religion is the most portentous development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century. Making this claim is a daring gamble, for predicting the future of faith is a risky endeavor. If past attempts are a reliable guide, forecasting the future of religion is a pastime equivalent to bungee jumping off a bridge using a badly frayed cord. Bodies lie broken on the rocks below (Brasher, 17).”
Like the pen, papyrus, or television, the internet helps humans communicate to one another. But the differences between the internet and past inventions like the radio can perhaps tell us a lot about how the internet will affect religion.
When scrolls were invented and the oral traditions or religion were eroded, and churches were able to form canons–“bodies of knowledge that defined the tradition authoritatively (Brasher, 38).” In theory this democratized who had access to religious authority. Before religious knowledge had been limited to guilds and their apprentices who would dedicate their lives to memorizing religious texts. Now anyone who could read (obviously this was still very limited, but less so than before) could access written authority.
The most famous example of democratizing of religion through technology is Martin Luther, perhaps the first modern propagandist (Brasher, 39). His mass produced pamphlets lead to the Protestant Reformation, and forced the Catholic Church to change many of its policies. After Guttenberg and Luther, many people no longer had to rely on the Roman Catholic hierarchy for their religious beliefs; they could go straight to the Bible itself. The technology of the printing press used in a revolutionary way greatly transformed religion by undermining the traditional sources of religious authority.
But not all technology has affected religion this way. Take for example the radio and television: its initial religious leaders were already members of established, main-stream religions (e.g. Billy Graham). These relatively new mediums have not undermined traditional religious authority but entrenched it: television and radio have “garnered cultural prominence for their [traditional Baptists like Jerry Falwell] movement and accrued political power.” And judging by the results of the past election, a majority of voting Americans believe that George Bush’s bombing of Iraq with semi-nuclear ammunitions is a more legitimate expression of Christian faith than John Kerry’s belief that a gay man should be able to visit his partner in the emergency room of a hospital. Perhaps this legitimacy comes from people like Jerry Falwell dominating television and radio with his specific brand of Christianity.
Will the internet democratize religion and undermine traditional authority, or will it empower people like Jerry Falwell and the Pope? Probably some of both, but I would think (and hope) that it would democratize religion more than entrench the current traditional sources of religious authority.
The interaction between a television program and its viewers and that of a website and its visitors is quite different. Starting a television radio program is prohibitively expensive and time consuming: not many people can do it. Creating a website is more like passing out printed pamphlets: it’s easy and cheap (relative to television/radio programming).
Today anyone with a little time and money can create a website in response to another website, a television show, or radio program. But in the past one could only write a letter to a newspaper editor or television programmer and hope that they would publish it for others to read (or turn the television off). A megalomaniac like Bill O’Reillywould never read a poignant letter that disproves something he had previously said: no one would know what you wrote outside of some television executives. But anyone with the internet can read your website, and whatever complaints you might have about a television program or website.
And there are a limited amount of television and radio stations allowed (because there are limited bandwidths to operate with, although this is changing with satellites and cable television), but there is no limit to the number of web pages or pamphlets one can create.
For all these reasons I believe that the internet will challenge power hierarchies, both in and out of religion. But some would disagree, in The Soul of Cyberspace, author Jeff Zaleski interviews James Mulholland creator of http://www.catholic.net/ In the interview Mulholland scoffs at the idea of the internet democratically changing the Church’s policy on ordaining women: “I feel sorry for the people who are persisting in thinking that we can deal with it in a democratic fashion…it will not weaken the power of the bishops (Zaleski, 110).” But Zaleski disagrees with Mulholland, writing that:
Mulholland may be underestimating the effect the Net will have on the flow of power within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. When individuals are able to communicate directly with Rome, and have their voices heard en masse, without being filtered through levels of ecclesial bureaucracy, it stands to reason that the `power’ that Mulholland speaks of will settle closer to the grass roots. It also seems likely that if women gain greater access to the Vatican’s ears they; will increase their leverage and perhaps in time achieve clerical standing (Zaleski, 112).
By easing communication restrictions, people like Zaleski (and me), believe that Democracy can only become more powerful: if the Pope and his Bishops ignore the will of the people, the people will leave the Catholic Church, and maybe even start their own websites denouncing the Catholic Church which may cause even more people to leave.
While it’s hard to imagine “rogue” Bishops beginning their own branch of Catholicism because of the internet, I could see a time when Bishops being practicing confessionals over the internet, much to the horror of web designer, Brother Richard, of the Saint Benedictine Order:
I await with horror the day Mother A. or another will focus a camera on the Reserved Sacrament and make it available at a WWW site so people can have “Jesus” with them on their desks at work. I prefer my sacraments live, please, in the flesh, as Jesus Himself seemed to prefer them to a life apart from blood, sweat, and tears of humanity (Zaleski, 119).
Even Brother Richard is resigned the notion that someday there will be sacraments over the internet (the anonymous medium of the internet is perfect for confessional, and much more convenient), as much as the thought repulses him: all it takes is one disgruntled Bishop and the internet. Brother Richard asserts that Jesus would frown on such a practice, but Jesus didn’t have access to a Pentium computer and cable modem. While this might seem trite, it seems to me Jesus worked hard to make his message as accessible to everyone as possible, and internet ministries can reach more people regardless of where they live, or if they’re deaf, blind (audio), or dumb. Today the only barrier to the internet is wealth, but that too will probably change one day. And wealth is already a barrier for many religious rituals, I will probably never have the time or money to visit a Hindu temple in India, but I can visit a “virtual prayer room.”
So far the affect the internet has had on religion has simply been making it more accessible to those with special needs or forming communities across vast geographic borders. Zaleski found a good example of this with Church of Christ members who eventually got an Australian woman “Jane” to be baptized, even though she was deaf and rarely left the house to meet others. Instead she meant “John,” who lived in Russia, online through a network created by a man in Indiana (Zaleski, 123).
Whether or not the internet expands from building unprecedented international communities to challenging traditional religious hierarchies remains to be seen, but Zaleski, Brasher, and I think it will.