Has the Internet Made Finding Faith Easier, or More Difficult?
I also spent some time in a mosque studying the Muslim hadith with a group of students.
Later, I plan on meditating at a buddhist temple.
And all of this without ever leaving my desk. Welcome to the age of virtual religion.
From basic technologies such as email list-servs and online bulletin boards, to social-minded applications like Facebook and QQ, to complex virtual reality experiences like Second Life, people are taking their faith into the digital world. In ways large and small, users in search of spiritual answers are turning to the Internet – and what they’re finding is nearly as complex as the web itself.
If you have a question about what a certain sura may say, you can find its complete text – in Arabic and English – online. If you want to offer a prayer to a Hindu deity, or spin a virtual Buddhist prayer wheel, there’s an app for that. And if you’re just unsure about what you believe…well, there are millions of other people online just like you, believers and nonbelievers, all ready to chat.
Anthropologists teach that religion and ritual are intrinsic to the human experience, likely predating even language. Thus it should surprise no one that as computers have become more powerful and digital experiences more lifelike, faith and spirituality are exerting an increasingly powerful online pull on those who believe – and those who are questioning. But all this digital faith also has growing numbers of theologians, scholars and others wondering: can belief be virtual? Can religion genuinely exist online?
“A Taste of Infinity”
“I have to believe that people can sincerely experience God in just about any setting,” says David Grant Smith. “But I do worry about the online experience cheapening our human connections.”
As rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in tiny Pen Yann, New York, the Rev. Smith is used to helping people along the sometimes bumpy path of belief. With a membership of around 110, Smith has the luxury of genuinely getting to know his parishioners – their experiences, hopes and battles. The Internet, he says, has become a forum for spiritual exploration:
“And thanks to numerous search engines, people are able to type in a few words that deal with spirituality or religion, and then they have at their fingertips a globe of information on that one topic. For someone who loves information overload, it’s heaven. For somebody who really has a hard time parsing through large volumes or possibilities, it could be a patch of hell.”
That experience of having the world at your hands is what Ithaca College scholar Rachel Wagner calls “a taste of infinity” – an experience that comes as close as humans have ever gotten to omniscience:
“There’s so many possibilities that come up we cannot possibly process them all. Almost anything we would want to learn something about, we can learn in a moment’s notice. Almost anyone we would like to be, to project ourselves as or imagine ourselves as, those things are possible online. Almost any kind of power that we might wish that we had, we can temporarily experience that online. And that mimics a lot of the desire that is part of religious history throughout time. The virtual represents for us a dream of what is possible, and that is part of its attraction.”
It’s just one of the many aspects of how faith and belief are evolving online that Wagner addresses in her upcoming book “GodWired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.” For Wagner, it’s only natural that people are taking their spiritual journeys online with them. Her book is filled with examples of new applications and websites and experiences, all geared toward expanding faith. Yet it’s precisely that profusion of products and devices outside the bounds of traditional religious institutions, she says, that has some faith leaders concerned about losing control of their core tenets and values:
“There was a lot of debate a few months ago about a Catholic confession app(lication). It was developed by a pious Catholic and it was initially approved by a bishop and then the Vatican stepped in and said, somewhat cryptically, ‘Well, we really prefer that you engage in confession with a real, live embodied person.’ But the thing about the app is that, as far as liturgy goes, liturgy is a sort of program. It’s a script and it walks us through certain experiences. And that’s what an application or a program does as well. But for them, the absence of human engagement, or the possibility that someone might use this app without turning to the priest at the point in the app where it says that you should, for them that was enough to caution against it.”
The Rev. Smith also sees the Internet as a mixed blessing. For example, members of his church will often read something online concerning their beliefs and come to believe it, rather than coming to him to discuss questions they may have:
“Rather than questioning the source, they seem to take either comfort or a disturbed spirit toward whatever they found online. It can be an interesting way of having a conversation begin about things spiritual; it can also be aggravating because in the cases where people have read something that might necessarily be true or complete, it can be kind of disheartening to the people who come to me with ‘Oh, I found out this online’ and (I have to say) ‘That’s not really all that kosher.’”
And there’s a much larger aspect of digital religion that concerns the Rev. Smith – the things that get lost in an online-only experience. In particular: actual contact with real living people. “That’s the part that could, to some degree, either make or break spiritual communities,” he cautions.
The Social Animal
Humans may have something philosophers call a “spirit”, but it’s undeniable that we are social creatures. We don’t just enjoy contact with others, we need it. That’s as true for nonbelievers as much as for the faithful.
“The Internet is just perfect for our type of community,” says Maggie Ardiente, communications director for American Humanist Association. Ardiente defines a humanist as “a person who is good without God,” someone who leads an ethical life built on the principles of reason and experience. In a world seemingly filled with faith, she says, Ardiente says it can be a lonely existence:
“Some people feel really alone in their belief. And some feel so alone that they can’t even talk to somebody who might be like-minded, like them…and so the Internet is a great outlet for those folks who just sort of want to be anonymous about it and still sort of develop their philosophy. The Internet has so many resources out there but you can still remain anonymous if you’re the type of person who isn’t quite ready to ‘come out’ as a humanist.”
Like those with faith, atheists and humanists, she says, are also taking to the web to find and build communities – real and virtual. Using tools like MeetUp and Facebook, Ardiente says the Internet has allowed humanists scattered the world over a means to come together online – and hopefully, she says, in the real world as well.
Mohammed Aleem is familiar with that tension between virtual and real. In 1995, when the Internet was more idea than reality, Aleem – a southern California business executive – decided to do something to help knit together America’s fragmented Muslim community. So he and some colleagues co-founded a small website that eventually grew into IslamiCity.com:
“We were actually running an information bulletin. If you remember in those times there was a technology called electronic bulletin board. This was serviced by modems; people would call in and they could retrieve very simple text-based information. And we were putting news out there…When we saw the web it was very evident to us that this was going to create an evolution because you could incorporate text and rich multi-media in the same medium.”
Today, IslamiCity is a sprawling enterprise, aggregating news stories, profiling Islamic artists and thinkers from all over the world, and hosting a lively exchange of views and opinions. The ultimate goal, he says, is to provide people a means to come together in the real world, but admits that isn’t always possible. For example, each year IslamiCity provides live webstreams from the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. For those who can’t make it in person, Aleem says, the Internet is the next best thing:
“The web, no matter how much we try and do in terms of communication or new technologies that are coming about, I don’t think it can replace the actual physical touch-and-feel experience that we can get by going to Hajj or going to mosque or going to a scholar or an expert on Islam and getting wisdom from that person. But I think we can augment that by having at least a relationship with these various events and coming closer to it. People who may not have a chance to go to Hajj, it’s a huge thing for them to have the experience of watching it live online.”
“Me and the Universe”
It’s traditional during the Christian season of Lent to go on a 40-day fast; to give up something one enjoys to be reminded of sacrifice and responsibility. For the Rev. Smith, Facebook had become “a very present presence” in his life – something he very much enjoyed. So Smith decided to go on a Facebook fast for Lent:
“I was spending a lot of time on it – looking up old friends, keep new connections going. I finally found that the amount of time I was spending with people in that digital forum was preventing me from spending time with people in person. My intention of my fast from Facebook during Lent was to get me off the computer and out into the community and interacting with people – or even allowing me to just have some quality time with myself, rather than just staring at a computer screen.”
Soon after Easter and the end of Lent, he was back on Facebook. His most recent update: “I just found out it’s 104F here in Phoenix. Glad I’m in an air-conditioned plane!” But the experience taught him not only that he can turn the computer off, but often needs to in order to keep his life and his faith on track. “Just having some time alone with me and the universe – that was also a gift so that I could feel a little more grounded,” he says.
Rachel Wagner understands how technologies like the web can become close to intoxicating for some. But, she says, everyone’s different – and that means there will be no easy answers:
“If people could go to worship in real life, why wouldn’t they do it? And I say ‘yeah, they should.’ If you can have a real embodied community, go for it. But there are some people who don’t have that possibility. There may be people for whom the virtual is the best option on the table. And so for them it’s a sort of quality of ‘real’ that’s better than they might have otherwise.”
Ardiente and Aleem
agree: it will take a long time for individuals and institutions to balance the opportunities and challenges presented by the web. And for the Rev. Smith, it’s precisely the journey that needs to begin:
“Just taking Christianity as an example, is it ‘church’ to download a sermon at home and drink your coffee rather than sitting with people, attending to it, and doing the other things that are part of the actual community experience on Sunday morning? I think that question is something we’re all going to wrestle with, and frankly I think that we’re due for wrestling with this kind of thing.”
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