Sunday used to be the time for sleeping in. "It's really only in the last two years that I have come to church so regularly, every Sunday, and Wednesdays, too," my friend Cindy told me last month.

When she was working sixty hours a week, tending to two toddlers, trying to summon the energy to have go out with her husband occasionally, getting up for a 10 o'clock Eucharist seemed an onerous chore.

But two years ago Cindy made a career change--she joined the ranks of moms who work at home, mostly on her computer. "It's great!" she gushed. "I make conference calls in my bathrobe. I email in all my reports. And I have more flexibility to deal with the kids." The one thing Cindy misses, though, is the stimulating social interaction she got at the office.

And so now she goes to church. "This is the only time I see anyone older than five! And as much as I like sitting at the computer all day in sweats, it's nice to have a reason to put on high-heels and make-up occasionally." As far as Cindy is concerned, the Internet Revolution is mostly hype. "I'm glad I can work at home," she told me. But shop on-line? After 40 hours a week staring into the blue glow of her iMac, Cindy looks forward to the crowds at Loehmann's. When I mentioned my new job at Beliefnet, Cindy laughed. "An online prayer circle? In my prayer circle, we hold hands!"

Holding hands--or at least making eye contact--is essential to religious experience, which is why the World Wide Web will neither destroy nor replace religion as we know it. This is not to say the Internet won't transform our lives: it is precisely because of the ways the web will transform society writ large that it will bolster traditional religiosity. The internet has given us lots of neat things: easy access to information, cheap ways to communicate with our friends in Afghanistan and Arkansas, stores that are open 24 hours a day. But there are certain things that the Internet does not--cannot--give us.

Indeed, in a world where our work, our shopping, even our social lives are increasingly dominated by the Web, church and shul may be the places where we can escape the hum of our computer screens--and all the anarchy and anonymity that come along with the mousepad and modem.

Take the small matter of authority and rules. Debbie Caldwell and others rightly point to the democratizing impulse of the Internet (though they overstate it--it would be foolish indeed to expect that www.LaurenWinner.com would have a voice equal to that of Beliefnet). This democratizing is at the core of K. W. Jeter's spoof of internet religion in his novel Noir, where a priest who administers communion on-line, explains that the big theological debate of the day is "the doctrine of the E-charist": are communicants downloading the actual body and blood of Christ, or just a memorial to it? The College of Cardinals decides such matters, of course, but "anybody really can log on and vote. The church has gotten very democratic that way. You have to change with the times."

Just how much religious democracy do people want? The complaint of our age is that life seems purposeless, there are no clear standards or morals. If anything, those making such a complaint crave more authority. As Chesterton put it, "A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority." That land is not the Internet; it is church.

The Internet is appealing because it is a smorgasbord, and no one is looking over our shoulder to say we took too many pigs-in-blankets and not enough salad. But what is ultimately unsatisfying about the Internet--at least about Internet religiosity--is that complete freedom. When I first began keeping kosher, my father thought I was nuts. Kashrut was too restrictive, he said. Surely I would miss shellfish. Surely God didn't care if I ate pepperoni pizza. I tried to explain that God did care, the Torah said so. My father didn't get it. I tried to explain Jews had avoided pepperoni for centuries. No dice. Then I said: there is freedom in all this restriction, that's why you got married, that's why you don't sleep with your secretary even when she flirts with you. My father didn't start keeping kosher after that, but he stopped pestering me about it.

Web boosters tell us that the Internet will be the bedrock of a new, utopian community--a community that transcends geographical, racial, and class lines. Again, the optimism is unrealistic. The Web may offer something vaguely akin to community. But it is a peculiar notion of community, indeed, that allows folks to pick and choose at whim whom they will talk to and when.

There is a difference between the Body of God and the "community" one finds at a shopping mall. The former is like the family you're born into. You're stuck with those people, with all their annoying habits and intrusive ways, whether you like it or not. And out of that being-stuck-together comes something you would not have if you had the choice to click on a New Mom Icon every time the old one started prying into your love life.

History is not on the side of those who say the Internet will destroy religion as we know it. Soothsayers have predicted that all manner of developments would destroy religion, and they have all been wrong. The eighteenth-century philosophes, followed by Nietzsche, Durkheim, and William James predicted with optimism or regret that the spread of education and reason would erode superstition and faith: but, if anything, modernity seems only to have made superstition and faith stronger.

In his book on Christian missions, Andrew Walls shows that in the broad sweep of things, the constancy of religion is more striking than technological change. Walls imagines an intergalactic missionary who is able to travel to Earth across centuries: he visits an early Christian community, Christians at the height of British imperialism, Christians in late-twentieth-century Africa, and so on. Their expressions of Christianity vary greatly, Walls observes--they speak different languages, sing different songs. But the essentials don't change. They all take the Lord's Supper. They all baptize. They all talk about Jesus, and, when they do, they all say pretty much the same things.

Indeed, technological innovation is one of the constants of religion. Evangelicals, for example, have always seized on the newest technology to spread the word--be it George Whitefield taking advantage of the print revolution, Aimee Semple McPherson getting on the radio, or Billy Graham inventing televangelism. Their method of reaching people may have changed, but their message did not.

Sociologists or historians could certainly agree with this notion--that technological revolutions of the past didn't change religion all that much--but I make this observation not so much as an analyst but as a believer. As one who subscribes to improbable claims about God working through history from before Creation to the end of time, I perhaps have no choice but to think that both the naysaysers and the ballyhooers are wrong. God is unfolding a plan in human time, and that plan won't be thrown off course by a snazzy website.

 More on Beliefnet

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A Radical Democratization of Religion   

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