I'm quite worried about the damage the internet can do to religion--which might lead one to ask: well, then why did you start a great big website on religion, spirituality, and morality?

I promise I won't duck that question--but first a brief digression. Throughout history, technology has profoundly changed religion. The printing press made the Bible accessible to large numbers of people and thereby helped usher in the Reformation. The invention of radio allowed people like Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Graham to popularize an evangelical style of Christianity that emphasized a more personal relationship with God. Transportation innovations stimulated greater migration, increasing the chances that a Jew would meet a Hindu who would know a Catholic who will know a New Ager.

As Debbie Caldwell explains, the Internet may have as much effect as any of these prior developments, if not more. Fundamentally, the net allows people to get unfiltered information. When there is a shift in who controls the information, there can be a corresponding shift of power.

Here's what worries me.

For me, religion's basic value lies, in part, in its stubbornness. Religion rubs our faces in certain uncomfortable principles (like those underlying the Ten Commandments) even when it might be more convenient to ignore them. The Internet, on the other hand, lets us choose, smorgasboard-style, what we like or dislike--I'd like Commandment number 3 please, with number 7 to go. The net will make shopping for principles a little too easy.

Second, religion is fundamentally social, human, communal in nature. Even preachers who emphasize a personal one-to-one relationship with God look down from a pulpit at a group of people seated elbow to elbow. Music cannot inspire over the Internet the way it can in a cathedral; online bereavement counseling cannot console the way a simple hug can; a virtual Seder cannot evoke the sense of history and place that an actual Seder can.

That's why I hate the term "virtual religion," implying as it does that you can replace the real thing with the cyber-version. If Beliefnet.com discourages people from going to church, or meeting in small groups, or taking part in guided meditations, and instead keeps them planted in front of the computer screen, then we will have done far more harm than good.

But whether the Net is a force for good or ill depends on the choices that each of us make.

First, the media will need to play a new, more important role. If we are now in a spiritual bazaar, a religious marketplace, there should be an equivalent spiritual Consumers Report to help "consumers" make good choices. We're hoping Beliefnet.com can help play this role but if it's not us, someone else will need to do it.

Second, if leaders of organized religions view the web as a threat or if they ignore it, they--and we--will all suffer. If they see the web as a way to enhance their work, they will thrive. A temple website can inform its congregants about a member's illness, and offer suggestions about how to help. A mosque website can post prayer times and commentary to help make principles of the Koran pertinent to a particular problem. An online memorial cannot substitute for a memorial service--but it can enable people who are scattered all over the country to join together and comfort one another in their grief.

Finally, and forgive the truism here, but it needs saying: the Internet's impact depends on how people use it. The democratization brought on by the web has its disadvantages. All sources of information can seem equally valid at first scan. Surfers will need to be skeptical about some of the information they encounter.

The Internet can enable people to find the spiritual approach that suits them best. That can only help them become more interested in, and less frustrated with, religion. Just as important, the net can help us better understand other people's beliefs. Since intolerance has been faith's dark underside throughout history, the Internet could help alleviate one of religion's greatest weaknesses.

In other words, just as the telephone can be misused to harass and bedevil, so can the Internet end up either eroding or enhancing religion. It's our choice.

 More on Beliefnet

A Radical Democratization of Religion
Shadows on the Screen
I Happen to Like Rules and Authority   

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