Here's a terrific article from The New Review with today's edition of The Observer. It's in the "Discover Technology" section, part of a series entitled "Untangling the Web", written by Aleks Krotoski. Aleks Kroski presented an excellent four-part TV series on BBC2 entitled "The Virtual Revolution". She also hosts Tech Weekly, the Guardian's technology podcast.
What effect has the internet had on religion?
Online, God has been released from traditional doctrine to become everything to everybody
By Aleks Krotoski
I remember several years ago, when the virtual world Second Life was the thing on the web, wandering in the embodiment of my avatar through a most extraordinary representation of a cathedral. The frescoes, stained glass and flying buttresses were replicated to a degree that would make even the most cynical architect weep. Also enjoying the experience were 30 other virtual people from around the world, dressed in all manner of outerwear, from 1950s party dresses to slinky black outfits with impossible heels to squirrel costumes. They, as it turned out, were gathered in this cyber-place to celebrate a religious service.
I watched from the safe distance of a back-of-the-nave pew, listening to the officiant lead his digital flock through a very traditional Catholic ceremony. I left after transubstantiation, just as they were processing in a typically sombre way to receive the Eucharist.
The concept of religious ritual is so deeply embedded in our social fabric that it is natural for it to have made the leap to virtuality. And it hasn't just reared its head in worlds such as Second Life. Social networks, including Facebook, have active and close-knit communities of religious followers of all creeds, gathering in what science writer Margaret Wertheim described in her 1999 book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, as "a new kind of realm for the mind". Perhaps, depending on your attitude to religion, it's more apt to describe these digital collectives in science fiction author William Gibson's words: a "consensual hallucination".
Online, contrary to Nietzsche's allegation, God is most certainly not dead. The web is littered with sacred spaces and, if anything, He (or She or It) has been released from traditional doctrine to become everything to everybody.
"On the web, you're more easily able to find your tribe," explains Professor Heidi Campbell, a researcher at Texas A&M University, whose most recent book, When Religion Meets New Media, looks at how Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities engage with the web. "The distinctions and differences are amplified online."
The importance of the web in everyday life – from banking to shopping to socialising – means that religious organisations must migrate their churches and temples to virtual real estate in order to stay relevant and to be where the people are. Religious leaders have websites, blogs and Twitter feeds, there are email prayer lines and online confessionals, social networks for yogis and apps that call the faithful to prayer. "Being web-savvy should be a required skill for religious leaders in general," says Sister Catherine Wybourne, prioress of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Oxfordshire, and @Digitalnun on Twitter.
But, argues Dr Paul Teusner from RMIT University, Melbourne, the technology itself is not value-free. "It is presented to religious societies wrapped with cultural values that compliment, challenge or repel religious attitudes," he says. This has unsurprisingly affected how organised religion engages with the new "mission field", as the Vatican has described it. Evangelicals, who have historically been keen to get out their message via whatever communication conduit available, were the first organised religious groups to embrace the web, and non-traditional or sidelined religious movements made early moves online to get their version of "the word" out. In contrast, Islam and Catholicism, which both place an emphasis on shared place in their rituals and view the technology as a mode of logic that could take them in its value direction, have been the most hesitant. "The web may have encouraged a lowest-common-denominator eclecticism and turned us into consumers of religion," argues Wybourne.
There's another potentially destabilising force at work: what has traditionally been behind closed doors in ecclesiastical councils is now online, challenging the control that leaders once had over doctrine and their flocks. Just as the Reformation was ushered in by the printing press in the 16th century, allowing people to access the texts for themselves and distribute their interpretations widely, the web has helped proliferate different interpretations and articulations of religions and we have witnessed the emergence of new communities and faiths. Individuals now have a much more autonomous role in deciding whom to approach as a source. "Those people may have official, traditional credentials or they may be Rabbi Google," says Prof Campbell.
"Religious leaders will have to get used to the idea of being more accountable and transparent in their dealings and of having to engage, on equal terms, with those who stand outside the traditional hierarchies," says Wybourne.
Yet the web has not de facto increased inter-faith communication. Campbell has observed that the internet is not being used for inter-religious dialogue or diversity. "If you want to do that, you need intensively to create that community." The impulse to specialise because of the volume of information online means that people seeking answers are drawn to flocks of birds that match their feathers. "Unless you're looking for diversity, you're not going to find it online," says Campbell.
Read this article, along with reader comments (and the opportunity to make your own) on the website of The Guardian & The Observer. Interestingly, almost all the comments there are anti-religion, lauding the internet for how it has helped oppose, expose and depose religion in general and certain religious institutions in particular. No one seems to have much to say about the many affordances of the internet and the potential boon it offers believers and practitioners: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/17/untangling-web-aleks-krotoski-religion
You can read and follow Heidi Campbell's fascinating and stimulating blog here: http://religionmeetsnewmedia.blogspot.com/
Visit the website of The Virtual Revolution: http://www.bbc.co.uk/virtualrevolution/
Photo: Corbis Flirt/Alamy