The Rest of the NMC 2: Religion Online

I’m a fairly cynical creature, so it’s not often that I find a philiosophical presentation mind-blowing, but this one did it. The presentation was innocently title Religion Online, but the speaker, Edward Lamoreux of Bradley University (a practicing ethnographer), raised some questions about the relation of religion and the Internet that would never have occured to me.

I should note that the questions raised are ones that may touch your most cherished assumptions. If the entry offends, it is unintentional, but possible unavoidable.

Potential Hazards of a Media Revolution

First, I applaud him for remembering that other great media revolution – the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the West. This was the invention that made it practical for more people to have access to key documents such as the Bible…and yes this did have some major consequences such as the Protestant Revolution (one of the debates was whether the Bible should be translated for anyone to read or kept in the original language for trained specialists). As Lamoreaux points out, a major religious schism is not what Gutenberg had in mind when he created a press with Movable Type.

Information vs. Ritual

Back in the 21st century, the main question is whether the Internet can be used as a source of information only or whether actual religuous ritual can happen online. For mainstream religions, the answer seems to be that certain “peripheral” activities are OK online, but there is a hesitation to conduct the most important rituals online.

To take Second Life (or chat room) as an example, it is fairly common for users to meet for Bible study (or Torah study) or for counseling sessions sponsored by religious groups. However, Second Life is less rarely used for weekly services even though there are virtual churches/synogogues available. For instance there is NO sanctioned Catholic mass online. One exception is for some non-mainstream services such as the Church of Elvis or the Church of Linden.

Contemplative Building

Interestingly though, a common activity is for users to build elaborate churches, cathedrals, abbeys or other places of worship. In fact so many graphic designers have built churches that it is difficult to separate non-sanctioned churches from islands sponsored by official religious organizations. However, Lamoreux speculates that the act of building is itself a religious or meditative activity for many people. Even in the secular world, Lamoreaux stated that the most common type of Second Life building was avatars creating a personal space to “chill.”

However, it may be that for some people, the building can have an even deeper connection to their spiritual life. To be sure there are many religions in which creating or building a design is considered to be a way to connect to God or a higher plane – the most obvious example is creating sand mandalas in Tibetan buddhism. “Contemplative” art is fairly common in the Internet (e.g. fractal art galleries), but I’m not sure it’s something I’ve seen discussed in a serious manner.

Is the Interet Worth the Risk?

Returning to the “hazards” of new technology, Lamoreaux discusses that for many religious groups, the Internet is a double-edged sword. After all the Internet can expose your group to pornography, alternate theology and the temptations of a secular lifestyle. Having said that though, I think more religious groups are taking advantage of this new outlet than we might think.

Looking back through my personal bookmarks, some interesting sites I have encountered have been:

As you can see it’s a varied list, but the sites all have one thing in common. As far as I can tell, they were all built by people who are genuinely devout or at least believe in the importance of spirituality. Clearly, the Internet is being used creatively for spritual outreach.

I should say that we did NOT touch on a notorious use of the Internet and that is as a communication tool for some extremists to plan acts of destruction. Hopefully though, these sites may show that we may be able to co-exist peacefully one day (if nor amicably). Even a cynic sometimes likes to dream.

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