Truth, Religion, and the Internet
January 27, 2021
Religion makes truth claims that shape our worldview and mandate how we live and act, both as individuals and in the community. Some of us hold that the truth is fixed, for others, the truth is dynamic; but understanding, engaging, and proclaiming the truth is central to the active religious mind.
Truth is the most precious and contested commodity online. While the Internet has contributed to the disruptive “post-truth” moment we are experiencing, there has never been anything like the Internet for providing individuals with opportunities for engaging truth through ideas and people spanning every religion, faith, and worldview.
The Internet can provide vital religious information immediately.
During the 2020 pandemic, the value of the Internet for religion became clear as congregations across the world put their gatherings online for adherents; while also opening up their virtual doors for people around the world to engage their faith with the click of a key. The potential for the Internet for religion was clear from the beginning of the public internet in the 1990s, with religious people quickly forming communities online. Since that time there has been an expanding list of websites that contain official viewpoints about beliefs, spiritual practices, liturgies, and testimonies. People with smartphones have, in their pockets, access to a theological library and encyclopedia of religious practices that is unparalleled in history. At any time of the day, there is an opportunity to join in a liturgy, study scriptures, and practice meditations and prayers used by communities across the world.
I experienced the value of having the resources of my faith online a few years ago when a beloved friend’s mother began to die, with no chaplain available to offer the prayers we needed. Reaching into my cell phone, I was able to search for the Episcopalian prayers for the dying, and then once she died, to read the prayers for the dead. The fact that the Book of Common Prayer contains the truth of how my friend’s tradition understands dying and death was available online made a huge difference in the way we experienced her death.
The Internet can also provide truths from other people’s traditions.
Not only can I find out information about my own faith, but the Internet provides unprecedented access to the faith of others. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Pagan, Zoroastrian, Atheist – you name it – there are sites detailing doctrine, practices, and beliefs from traditions around the world and next door.
In the effort to find truth online, geography is rendered secondary to curiosity. For instance, I grew up in a community that was mostly Christian of one kind or another, with some Jewish friends and cousins. As a teen, I wasn’t likely to start an interfaith dialogue, but even if I had wanted to, I didn’t know any Hindus or Muslims who could share their experiences with me.
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Today, even if you grow up in a community that is religiously homogeneous, you can quite easily meet and interact with someone of a different faith online, or you can follow the reflections of a public religious leader and learn from their experience.
One of the most successful series I ran when I was the Religion Editor at HuffPost, was written by Imam Khalid Latif, who is the Muslim Chaplain at New York University. Imam Latif wrote a daily reflection on Ramadan that was hugely popular around the world. But it was not just followed by Muslims. I read it and it helped me to understand Islam and the spiritual experience of Ramadan and even deepened my own Christian practice. Likewise, during the season of Lent, we kept a live blog going on so that Christians and non-Christians could learn from one another during the time that leads up to Easter.
Social Media has amplified the opportunity for this kind of sharing. Each person online can post, blog, video, podcast, snap, like, tweet, retweet, and share the truth of our religion to people around the world, even as we are on our couch. Every time we go online, we have the power of media at our fingertips, with the ability to help people understand our truth, as well as to learn from others. The Internet gives each person the ability to promote understanding between people who hold different truths, tell stories that bring people together, and promote interfaith cooperation for the common good.
Yet, this same power is also available for abuse and misuse. There is a terrifying amount of willful misrepresentation that targets certain people and religions, spreading disinformation that is intentionally meant to sow distrust and hatred, and inflame tensions that too often lead to lethal results.
Search engines act as digital shamans, ostensibly connecting people with the information they are seeking, yet guided by complex and opaque systems that can lead unsuspecting people to very bad places.
For instance, until recently, if you entered Jew into Google you would get White Supremacist, anti-Jewish websites on the very first page. There is a documented industry that promotes suspicion and antipathy towards Muslims online and if you put Islam into Google search, you will encounter an ad from a fundamentalist Christian website attempting to undermine Muslim beliefs.
Now more people get their information from social media where it is even easier to pass on false information as ‘news’ and ‘truth.’ Twitter is overrun with ‘bots’ that pose as humans, specifically to spread disinformation. Algorithms on Facebook often favor more incendiary or salacious news, so that fake stories can spread at far greater rate than true ones. QAnon is one of the more well-organized conspiracy organizations that has thrived on social media. QAnon gained notoriety in 2016, with the “pizzagate” conspiracy that spread the ‘news’ that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating out of a pizzeria in DC, leading to a deluded gunman going there to ‘liberate’ the children. QAnon has only gained power since then, luring susceptible religious followers, and even become part of the 2020 election. In recent months, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have begun to crack down on QAnon, and other disinformation, although the battle against untruth online has only just begun.
Finding the balance of freedom to express the truth as we see it, while censoring disinformation and hate speech is one of the greatest challenges of the Internet with great implications for religion.
The Internet and Religious Authority
The unsteady relationship between religion and truth online is closely connected to the challenge that the Internet has posed for religious authority. The web is, on the surface, radically egalitarian. Gone are the days when religious authorities were able to restrict the ability of congregants to connect with those who might have, what authorities consider, “dangerous views.” The Internet is eager to provide answers, but whether they are the ones religious authorities proclaim is very uncertain.
I participated in this undermining of authority in a small way back in 2000, when I started my advice column ‘Ask Pastor Pau’l on Beliefnet. I would often get questions from young people seeking truth, who didn’t feel comfortable asking their own religious leader for fear of reprisal or judgment. In some cases, my advice may have been, for better or worse, directly opposed to their local religious leader’s view, leading to a questioning of authority and perhaps a search for a different religious community or even tradition.
The threat the Internet poses to authority has led to serious efforts by traditional religious institutions to reassert their authority online and reject the influence of others. Several years ago, 30 thousand ultra-orthodox Jews rallied in Shea Stadium in New York to fight against “the evils of the Internet and damage of smartphones” and the development of kosher smartphones with kosher apps. The Vatican got off to a rocky start with the clunky Twitter handle @Pope2YouVatican, however, the Catholic Church’s Twitter reboot was a major success and now @Pontifex under Pope Francis is one of the most influential Twitter handles with tweets coming out in several languages including Latin, that shares the doctrine of the Catholic Church from the very source.
Even as more traditional sources of authority establish themselves online, people with no or questionable credentials are taking advantage of the freedom the Internet can provide, to develop massive followings with no hierarchical system to temper their teachings and calls to action. ISIS created thousands of accounts that reached out to young potential recruits, circumnavigating traditional Muslim authorities. One of these cases was the young man who killed three and injured many more in the Boston Marathon bombing. An online religious figure told the young man that he must reject the authority of his local Imam who was promoting interfaith cooperation and proceeded to twist his mind towards committing the horrific act of violence. Likewise, Dylan Roof was a member of a mainline Lutheran congregation, whose theology he rejected in favor of a White Nationalist Christian agenda of hate he found on a website that led to the murder of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The Internet allows the kind of access into the bedroom, screen, minds, and lives of individuals across the world that was unfathomable just decades ago. It can be liberating but also is extremely dangerous. Discerning who is on our screens and what power we give them to proclaim the truth that will dictate our lives is one of the major challenges of the Internet that must be taught. We assume too much Internet competence and leave people vulnerable to the lies that can lead us into spiritual and moral confusion. Grappling with the truth is part of what it means to be human and it did not start with the Internet. However, the Internet provides particular challenges and opportunities for understanding ourselves, one another, and our world better if we approach it with our eyes wide open, our minds prepared, and our Spirits aware of how the truth might be apprehended in this new arena of human life.
This is the second in a series of five articles by Paul Raushenbush on the Internet and Religion. You can find the introduction, Online as in Heaven, here.