Can Easter be celebrated online instead of going to church? Aleks Krotoski ponders the effect the internet has had on religion.
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 the 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 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 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) is 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 means 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 a 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 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 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.
The search for answers is part of our social narrative and so it is unsurprising that we have gone to the web to ask the questions. There, we are finding our communities, whether they are organised under a traditional doctrine with well-established rituals, or are evolutions that have been produced by people who feel they have seen the light. The greatest danger of the web is not that it will kill or change religion, but that, as Campbell argues, we will see the differences in our faiths because of our desire to find our own kind.
- TimeOut / Observer