Religion may not survive the Internet

Posted Apr 04, 2013 | New Media Project

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By Lerone A. Martin


A recent Salon and Alternet article boldly declares, “Religion may not survive the Internet.” Religion has survived advances in communication technological in the past, but according to Valerie Tarico’s article, "Religion May Not Survive the Internet," the Internet is the one taunting Goliath religion cannot overcome.

Religion may have some tech-savvy clergy, sanctuaries with Wi-Fi and computer portals, and “Calvinist cuties” who use the Internet to make “viral videos” about Jesus, she notes. However, the Internet’s “free flow of information is really, really bad” for religion, Tarico concludes.

Is this really, really the case? 

This article is deeply hampered by the same fundamentalist and closed viewpoints it credits to religion. Tarico argues that religion, with its “ridiculous,” closed, and outdated beliefs, is being thwarted by the democratization of science on the Internet. Websites like Symphony of scienceNOVATEDRSA Animate, and Birdnote bring scientific findings to everyday people and provide the spirituality, transcendence, wonder, and promise formerly provided by religion. This new-found spiritual source is juxtaposed to religion’s “kinky, exploitative, and oppressive” beliefs, she claims.

Religion in America is more diverse and dynamic than the closed systems of beliefs described by Tarico, however. Conservative fundamentalist Christianities are not synonymous nor a synecdoche for religion in America. The country is full of progressive faith communities that continually revisit their core beliefs in light of new knowledge. In fact, the case studies and findings of the New Media Project have revealed how some progressive faith communities use the Internet (smartphones, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to re-articulate their beliefs and thrive in an age of scientific proliferation. The increase and spread of knowledge via technology has, in many quarters, promoted the adaptation of religious belief not entrenchment.

Second, Tarico proclaims that religion may not survive the World Wide Web because it fosters community among those “coming out of religion.” Indeed, she says, “Before the Internet existed, most people who lost their faith kept their doubts to themselves.” Today, however, the Internet allows for the ex-religious to build “new” identities based on the “new social networks” provided online. Simply put, the Internet has created a new kind of community for those who no longer identify with established churches and religion.

In actuality, the ability of the Internet to foster community across space and time is precisely the reason why some religious communities are experiencing buoyancy and renewed life as opposed to death. The Young Clergy Women Project is an almost entirely online community that has helped women of faith form an international social network based on their identity as women clergy. Indeed, the Internet fosters new communities and networks for a number of purposes, including the formation of religious communities.

Tarico concludes that “the Vatican, and the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and The Southern Baptist Convention should be very worried” regarding the rise of the Internet.

This admonition is odd. History is replete with examples of how the progression of communication technologies created the unprecedented spread of knowledge as well as aided the proliferation of religion and religious practices. The historical dynamics between technology and religion have seldom been an either/or experience, but rather a both/and. This has been especially (but not exclusively) true among conservatives. Fundamentalist Paul Rader pioneered bringing revival religion to radio, while Pentecostal Aimee Semple McPherson popularized the religious use of the cutting-edge medium. Pentecostal Oral Roberts and Evangelical Billy Graham both rose to cultural and religious prominence, in part, because of their ability to harness the new technology of television. Should we expect something different concerning the latest incarnation of communication technology?

Many things have troubled and threatened the vitality of American religion; technology, however, has not been one of them.

Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

2 Comments

  1. 1 Alex Hendrickson 04 Apr
    I am a board member of the Young Clergy Women Project.  We actually have a shiny new website we built with funds from the grant we received from your organization!  Can you use this link in your article instead: http://youngclergywomen.org/ ?

    Thanks for the shout-out!
  2. 2 New Media Project 04 Apr
    Thanks for the new URL, Alex. And congratulations on the new website! I've updated the blog post.

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