Religion and the Internet

This coming Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme will be devoted to the subject of religion and the internet. Bishop Alan Wilson, Vicky Beeching and I will be grilled by presenter William Crawley on a number of topics. The programme outline has already sent my head into a spin, it is so searching and extensive, but I’m wondering whether we shall address one topic that has surfaced twice in the past few days: sacrilege. It’s an old-fashioned word, expressing an old-fashioned concept, clearly meaningless to many in the west, yet to many in the east far from meaningless. It is, in fact, a driver of action: something that calls for immediate and severe response.

My last post was on the act that led to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia. Note the words: the act that led to. The trial itself led to an explosion of comment in the media. Twitter and Facebook were awash with opinion, much of it condemning the sentence on the grounds that the band’s protest was aimed at President Putin. Yesterday the BBC published a report that a Pakistani girl had been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Koran. There was some comment in the media, especially when it emerged that the girl was allegedly only 11 and suffering from Down’s syndrome, but nothing to equal the response to the Pussy Riot trial. My Twitterstream was virtually silent on the subject.

Someone carrying pages of the Koran in a bin bag or burning them is committing an act of desecration according to Pakistani law, and although I assume that most of us are outraged at the thought of a child being arrested for such an offence, we mainly seem to accept that that is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan. Judging by our response on the internet and in social media, it is much less troubling than the trial of a Russian punk band. There may be many factors at work here, not least the uncertain nature of the information coming from Pakistan (though I have to say, Twitter never seems to be too much concerned whether a rumour is true or not), but it has reminded me of something it is easy to forget: there is a morality involved in our use of the internet and social media.

The internet is a powerful shaper of opinion. In the past, blogging was a prime way of disseminating opinion and allowed a writer to nuance statements in a thoughtful way and invite similarly thoughtful responses on difficult and complex subjects. Today, I think microblogging is more important. We seem to like short, snappy answers to short, snappy questions — and that is where the danger lies. Not every subject is susceptible of brief treatment. Twitter, in particular, enables an opinion to gain momentum very quickly, but it is rarely possible to advance a detailed argument. It’s for soundbites rather than syllogisms, perfect for jokes and links. When we address serious topics, however, we have to think how we are to tweet responsibly. It is easy to tweet and retweet without thinking. Even silence, our not tweeting, can be significant. Think before you tweet? A good idea. Even better, if it is a good work you are about, pray. Odd though it may seem to some, I think of the internet as a sacred space where what we do and the way in which we do it matters. There is a closer relationship between religion and the internet than may at first appear.

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25 thoughts on “Religion and the Internet”

  1. As always, well said sister. I look forward to Sunday’s discussion. As a former teacher of ICT who is very interested in our Faith this is home territory for me.

  2. Thank you for this. I must say that I shy away from using Twitter with the excuse that its constraints are too limiting for serious thought. But you have challenged me to think again about this – I think I may just be cowardly!

  3. I like your thought that for you the internet is “a sacred space”. Do you see it that way because of your intentional and prayerful use of it or because God is omnipresent and may be encountered anywhere?

  4. I wonder whether some people do not campaign about the little girl in Pakistan because they fear the local courts may be MORE likely to treat her harshly if the West appears to be on her side. Sometimes speaking out can make matters worse for the person concerned.

    • I HOPE that’s the reason for the silence, although I do wonder whether PR attracted all the attention it did because the band members are attractive young women, the band’s name is sufficiently shocking to send a frisson down some people’s spines and, best of all, politics are involved. Also, we are not likely to experience death threats as a result of championing them. I think we must just go on praying and hoping.

  5. As people of God all that we do should be a reflection of His indwelling Spirit, therefore the spaces we occupy, whether physically or otherwise should be a reflection of His light. As Laurel Masse said in the earlier comments, type flattens expression and nuance. Snappy twitter must be the most stunted form of communication ever invented! Expression is also largely shaped by country of origin and culture, further compounding misunderstanding. Let’s not forget the media – some of the topics you mention we don’t even hear of on this side of the Atlantic. Best wishes on your interview, wish we could hear it here in Canada and the U.S.

  6. The internet as sacred space, now that is thought provoking. I liken the current state of the internet to mudlarking along the banks of the old Thames. Most of the time it’s disesase, mud and corruption, but every once in a while you find a silver Roman coin… It’s the coins you treasure and find valuable, and keep coming back to…. Perhaps places like this are people planting coins for others to find and treasure..

  7. I also like the idea of the internet as sacred space because everything has the potential of being sacred. The internet provides the opportunity to communicate God’s message in many different ways – the responsibility for using it in a positive way rests with each of us. Blessings on your interview. Perhaps in Canada we can pick it up on the internet!

  8. The Pussy Riot. The young women knew they would not be lynched for their actions in the Orthodox church. Gone are the days when this happened in the West. In fact in the West it is a means of getting publicity and getting on to talk shows to promote one’s career.In my opinion it was a purely selfish act. Should they have done so in Pakistan it would indeed not be a selfish act.
    In one sense we have lost the sense of sacred in the West. This sense of the sacred is focussed externally. The God out there. But in another sense we (west) are gasining a certain sense of the sacred within. Hopefully in due course this interior sacred sense will develop outwards and encompass other people and places.
    The Pakistani situation seems to me to be really sad. But we cannot discount politics being involved here

  9. Thank you Sister.

    I try to think of all places as Sacred Space, which helps to keep me focused on the centrality of God in our lives. The internet is no different.

    I like twitter for short conversations, which can lead to longer discussions – which cumulatively, can develop into a deeper discussion. The discipline of 140 characters seems to make people think about what they will say (sometimes at least) and perhaps, even how they are perceived.

    The internet is also a dangerous place, where trolls set out to cause issues and rows and to generally be provocative, which isn’t much different from people we meet off line.

    Surely, the internet including twitter is the place where Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate that their faith is real, valid, live and that their reality, life, thought and actions are shaped by and through Jesus Christ. That to me is the value of the internet. We just have to live up to it.

  10. I look forward to hearing you on on Sunday, via online streaming, in Rome. It is interesting to hear reflections on the morality of the internet and social media from someone in the Benedictine tradition. We Trappists seem to worry only that they are a distraction and a waste. Best wishes for the broadcast.
    Eleanor ocso

  11. I was a bit lacklustre yesterday, but anyone interested in what I/we think about religion and the internet has quite a lot of material to go over at our main site, http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk. I heard this morning that the interview I did for ‘All Things Considered’ is being rebroadcast on Sunday, 2 September 2012 at 9.30 am. Ways to listen can be found here, http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/radiowales/sites/info/pages/frequencies.shtml and podcast here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/atc. Thanks to producer Karen Walker for providing the links (and a Bro Duncan fanmail into the bargain.)

    • Thank you (and you all) for taking part in the Radio 4 programme. Personally I found it tried to put too much into one programme and came over as rushed and hurried. I realised that for me one of the great pleasures of using the internet is that it allows one time to think, reflect and respond.

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