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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Pussy Riot and the Holiness of Place

Yesterday’s sentence on three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian Punk band which performed an anti-Putin ‘prayer to Mary’ in a Moscow Cathedral, has been widely condemned. If my Twitterstream was anything to go by, people leaped in to defend the band without really considering whether their conduct was in any sense justifiable or excusable. Many ignored the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church had asked for clemency and roundly condemned both Church and State for their harshness. Apparently, being anti-Putin makes everything all right and we western liberals will back anyone and anything that protests against his illiberal regime.

As it happens, I too think the sentence was unduly harsh, but I don’t think the band should have got off scot free. I suspect you have to be Orthodox or Catholic to understand the full horror for believers of what happened. To parody a prayer may seem nothing to those who don’t believe, but to those who do, it is bordering on blasphemy. Then to proclaim that parody, full of expletives, before the most sacred area of a cathedral is indeed a profanation. Orthodox churches, by and large, are not just buildings which come alive at occasional services and are routinely used for other purposes. Like their Catholic counterparts, they are charged with Presence; people pray in them at all times (go into Westminster Cathedral after you have been to Westminster Abbey and you’ll see what I mean: it isn’t that the Abbey is any less a place of prayer, it is simply that people in the Cathedral pray all over the place rather than in reserved quiet chapels).

The members of Pussy Riot knew what they were doing, and they must take the consequences. Had they entered a mosque and behaved in the same way, western opinion might not be so forgiving. I hope that the women’s sentence will be suspended or whatever the Russian equivalent is, but I also hope that those who have unthinkingly championed them will stop for a moment to consider the thoughts and feelings of Russian Orthodox Christians. ‘Holy things to the holy’ sings the deacon before the moment of Communion. Holiness. We have not heard much about that in media coverage or commentary, but it does exist, and holiness of place is surely part of it for those who believe in the Incarnation. We may not share the beliefs of others, but shouldn’t we accord them respect?

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