The Internet has had a massive impact on religions across the world1. Does the Internet help or hinder the religions of the world? How have our established religions tried to censor and control the Internet? Will the Internet itself ever serve as a source of the sacred? Once upon a time, people had God incsribe commandments on slabs of stone. Later on, God modernized along with humanity, and had the Bible and Qur'an set to the written page. We're only a few generations away from God's first website. Read on!
The Internet undermines religion in a number of ways, by undermining religious claims to truth through exposure to competing claims, by granting access to dissenters and those who present opposing ideas, through the undermining of monopoly of access over national broadcast media, and by destroying the effectiveness of the teacher-student model. All this threatens religion simply because truth and debates can be accessed by all, unlimited by restrictions that a religion can impose locally, and the proliferation of minor new movements weakens the sustainability of all of them, great and small. This is why as modernism continues, large religious institutions are failing and smaller ones are kaleidoscoping in popularity.
All religions are now brought into close contact with each other through communications technology2. The Internet has an effect on religion similar to multiculturalism by opening up all religious claims to comparison with other contradictory claims: It can be seen that as most of these claims are different, most of them must actually be wrong. And if most of them are wrong, it is highly probably that your own religion's claims are wrong. Adherents of the Qur'an and of the Bible both claim that their holy book has a greater amount of "scientific" accuracy and prophecy-fulfilment; whereas skeptics point out shortcomings in both.
Critics of religion and scholarly analysis of religious texts often damage the reputation of holy texts, and now, such research is not only easily obtainable online3, but, it is often hard to ignore. Critical opinionists sometimes seek out the "gullible" and make it their mission to inform them of the shortcomings of their religion's written doctrines and theological stances. Exposure to contradictory opinion is one of the causes of decline of religion in the globalized world. See: Anti-Religious Forces: Specific Factors Fuelling Secularisation.
Previously, large and established traditional religious organisations could dominate national broadcast media and sometimes enact censorship with their greater output power, finance and access to national media. But now, dissenting sects and individuals can explain their own points of view relatively unhindered; those who have been expelled can move abroad if they have to, and broadcast their own arguments back to their home country from a safe place abroad, over the Internet.4. For example, in Pakistan and Indonesia, organized atheism is impossible and effectively illegal, but, online groups representing atheists have flourished. In those countries some online atheists have been caught and arrested5, but the general trend is that strong religious bias in the law and censorship in national media can both be overcome through the Internet.
Many religions embrace a teacher-student model, where successively more profound truths are revealed to a student as they are ready, such as the Roman mystery religions. Outer mysteries and public rituals have a secret meaning that is revealed by teachers to initiates. Even in non-mystery religions, such as Buddhism, a student is expected to learn things in a structured order - a student must "first taught the most superficial doctrine, then the less superficial, and 'Gradually' led them up to the profound".6 But the Internet has undermined such carefully-managed apprenticeships because of the free availability of teachings online. The Church of Scientology continues to fight many aggressive legal battles to get its restricted material taken off of the internet, and fraternities such as the Freemasons find that their advanced-level secrets are revealed to all online by ex-members and the like.
Even traditional Christian organisations where churches are the focal point, rather than teacher-student pairs, are worried. The cause of the worry is that now everyone can freely read the Bible online, complete with in-depth commentary, that priests and bishops are no longer required to explain theology7. In fact, the detailed documents online are far superior and more accurate that those given by clergy in face-to-face situations. Therefore, alongside the printing press and English-language Bibles, the warning clarions are once-again being sounded for a new technology heralding the demise of organized Christianity.
It is possible to over-state the negative effects of the Internet on religion1. It is actually benefiting religion in some ways:
Seekers of religion can find all they need online, from clearly laid out beliefs and practices, to the locations of national and local communities of adherents and fans. It can also allow conscientious conformity to tradition, driven by the desire for neophytes to do their religion correctly3. Social theorist Beckerlegge frequently argues that the anonymous and private nature of Internet reading means people are more likely to come forward to religious websites and ask questions that they'd not ask in real life. Also, they can ask questions when there is no-one else to ask9. But it also allows people to research doubts and ideas that are critical of a religion and opens people up to discover new criticisms that they'd not thought of before.
The English-language Bible galvanized the general public by giving them easy access to Scripture and precipitated a century of public debate on theological matters and religious philosophy. The Internet has done the same again; easy access to religious scriptures of all religions are now debated. Age-old Christological dilemmas are argued about in forums and on Usenet, with many fresh websites on the subjects being written by new authors. Without the Internet, such melting-pots of religions, ideas, criticism and encouragement would still be trundling along at a pace that now seems glacial. Yet this grass-roots activity produce results that are often far from what religious institutions want.
Diverse religious teachings and beliefs are now visible online, including heretical and previously suppressed ones. There is no barrier to any sect or minority belief from presenting its ideas to the world. "Even the most reluctant or technophobic agents of diverse forms of religious belief and expression in diverse culture have found a place online"10 writes one analyst. It has become much more difficult for monopolistic and established religions behemoths to maintain control over what beliefs their congregations are exposed to. The result is a healthier marketplace of religious ideas - a typical environment in which younger and more vibrant religious ideas flourish (even if this does tend to occur at the expense of old religions).
New religious movements are given global exposure. Those with few finances can utilize the logistical benefits of being online, boosting their numbers at a faster rate than if their little-known ideas had to spread by word of mouth and local leaflets, etc. As a result, people are more likely to find the exact type of religion that appeals to them.
Secretive and occult religious groups can present themselves on websites11 and provide digital contact methods, whilst still keeping their real lives separated.
Disliked and oppressed religions and sects, like secret and occult ones, can express themselves and present arguments with less risk to their physical safety.
Many single-god religions are disposed towards controlling people's access to competing religious ideas, and hence, in traditional monotheistic countries, censorship of the Internet is more prevalent. Free access to religious studies material, critical opinion, information and debates about God tend to reduce the rate of belief in God. As countries become more secular, censorship all but disappears - especially censorship of religious issues. Exceptions exist for dictatorships and extreme political ideologies, where religion as a whole is considered dangerous.
The Christian and Muslim worlds have both vigorously (albeit, late) embraced the internet15. It is impossible to find a medium that lacks missionaries from these faiths spreading their messages. When it comes to censorship, Christianity never really tried due to lack of support from states, however Muslim censorship includes some heavy-handed restrictions on access to the Internet - especially content that is "unIslamic" as the centralisation of Internet Service Providers makes an ideal situation for effective censorship where they can be forced by the state to co-operate..
Even in liberal democracies where religion has lost its power to impose censorship rules, pseudo-censorship occurs of alternative religions, however, the cause is as much ignorance as it is malice. "For example, pagan sites were incorporated into a 'ban' by one filtering package under the umbrella of 'Satanic/cult' beliefs. Another package filtered out an Understanding Islam site, the Quakers, and a Holocaust Remembrance site"16. In general, such mistaken practices are resolved over time, although many employers will still install firewalls and by default block websites categorised that they simply don't like the sound of. It normally doesn't take much in the way of argumentation to get them to understand that they should change their approach.
Christendom has reacted in mixed ways to free speech. Countries that were historically Christian have often censored whatever mediums established churches could control. The British Board of Film Censors was much-criticized for its Christian bias since its founding in 1912 when it banned film-makers from directly depicting Christ at all. Many other films were similarly curbed and prohibited for infringing upon Christian sensibilities. These bans lasted decades. Similar restrictions existed in America too. Liberalisation began in the 1960s in the developed world, but that decade still saw Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqui 15 months hard labor in Spain for portraying Jesus in 1964.17.
Aside from film and television entertainment in the 20th century, Christian institutions also reacted badly to other historical innovations in mass media. Christian authorities burned and banned the first English-language Bible (the Tyndale Bible) that was destined for the masses because it would replace the Latin ones (that only rare educated priests could read). They feared the masses would come to question clergy and debate scripture for themselves. There were warning signs that Christianity would take the route of oppressor where it could: it took a few hundred years, in the Second Council of Nicaea in 787CE, for an official declaration to be made that (religious) artistic images were allowed at all after a long period spent in suspicion of imagery in general18.
But Christian censorship didn't last and (after several hundred years of censorship) Westerners in most countries can view a full spectrum of portrayals of Jesus exists on film, and read and write whatever books they wish, with no effective religious groups opposing their appearance. But progress isn't yet absolute. In "Greece, Ireland or Poland, blasphemy laws allowing fines and imprisonment may lead to prosecution or have a deterrent effect on journalists, academics, artists and other citizens which may amount to self-censorship"19. Thankfully however, Europe in general recovered from its era of Christian theocracy. A few countries such as Austria, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands still have blasphemy laws but they are no longer used19. The UK's blasphemy law - famous for its disuse - was abolished in 2008 after a Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in their fight against homosexuality20. Thankfully, most democracies are now careful to avoid allowing religious communities to use censorship as a way of forcing their beliefs upon others.
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When it comes to the Internet, there have been no serious attempts by Christian institutions to limit or censor it in the same way they (sometimes heavily) censored printed and entertainment media. It is technically very difficult to do so without the support of the state, and, despite occasional commentary, democratic states have embraced free speech in priority to assuaging the wishes of individual religions.
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Islamic censorship is still rife in home countries. It includes some very heavy-handed restrictions on access to the Internet. Even in the 21st century, printed material and books are censored on their religious and scientific content if it is deemed to be "unIslamic". Simple things such as TV dramas do not escape the religious censors21. Pakistan is infamous for the frequency at which people are arrested under its blasphemy laws22.
Medieval-minded Muslims do not restrict their wrath to those who actually believe the same way they do. Salmon Rushdie is famous as a victim of Islamic international censorship, now having spent many years in hiding as a result of publishing a work of fiction that featured Muhammad. Anywhere on the Internet and across the world, individuals can become the focus of angry imams. The Internet has partially enabled Muslims in strict countries to obtain more information about the world, but, it has also opened up the world to the demands of strict Muslims.
"Islamic sensibilities" is the phrase often given to the superstitions of the Muslim world, of a result of which we see outrage-after-outrage against non-Muslims. What might be a small-scale and meaningless act, which harms no-one, can be magnified to an International incident beyond all reasonableness, if it happens to be something that angers Muslims:
“In a morning-long debate on traditional values at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday 22 March 2011, the Pakistani delegate, speaking on behalf of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was allowed by the president to overrun his allotted three minute by a further seven in order to express his outrage at an incident reported just that morning. Was it the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Damascus? No. The killing of peaceful demonstrators in Yemen or Bahrain? No. His diatribe was against the burning of a copy of the Quran in Florida. Read more.”
Saudi Arabia is as infamous as Pakistan for its deadly serious approach to blasphemy, against a backdrop of general religious intolerance and barbarism. For example in 2002 it was reported that Saudi Arabia's government began denying access to websites containing general religious content on Christianity, Islam, Paganism, Judaism and Hinduism25. This, like other moves in the region, is designed to keep Muslim populations' access to information limited, so that they will remain steadfast in the "correct" form of Islam as judged by the authorities.
“No fly appears too small to warrant swatting. Hamza Kashgari, a young blogger, fled to Malaysia after posting provocative comments about the Prophet Muhammad. The government applied all available diplomatic pressure to have him returned. Emboldened senior clerics are asking for Mr Kashgari to be executed for blasphemy.”
Death and Murder
Death threats for blasphemy have had fatal consequences too many times. The fear that this engenders in liberals is used to the political advantage of Islamic extremists. Iranian lawyer Ahmad Kasravi was murdered in court whilst defending himself against the accusation of 'attacking Islam'. The same group of Muslims killed the Iranian Prime Minister Haji-Ali Razmara. In 1994 Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel-prize winning Egyptian writer, was stabbed in 1994 after accusations of blasphemy even while he was under police protection (he was injured so badly, he could hardly write and spent most of his remaining life hiding in his lawyer's office).27. Since 2013 in Bangladesh a horrible spate of killings of freethinkers, secularists and liberals has occurred28. It began with a march of tens of thousands of Muslims on the capital, demanding that the government itself increase censorship of "anti-Muslim" content. Students, community leaders and University professors alike have been hacked to death with machetes as a result of putting content online that is pro-science, pro-secularist, anti-war crimes, or which advocate LGBT tolerance. One extremist group openly published a list of 84 of their targets and in 2016 Apr the rate of murders increased to one a week. The Bangladesh government has done very little to curb the extremists. Murders for blasphemy against Islam do not just occur in Muslim counties; there is a long and unfortunate history of the same occurring in Europe and elsewhere - Theo van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam by a Dutch Moroccan Muslim for making a film criticizing Islam's attitude towards women.
The Islamic push is that anything that questions Islam, ridicules Islam, mentions Islam unfavourably, or seeks to convert Muslims away from Islam, is 'blasphemous' and deeply offensive - so much so, that all equality and human rights must be suspended until the 'offence' is punished and stopped. Such ridiculous one-sided activism is a threat to the democratic world and all civilized people. There is hope of course - the stance of Muslims towards civility is no less horrendous than "Christian sensibilities" during the Dark Ages, and, the vast majority of Christians no longer subscribe to such barbarianism. Hence, there is eventual hope for the Muslim world too.
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There is clearly nothing spiritual about text on the Internet. Web pages are written in human-invented markup languages (such as HTML), using human-invented networking technologies, all of which are clearly industrial, and not sacred, in nature.
But, religions that emerge after a communications medium is invented can not only accept that medium, but even approach it mystically. The pope said that internet-based communications are more than "mere instruments or technologies"15. It has happened with previous media. In aural media, the passing on of sacred stories orally followed on from our development of (human-invented) spoken language. Later, Jewish intellectuals loved playing with letters and words, giving them divine and encoded meanings, and the Hebrew dābār (God's word, translated as Logos in Greek) is the source of the word in John 1:1 that the KJV famously presented as "the Word": "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God". This idea of a universal, God-presented Word is also accepted by Islam, where it is said that the Qur'an (recital) is but a copy of a divine book that has existed with God for all time (Sura 85:21-22). Any paper on which elements of the Qu'ran is written itself becomes sacred. Yet words and paper are just like the Internet: human-made languages written on a human-made media.
If these religions can mystify the communications media of their time, new religions will mystify the Internet. Divinely-inspired websites already exist, written in the name of all kinds of gods, with all kinds of beliefs as their basis. Some talk about the Internet in religious terms already; technomancy may be a counter-cultural idea mostly concerned with social engineering, but, were not many religions also founded upon counter-cultural mores? In the future we will see religions that not only accept the Internet, and which are not only spread by the Internet, but which claim nothing else as their founding than the Internet. Although it also seems likely that as we, as a species, now have much greater understanding about the world, hopefully technology-based religion will produce too much skepticism to ever arise!
The Qur'an has been with God since all time? What an outdated concept! A book?! Surely, God has an indestructible and eternal website in heaven waiting to be beamed down on to a server, at the right time? It is no less ridiculous an idea that the 10 Commandments being inscribed on to slabs of stone for Moses.
It is daft to limit any important message to one language, delivered to one tribe. Not only that, but Muhammad was illiterate and Jesus didn't write anything himself: this type of thinking has everything to do with limited human imagination and tribal power-games (who wouldn't want to be part of the people who the creator of billions of galaxies chooses as the recipients of an important message?). God's website, beamed down from heaven, will be a much more competent attempt at communication that the use of ancient languages transmitted to people who don't write. For when viewed by anyone, God's website will automatically appear in the language that the reader is most competent in. Gone will be errors and mistranslations. Gone will be doubt as to whether God really sent those archaic messages to those tribespeople.
However better this method would be, I do not really think that an all-powerful God would impart its message through any mass media, be it paper or electronic. No, Internet-based religion makes as little sense as Bible-based religion for an all-powerful creator-god.
If God is good in nature and its message is true, and the message of god is important for us, then it holds to reason that a good god would want human beings to know that message29. God in its omnipotence can immediately impart the correct knowledge directly into our consciousness. I am sure it also has the know-how to do it in a non-harmful way given that it designed our brains down to the functioning of millions of neuronal connections and neurotransmitters, etc. Put another way: It must be true that we all already know the most-important things that God wants us to know. Whatever various religions, prophets, seekers, mystics and holy spokespeople say is not exactly what God wants us to know. There is no reason for a good god, which wants the truth to be known, to convey important messages to individual human beings, in specific human languages, and allow us to spread the message using our own imperfect communication methods. As soon as people start translating it, explaining it to each other and writing it down then the message becomes reliant upon cultural understanding. It will dilute, get misunderstood, and it is sure that different communities will come to interpret the message differently, leading to schism and confusion, and as history has shown, to violence and bloodshed. Therefore, God's important messages are universal, imparted directly into all of our hearts and minds, and are therefore not made subject to human communications errors. If goodness comes from god, then given their historical mistakes, their culture-specific language, moral shortcomings and the social strife that results from their existence, holy books cannot possibly be from God. The whole idea of cultivating the True Religion via the orally-transmitted stories of itinerant and illiterate preachers such as Jesus and Mohammad, in (often obscure) human languages, is nonsensical.
If God wants someone to know the facts about a particular religion, then it would automatically make that person know. What God wants, it can do, because God is all-powerful. If God is also perfectly good, then if it is right for someone to know something then God will let them know it. If it is right to know something, then, a good God is compelled to let people know it directly.
Evangelism therefore is pointless. It is senseless for religious adherents to go around telling people about their religious views if they believe in an all-powerful or perfectly good God. An all-powerful good god will want (and can!) give anyone any knowledge it is good for them to have. It is not the job of religious adherents to run around trying to pretend to know what God wants people to know!
The reasons for evangelism are probably more selfish than theological; to do with (1) personal ego, (2) public image and (3) Earthly influence. They think that if they evangelize they will (4) get themselves into heaven and (5) increase their own sense of self-worth (deluded psychology).
But it is obvious that evangelists are going against God's will, if God has a will. If God wanted someone to know something, and it was right for them to know it, God would tell that person directly. There is no point in doing it any other way. The only reason people need to tell each other things about religion is if it is things that God doesn't think it is best for them to know. This absurd state of affairs means that evangelists are least godly, trusting least in the abilities of God to tell people what they need to know!