Religion in an On-Line Culture

Recently, Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist,” posted on his blog about how “The Internet Will Lead to Religion’s Downfall.” In it he notes that the internet provides resources for many questions people have. In fact, the argument begins with an observation about magic shops closing due to easily accessible explanations of various magic tricks on-line. By analogy, he claims that religion will go the same way. He points out that many things (advice, inspiration, knowledge) that people used to seek out from ministers can easily be found on-line. Near the end he summarizes:

If you’re religious, then you might want to turn to a pastor during difficult times, but there are secular counselors who provide the same services. Just like Humanist celebrants are available to officiate weddings, I’m having a tough time finding a service Christian pastors (or any religious leaders) offer that can’t be found elsewhere these days.

This brings three points to mind. First, Mehta is right about the shift away from respect for the church and its ministers. Certainly many pastors bemoan the loss of the privileged position they once enjoyed – especially in places like my own town, Boston. This loss leads many ministers and many churches to try to insert themselves into various issues in their cities, towns, and states (and even into national issues when possible). Though the style and opinions voiced may differ, the trend toward intrusion into public life takes places across the spectrum of progressive to fundamentalist church.

Second, Mehta seems to forget that religion – and much of our lives – is communal. There is the obvious point that people actually gain something from community and from the advice of those they trust in a world awash with opinion and data. Most of our choices are not governed by quantifiable factors. (And some of us have the gall to question whether many ethical issues will ever gain much clarity from scientific research!) Additionally, even sorting through factual claims is less than straightforward on the web. Determining which authorities to trust is inherently an act of community.

Third and most significantly, it is curious that Mehta can think of nothing that religion offers. I won’t speak for other religions, but I can say that he’s making a very Christian point! The church and her ministers are not specialists on any particular body of information, have no corner on the market of inspiring stories or rhetoric, and claim no special insight for most forms of advice. Except … there is one thing they do have uniquely: Jesus. Or, more accurately, Jesus has them uniquely. It’s not that they’re special, but that they proclaim something special in Jesus’ identity and accomplishments. The church (and its ministers) ought to leave behind the pretensions of knowing better than everyone else about many things, and prioritize the good news of Jesus. And yet, just as surely as Mehta misses this point because he does not think he needs it, those who understand their need can’t miss how completely this single bit of good news reorients everything else in their lives.