Faith in the digital age…

1966 Time magazine cover

1966 Time magazine cover

We’ve come a long way since the Time magazine cover from, 1966 that asked, ‘Is God Dead?’: the English football team seems to have made a habit of failing to win the World Cup and no band has released an album quite like the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’. Perhaps most surprisingly, God quite evidently is alive and well, not least on the web which features an increasing amount of religious groups that connect with their audiences and reach new ones.

When Time took out their controversial cover (in which they somehow estimated that around half of the world’s population was atheist or irreligious), it seemed genuinely that religion was falling into the graves dug by the competing secular ideologies that (mostly violently) punctuated the planet. However, the words of the great French writer (and committed atheist, despite a fondness for Hinduism) Andre Malraux seem increasingly prescient: “The next century will either be religious or it won’t be”.

Time magazine and Nietzsche were wrong, as demonstrated in the fascinating Faith 2.0 conference hosted by the RSA and organized by Durham University and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The enlightening discussions ranged from acute analyses of the use of the internet by religious groups (their effectiveness lies in making church more congruent with members’ everyday lives) to the vexed question of secularism itself being compromised and onto a discussion of who possesses religious authority.

The excellent conference (audio available on the website of the RSA, click here for the morning session and here for the afternoon) also included a keynote speech by the fantastic Digital Nun (aka Sister Catherine Wybourne) which discussed first-hand the use of social networking and the net by religious groups (@DigitalNun can teach me a thing or three about WordPress and is an avid Tweeter) but also the downside of the internet: the emerging and now deeply entrenched ‘wiki-expert’ culture that has formed where some people think that reading a Wiki page on Schroedinger’s Cat or an article on collateralised debt obligations makes one qualified to comment on quantum mechanics or supply-side economics.

Sister Wybourne also highlighted the ‘online ghetto’ that builds up around some religious groups where diversity is left behind and people just talk to like-minded individuals or groups and that, as she elaborated in a recent Guardian article, “the web may have encouraged a lowest-common-denominator eclecticism and turned us into consumers of religion”. Also featured was Professor Heidi Campbell (whose blog is highly recommended for excellent, up-to-date analyses of the internet’s impact on religion) who has argued similarly that “unless you’re looking for diversity, you’re not going to find it online”. Professor Lorne Dawson also featured heavily, variously warning us about the lack of good empirical studies in the area of the internet and religion but also informing us that what good studies exist told us a few things: the internet is a catalyst that for some reason favours minority communities  – which could be good or bad, see the Quran-burning pastor – and that promotes disconnection from old communities and promotes individualism (rather like the internet’s parent concept, globalisation).

Things, however, got controversial in the final panel session which was a discussion on ‘Religious Authority and the Growth of Online Extremism’. The panel contained the aforementioned Professor Dawson as moderator, Reverence Canon Robin Morrison, the American digital media strategist and co-author of ‘Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds’ Joshua Fouts, the academic Gary Bunt and Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan, an astronomer and part-time Imam. Unfortunately, the latter wasn’t able to make it, which left a panel discussing Islamist extremism without a Muslim member.

It turns out, however, that Sheik Hasan’s absence gave the audience and the panel space to discuss the issues that really mattered to them: one audience member was angry about the lack of discussion about forms of extremism other than Islamist and also bemoaned the stereotypes propagated by policymakers as well as the lack of ‘tools’ available to combat extremism and unite people and communities. She was applauded by quite a few members of the audience and her concerns on the exclusive focus on Islamists were echoed by a Christian clergyman. A complicated and highly informative debate took place with the panel acknowledging the rebuke and defending themselves reasonably – whilst regretting the lack of diversity in their presentations – on the grounds that presentations were limited to ten minutes and that Sheikh Hasan was meant to be present as both a counter-balance and a complement. Perhaps the most enlightening point made was the light shed by a Muslim gentleman regarding the ‘Danish cartoon’ controversy: whilst the many in the West (legitimately) viewed the controversy as a ‘freedom of speech’ issue, a great deal of the Muslim world saw it, equally legitimately, as another example of their religion being scapegoated and singled out. A clash of perceptions rather than a clash of civilisations, it seems.

Enlightening as the final panel was prior to the conversation with the audience, the feedback added a dimension that may not have been possible had Sheikh Dr. Hasan had been present (for brief summations of his position, check out his interesting Guardian articles), a dimension that, though difficult, had a beneficial and pedagogic effect. If there was any doubt that the admittedly tense conversation was done in good faith, this was dispelled by the perfectly rational conversations that the audience had with the panelists afterwards. Most importantly, everyone listened as grievances were expressed and opinions freely exchanged in what made for a fascinating close to a highly informative day.

A mind once stretched by a new

idea never regains its original



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