Last month AlterNet published an essay by psychologist (and ex-evangelical Christian) Valerie Tarico that posits the Internet as an eroding force on “right-belief” organized religions. According to Tarico, the Internet destabilizes the “defenses that keep outside information away from insiders.”
“Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.”
For those of us who exist in faiths outside the dominant religious paradigms here in the West, this is the sort of message that appeals to our own growth narratives. The notion that free access to information will break the shackles oppressive, narrow-minded, faith communities have placed on their adherents. However, Elizabeth Drescher at Religion Dispatches refutes this narrative, saying that the Internet hasn’t really done that much damage to communities with well-policed borders.
“Again and again, we see that the promise of ideological cross-pollination and the hope of more robust dialogue through social media participation has not widely been realized. A review of research on political engagement online by Jennifer Brundidge and Ronald E. Rice, for instance, suggests that access to diverse viewpoints and richer information on the internet tends primarily to benefit those of higher socioeconomic status, allowing deeper insight into the political Other without necessarily changing minds. Internet practice among those at lower socioeconomic levels, on the other hand, tends to reinforce like-mindedness. Further, the most religiously active Americans, according to a 2011 Pew study, are no less likely to use new technologies than are their un- or irreligious neighbors.”
As the near-constant stream of image-oriented memes on my Facebook feed tell me, we do a pretty good job of insulating ourselves from opinions we don’t like. We can always “hide” the posts of relatives and friends we don’t agree with, but don’t want to offend by actually un-friending. Drescher also points out that the explosive growth of “nones” mainly comes from the once-robust mainline (liberal) Christian churches that encourage their youth to explore other traditions and viewpoints.
“As I am regularly in the uncomfortable position of announcing to the members of my own declining denomination, progressive churches in many ways form their young people to leave their communities. Teens and young adults of all sorts may well be noodling around on the web encountering new religious ideas and practices. But it seems to be the case that progressive kids—kids whose parents would never for a minute consider taking them on vacation to a creationist theme park, or drill them in apologetic strategies with which to face down atheists—are more likely to be open to new religious perspectives and practices than are conservative young people.”
But what about Pagans? Has it helped us? The Pagan embrace of the Internet has been a much-studied aspect of our modern interconnected communities. Our reliance on social media sites, and the Internet, has become a common feature in many Pagan circles. I would argue that is has allowed us to evolve and grow at rates virtually impossible during the years of letter-writing and searching the bulletin boards of your local occult/New Age shop. It is a tool that is helping us become more visible, and organize in ways that would have been almost impossible 30 years ago.
As for the “nones” I believe their rise, even if it’s at the expense of “liberal” forms of our dominant monotheisms, is ultimately a boon for our interconnect communities. The rise of “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” give us a safe space, a cultural buffer to grow and experiment in. It destabilizes the narrative of inevitable Christian power, and opens the door to minority faiths having a stronger voice in discussions around religious rights and moral issues that affect us all. It creates the opportunity to visualize a post-Christian culture.
“What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.”
So the question of whether the Internet will “harm” organized religion might be the wrong one. Perhaps the question should be is if the Internet empowers religions that were usually kept out of the cultural spotlight, and that it is this empowerment that will ultimately “harm” religions that try to enforce a single cultural moral norm for everyone else. But what do you think? Is the Internet a boon for Pagans? Does is harm organized religions directly, or does it simply re-create our current world in a virtual feed?