Does the Internet Harm Organized Religion? Does it Help Pagans?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 5, 2013 — 18 Comments

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.”

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

“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.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

The Mount Soledad Cross.

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.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

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?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As to your first question, my gut tells me Drescher is right and Tarico wrong. I watch the Internet I want to watch, and I don’t think I’m remotely unique. The barriers hold.
    As to your second, the Internet has made Paganism as we know it possible, not because it harbors any intrinsic bias in our favor but because it enables a community that is still thinly spread physically, act as a community on a large scale.
    For a rich meditation on what the Internet and allied technologies are doing to us, you might check Al Gore’s new book “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.”
    Drescher’s comment on how liberal churches pretty much bring up their kds to leave, has been commonplace among Unitarian Universalists for more than a generation.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I think the internet is a tool. Some people use tools as weapons to destroy, whilst others use them to build.

    I think it has good and bad points. For the wider Pagan community, it allows us to communicate with others of like mind without worrying about distance barriers. One the one hand, this means I get to talk to people half way across the planet (I’m here in England, the majority of the readership here seems to be Stateside), but it also means I feel less inclined to put in the effort to meet ‘real people’ – those who may be of like mind in my actual area.

    I guess it all depends on what you want from the internet.

    • Kilmrnock

      I agree to a point LS , the internet has allowed me to meet new pagan folks , such as you btw , as you say half way around the globe . But i have always tried to meet as many local pagans as i can . I visit meetups,PPD and gatherings as much as time and finances allow . Being financialy straped at this time hasn’t been as much as i’d like here of late,so it goes .

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I initially thought the internet would be a good way to meet those of like mind in my area. Seems as though all I have done is reinforce my opinion of myself as being a contrary git.

        • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

          ^This.

  • Jeremiah Myer

    I believe that while the inter-webs might bring a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to your attention… once there if they offer nothing spiritual you will leave. If they are just a political action group even if I agree with everything (thats not why many if any go to church). Thru the computers lens the failings they have will be hidden but when engaged you most likely will be disappointed.
    I have however connected with a group of Pagan’s that are everything I hoped for from the inter-webs so it can be a very good thing! Blessings

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Sounds like you had a bad experience with a UU congregation. Likely made up of people for whom political action is spiritual. Sorry they didn’t leave room for your spirituality; that’s not recommended UU conduct..

  • Nick Ritter

    I don’t know to what degree the Internet helps or harms the established religions, but I think that it certainly helps other religions, including those that fall under the “Pagan umbrella”. For my particular interests, having access to things like the Germanic Lexicon Project and the Internet Sacred Texts Archive has meant that I could use resources for free that would otherwise cost me quite a bit of money.

    Besides that, the ability to read the writings of other Pagan / Heathen / Polytheistic thinkers, and enter into a dialogue with them and others as I comment on what I read, has had some interesting (and hopefully beneficial) results.

  • Sencha

    I know that our Order, which was founded in 1996, has grown from 30-40 active members to well over 200 due to the influence of our online programs, so I’d definitely say that the Internet, especially social media, has helped.

  • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

    I have been benefited by the Internet since I first went online, oh, sometime in the mid 90′s. It’s allowed me to reach out to various people that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. As a Solitary, I much prefer networking and brainstorming over group activity, and my area has always been sort of devoid of the usual New Age/Alt Religion/Occult scene.

    I think in regards to established, brick-and-mortar religions, the Internet has the capacity to treat them like it has treated other similar services. Those who do not adapt truly fail to survive. It’s completely changed the playing field in the past two decades. It has seen the demise of traditional media and services, true, but it’s also opened up a wide array of opportunity for people to express themselves without having to go through the red tape of publication, or be beholden to a news letter or magazine printing for expression.

    I’d say it most definitely offers self-empowerment to off-center religions. Even just in the form of solidarity in ideas. Entire religious groups exist that are truly global, with members and adherents being able to converse in real time from Budapest to Sydney. Ideas, ritual correspondence, and thoughts are transmitted and retransmitted, and that is only beneficial.

    Not without dangers, though. As flamewars and Witch Wars are a lamentable result of increased interaction. Bleh. Humanity.

    Edit: And didn’t think about this while I wrote the response, but now you have groups like the Maetreum, located in the butthole of New York State, able to organize a potentially life-saving fundraising drive in order to battle traditional methods of misapplied legal authority. Empowerment? Most definitely.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Marc, to your last point before the edit: From what I’ve seen on line, the Internet has evoked a new kind of witch war, not about lineages or the validity of one’s initiation, but between praxis cohorts such as Recons vs Eclectics. This is taking the bitter with the sweet: The Internet lets us communicate with each other but it doesn’t compel us to be nice to one another.

      • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

        Most definitely, sir. If anything, studies have shown that the internet has enabled people to dispense with even the feigned sense of propriety and decency and simply been able to speak as an anonymous asshole in a sea of anonymous assholes, with no sense of courtesy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ivan.boatwright1 Ivan Boatwright

    It allows people to experience the world as never before. Religion is nothing more than a feel good social organization. Broader views open the mind to the fact that all beliefs based on a superior being is a fantasy and allows them to make more of their life instead of living in fear of a wrathful god.

    • Nick Ritter

      I think, based on your comment, that you have little understanding of religions outside of the Abrahamic tradition. Those are not representative examples of all – or even most – other religions. If you make assumptions about the nature of religion based on the few religions that most people belong to, you will be in the wrong.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    “the Internet hasn’t really done that much damage to communities with well-policed borders”
    What a horrid thought! Bad enough if you live in a police state, but in a church/religion/cult/sect that acts this way?

    Bleah!

    • Kitz

      They do exist unfortunately. The members are taught to self-censor to such a degree, that they won’t look/read anything that might be even remotely critical of their “church”. It’s heartbreaking to see, and to hear the stories of the survivors…..

    • cernowain greenman

      I didn’t take this literally. Yes there are groups like the FLDS in Utah that are like this. But there are religious communities that have an emphasis on the “world” as evil, keep their people busy with services through the week and discourage contact with “non-believers”. I think that’s what he means by “well-policed borders”.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It is quite easy to see this in a benign way – the ‘church’ creates community beyond the actual services.

        Little things like bake sales and beetle drives are all ways to encourage people to keep interacting with the ‘congregation’ rather than the ‘greater world’. Not because the perception of the ‘greater world’ as bad, necessarily, but because people are (usually) inclined to want to interact with those of like mind.

        Even Pagans do it by holding festivals.