'You've got faith'

Millions are surfing into the new world of cyber-spirituality

Just as houses of worship dot urban, suburban, and rural landscapes around the globe, sacred sites have proliferated in the virtual landscape called cyberspace. More than a million Internet sites now draw seekers and believers to diverse expressions of religion, testifying to the vitality of the spiritual impulse even among those not drawn to traditional worship.

While some may consider the Web simply another place to share their message, for Brenda Brasher, "online religion is the most portentous development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century." Dr. Brasher makes this bold claim in her new book, "Give Me That Online Religion," after a decade of exploring the byways of cyber-spirituality - from church Web pages to apocalyptic prophets to interfaith marketplaces like Beliefnet.com.

This imaginative, fascinating, and troubling book focuses not on a tour of websites, but on an exploration of the significance of this outpouring of spiritual energy, and how it is likely to transform the future of religious expression.

Cyberspace will give "a jolt to the future of religion," she predicts, and "could become the dominant form of religious experience in the next century." If so, this book suggests, there are reasons to be both hopeful and deeply concerned. The potential exists, for example, for this "first global commons" to contribute to increased interreligious understanding and fellowship. And it has already spurred innovative spiritual practices, such as global prayer chains and multi-user rituals. At the same time, the astonishing energies devoted to sites of celebrity worship and mass-media models (i.e. Star Trek) suggest traditional religion could lose out to popular culture in molding the "spiritual life" of young people.

Most mainstream faiths are now present on the Web, she says, but they are largely imitating real-life events rather than reconfiguring them for this medium. It is the amateur religionists with their humor and "flourishing spiritual imaginations"; the new religious movements (such as neopagans, or the "Transhumanists," who believe in eternal life through "uploading" their brains onto the Net); and popular-culture inspired forms that are making it their domain.

Cyberspace poses tremendous challenges for mainstream religions, challenges they are not yet meeting, she says. Rather than be "techno-avoidant," they need to tailor offerings more perceptively and to consider more deeply what this environment means for their future, including potential impacts on real-life worship.

Brasher, who teaches religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, does a masterful job of educating the not-so-computer-savvy reader about the deeper significance of today's "computer-mediated communication" and its implications for redefining reality and humanity. It has already turned our lives into "24/7" mode, and is whittling away at our concept of patience - putting a premium on immediacy and instant accessibility.

She illustrates how technology has reconfigured religion through history - from scrolls helping to establish canon and authoritative hierarchies, to the printing press spurring Protestantism, to the spread of evangelicalism through use of radio and TV.

Cyberspace, she explains, represents a cultural shift - a place where concepts of time and reality differ. This has given rise to a new sense of what it means to be human - the cyborg, a partly imaginative, partly real being created through the human-computer relationship. For some participants - as terminology such as cyber-eternity and cyber-heaven suggests - the experience represents a substitute form of religious expression.

One challenge to traditional faiths, Brasher points out, is that those who grow up in this environment may find inherited religions, with their pastoral and agrarian images, "insufficiently comprehensive and therefore less credible, less persuasive, and less useful." Science-fiction authors grapple more readily with the issues of this experience, she says, than does traditional religion.

Brasher is sympathetic to the extreme range of spiritual expression found on the Web, but she also recognizes the profound import of traditional religion to human society. This book is a plea not only to ensure a future place for religion on an increasingly commercialized Internet, but also for religionists to fulfill the roles they have historically played in defining spiritual experience and the moral norms for all cultures.

Cyberspace, she emphasizes, "expands the range of human behavior beyond our inherited moral imagination," providing innumerable new opportunities for virtual sin. She devotes an entire chapter to "cyber-virtue and cyber-vice," and the imperative for ethical (not just legal) standards for use of information and how participants treat one another. Behavior is being defined by the "virtual anarchists" as well as the "virtual utopians," but so far traditional religion has not risen to the occasion, she says.

What will the relationship of the cyborg world of the future be to the transcendent? Will religious thinkers begin to wrestle with these deeper technological-cultural questions and offer a compelling alternative to popular-culture images? The shape of religion and spirituality in the future, Brasher believes, will be determined by those who participate in virtual religion now.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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