Technology has definitely left its stamp on religion. People can now get ordained online to marry friends and relatives, while smartphone features like the “Bible app” have made reading scripture more convenient than ever before for Christians. Will this boon be short-lived, though? Some have argued that technological advance will ultimately lead to the decline of religion, but it is also possible that technology will simply change the way religion works. We are already seeing this new paradigm emerging in the way online churches like the ULC Monastery conduct their ministries.
On one hand, technology has helped facilitate religious observance in countless ways. Not only can people become a minister free at the click of a mouse, exchange ideas on Internet church forums, or give sermons through online video platforms, but they can establish support networks for group members. Lisa Miller of The Washington Post notes how members of the Sikh community have started using the FlyRight smartphone app to advise each other on airport security staff who may treat them unfairly on the basis of religious and racial prejudice. As this example illustrates, technology (in particular, the Internet) has given members of religious communities the opportunity to mobilize support for other group members in the face of social injustice.
Some religious critics, on the other hand, see technology as a benevolent light in the dark of benighted religious superstition. In this view, the convenience of smartphone apps, Internet church forums, and video call sermons will ultimately give way to the decline of religion through the democratization of information, made possible by technological advancements. Miller quotes atheist Hemant Mehta as arguing on The Washington Post that search engines like Google are the “death knell for religion as we know it,” because they give people access to a vast scope of scientific truths which refute long-held religious beliefs. And, from the perspective of secularists like Mehta, it is good that the Internet should dismantle religious beliefs, because such beliefs have caused so much suffering.
But is the spread of information technology really incompatible with religious observance, and is it necessary for the two to wage war on one another? Atheists like Mehta believe that technology will liberate people from religious authority, but this seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe it is possible for technology to change religion from within, making it more accessible and egalitarian. We already see this happening in churches like the ULC Monastery, which grants minister credentials through the online ordination process to all who express a desire, and which gives ministers the opportunity to exchange ideas as equals through online social networks.
Advancements in technology will inevitably challenge our most cherished religious beliefs, but this doesn’t necessarily mean religion has to become extinct–it might point to a fundamental transformation of religious power dynamics, as we already see in the way online churches work. Indeed, the democratization of information might eventually lead to the democratization of religion itself by dismantling hierarchies and leveling the “spiritual playing field,” as it were. As feminist icon Gloria Steinem has pointed out, for much of human history the organizing paradigm was the circle (democracy), not the pyramid (hierarchy). Perhaps it is time for us to change religion for the better and return to this paradigm.
The Washington Post