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God In Cyberspace

Finding God On The Web

TIME Magazine

Across the internet, believers are re-examining their ideas of faith, religion and spirituality

By Joshua Cooper Ramo

(TIME, December 16) -- The Monastery of Christ in the desert sits at the end of a bumpy half-hour drive down a ruined red-clay road that wends into the azure sky of northwestern New Mexico like a curl of Christmas ribbon reaching toward heaven. The main sanctuary, fashioned from brown adobe and perched on a small hill, is warmed by burning pinon and scented by freshly baked bread. In the late afternoon the surrounding canyon glows with a purple twilight. At night the waters of the Chama River gossip with the birds, and the stars weave a gossamer blanket overhead. No matter what your faith, it is an easy place in which to be spiritual.

It is not, however, an easy place to be technological. Twenty miles from the nearest power line and perhaps twice as far from the nearest phone, the monastery is more than two hours from Albuquerque and an hour from anything that resembles civilization. No telephone bells fracture the silence. No TV images smear the crisp evening air. No pagers chirp. If you must reach one of the monks, a hand-carved wooden sign offers a simple 16th century suggestion: "Ring this bell."

Or you can send E-mail, in care of porter@christdesert.org. Remote as they may seem, the brothers of Christ in the Desert are plugged into the Internet. Using electricity generated by a dozen solar panels and a fragile data link through a single cellular phone, the monks have developed a heavily trafficked Benedictine home page and started a new business designing and maintaining other people's Websites. The order's work has even caught the eye of the Holy See. Last month Webmaster Brother Mary Aquinas flew to Rome for consultations and to lend a hand building what the Vatican hopes will be the greatest--let alone the holiest--site on the World Wide Web.

Like schools, like businesses, like governments, like nearly everyone, it seems, religious groups are rushing online, setting up church home pages, broadcasting dogma and establishing theological newsgroups, bulletin boards and chat rooms. Almost overnight, the electronic community of the Internet has come to resemble a high-speed spiritual bazaar, where thousands of the faithful--and equal numbers of the faithless--meet and debate and swap ideas about things many of us had long since stopped discussing in public, like our faith and religious beliefs. It's an astonishing act of technological and intellectual mainstreaming that is changing the character of the Internet, and could even change our ideas about God.

The signs of online religious activity are everywhere. If you instruct AltaVista, a powerful Internet search engine, to scour the Web for references to Microsoft's Bill Gates, the program turns up an impressive 25,000 references. But ask it to look for Web pages that mention God, and you'll get 410,000 hits. Look for Christ on the Web, and you'll find him--some 146,000 times.

Newsgroups like alt.fan.jesus-christ and alt.religion.scientology are among the busiest--and most contentious--of the nearly 20,000 discussion groups carried on Usenet. America Online and CompuServe, the two largest commercial online services, are each home to hundreds of electronic bulletin boards that offer everything from Confucian primers to Q and As about Jewish dietary laws. (One urgent AOL query: Is it O.K. to have a pot-bellied pig as a pet if you keep a kosher kitchen? Answer: Probably. As long as you don't plan to eat it.)

The harvest is even more bountiful on the Web, where everyone from Lutherans to Tibetan Buddhists now has a home page, many crammed with technological bells and whistles. Mormon sites offer links to vast genealogical databases, while YaaleVe' Yavo, an Orthodox Jewish site, forwards E-mailed prayers to Jerusalem, where they are affixed to the Western Wall. Two Websites are devoted to Cao Daiism, the tiny Vietnamese sect that worships French novelist Victor Hugo as a saint, and a handful probe the mysteries of Jainism, an Indian religion in which (as one learns on the Net) the truly faithful sweep the ground with a small broom to avoid accidentally stepping on insects or other hapless creatures. Even the famously technophobic Amish are represented online by a Website run by Ohio State University. It offers, among other things, a guide for installing a rear warning light on a horse-drawn carriage.

Perhaps the most ambitious site on the Web is the one now being patiently cobbled together on the first floor of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. First launched in 1995 (and soon overloaded by an "E-mail the Pope" feature that proved far too popular), the Holy See's redesigned site will be unwrapped some time around Christmas. Running 24 hours a day on three powerful computers (nicknamed Raphael, Michael and Gabriel), it will offer Vatican press releases, John Paul II's schedule and most of the Pontiff's writings, translated into six languages. It will also have the capacity to field thousands of simultaneous information requests from all over the world. "The Internet is exploding, and the church has got to be there," says Sister Judith Zoebelein, the American-born nun who runs the site. "The Holy Father wanted it." Indeed, the Pope, who has always looked for innovative ways to spread the word, including travel, books and even records, was writing as early as 1989 about the opportunities offered by computer telecommunications to fulfill the church's mission, which he called the "new evangelization."

It's a message other churches ignore at their peril. The faithful, according to a recent study by Barna Research in Glendale, California, are moving online every bit as fast as the rest of the world. After interviewing hundreds of wired Christians, Barna concluded that churches that don't establish a presence in cyberspace will start to seem badly out of touch with their parishioners. "The failure to do so," according to the study, "sends an important signal about the church's ability to advise people in an era of technological growth."

In this area the faithful seem to be leading their churches, instead of following, opening an unusually lively colloquy. It is the nature of computer networks that they tend to throw together people who would otherwise never meet--never mind discuss something as intimate as one's personal beliefs. Thus on the Internet, Catholics suddenly find themselves keyboard-to-keyboard with devil worshippers, Jews modem-to-modem with Islamic fundamentalists. "I put the [Reverend Moon's] Unification Church right up there with the wonderful world of Mormon," someone with the screen name Marzioli posted recently on a Usenet newsgroup. The next message snapped back, "Marz, you are an ignorant disinformationist. Wake up, man!!!"

For all their fire and testosterone, these chat rooms and bulletin boards draw scores of believers hunting for new ways to understand their old religions. For Fundamentalists prohibited from openly discussing such social issues as homosexuality and abortion, the Net has become the best--and sometimes the only--way to get exposed to a wide range of religious opinion. AOL users this fall have been able to follow the life of an Egyptian girl expelled from her family after converting to Christianity. "My mother gave me up," she wrote, recounting the apostasy that cost her her family even as an online debate raged around her. "I understand your anger and frustration toward Muslims," one man replied. "What I don't understand is why you keep posting these messages in areas where your views are not welcome."

Alvin Plantinga, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, says that despite the surface discord, these electronic exchanges will ultimately help people from many religions understand the common ideas that bind them together. "One of the sustaining causes of religious disagreement has been the sense of strangeness, of pure unfamiliarity," he says. "The communications revolution will not wash out the important differences, but we will learn to grade our differences in order of importance." Rached Ghannouchi, an Arab philosopher from North Africa, argues in a Webzine called The Electronic Whip that it is imperative that the inhabitants of the small, networked village the world has become find a way to understand one another. "Otherwise," he says, rather apocalyptically, "we are all doomed to annihilation."

Is it possible that this global network that pulls in so many different directions could somehow bind us together in a way that other technologies--particularly television--have failed to do? TV seems to have lured people away from their communities. Could it be that the Net is starting to bring them back together? Can it create new communities of spiritual consensus not in real time but in virtual space?

Just as urbanization brought people together for worship in cities--and ultimately led to the construction of larger and larger cathedrals--so the electronic gathering of millions of faithful could someday lead to online entities that might be thought of as cyberchurches. Already some Conservative Jews are considering the idea of convening a minyan (the minimum of 10 Jews needed before a communal service may begin) via speaker phone.

In France, Roman Catholics are closely following the online activities of a controversial bishop named Jacques Gaillot. Exiled by the Pope to an abandoned diocese in 1995 because of his liberal social views, Gaillot has established what he calls a virtual diocese to replace it. He marvels at the freedom he enjoys loosed from the hierarchy of the church. "On the Internet there is no question of someone imposing rules on the way people communicate," he says. "The Net has no center from which will can be applied."

That's a sentiment echoed in the U.S. by postdenominational Protestantism, a religious movement that links thousands of U.S. churches in informal networks outside the boundaries of mainline Protestant or evangelical denominations. The churches fill their services with rock 'n' roll, recovery counseling and a nonjudgmental approach to a wide range of life-styles. The movement has been making increasing use of computer communications technologies. Says University of Southern California sociologist Donald Miller, who has followed the rapid growth of postdenominational churches: "There's definitely a congruence between these technologies and the outlook of these churches."

Even holy texts have begun to be adapted to the new technology. The interconnection of religious documents through so-called hyperlinks has produced a new form of scholarship called "hypertheology." Clicking on Lot in an electronic Bible, for instance, might connect you to similar stories in the Koran or pertinent 20th century moral commentaries. Just as the first illuminated manuscripts exposed readers to early theological debates, these hypertexts open up thousands of interpretations of God's words to anyone curious enough to click a mouse.

For all its seeming newness, however, the marriage between technology and religion is an ancient one. Man has always used state-of-the-art communications technology to convey his deepest thoughts. Five thousand years ago, the Sumerians etched their fears and hopes in cuneiform. Centuries later, the Egyptians glorified Ra on papyrus scrolls. The Old Testament was hewed and edited in the 1st century A.D., when the scrolls were turned into primitive books called codices. Forced for the first time to assign to the Holy Story a beginning, middle and end, Christian and Hebrew scholars took different paths--creating a schism that endures to this day. For example, Jews pray from a Bible (known as the Tanach) that places the prophecies right after the book of Deuteronomy; Christians don't encounter the prophets until the very end of the Good Book.

The first codices had another, equally historic impact: they gave upstart Christianity an edge over Roman paganism. While pagan scholars stuck with their scrolls like modern Luddites refusing to embrace E-mail, liberal Christians leaped at the efficiencies and portability of books. The result, argues Jack Miles, a former Jesuit who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 book, God: A Biography, was a "technological advantage" for early Christianity. It was too much of one for the Roman Emperors, who quickly developed their own innovation: book burning.

Still, the lessons of these defiant early believers stayed with the church, whose devotees spent much of the next millennium obsessively copying and recopying their sacred texts. It was a brutally inefficient process. Cloistered Benedictines toiled for years in musty scriptoriums, transcribing copy after copy of the Bible into leatherbound books. This medieval Xerox system was painfully low-tech: a monk would slowly copy from exemplar Latin Bibles as he and his brothers inked and gilded lavishly illustrated pages at the rate of roughly one a day.

As these elaborate Bibles circulated in Europe (mostly among the landed elite, since a single copy cost more than a peasant's lifetime earnings), they spread more than the word of God--they also set, in their rudimentary way, new technological standards. Georgetown professor Martin Irvine calls this manuscript culture "the first information age." He explains that "it was the first time a whole civilization configured around a standard technology for recording and distributing information."

Proselytizing via these handwrought manuscripts was not an easy task. The Bibles were rare, fragile and generally came in one flavor: Latin. The problems didn't go away until the mid-1400s, when a German inventor named Johann Gutenberg wheeled his movable-type press out of its secret hiding place and into history.

Appropriately enough, the first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. His simple press passed sheets of paper under specialized plates that could be changed in minutes instead of weeks, revolutionizing intellectual commerce. Ideas that once could be communicated only in person, or at large universities in cities such as London or Hanover, suddenly took wing across the Continent. And though Gutenberg printed just 200 Bibles before losing control of his invention, there was no turning back. In 1456, when the first Bible rolled off his press, there were fewer than 30,000 books in Europe. Fifty years later, there were 9 million, most devoted to religious themes.

Many scholars credit the printing press with theology's next revolution: the Reformation. Thirty-seven years after Gutenberg's death, young Martin Luther renounced his plans to become a lawyer (his father's idea) and instead, seized by spiritual anxiety, joined the Monastery of the Emerites of St. Augustine. It was a fateful decision. Luther's tortured soul, which attached itself to new ideas with a fervor that seems strikingly modern, turned in a decade's time against the institution he had vowed to serve and created one of history's greatest religious splinter groups. Rome wanted to suppress his ideas, but Luther quickly found that the printing press could be used as a sort of technological megaphone--printing copies of his Ninety-Five Theses faster than they could be gathered up and destroyed.

The drive to spread the Gospel continues into the modern era and what used to be called the radio age. By 1926, 14 years after Edwin Armstrong cranked up his first receiver, the good word was streaming from American radio stations, first shocking and then energizing what was then still a devoutly conservative country. Father Charles Coughlin, a firecracker Catholic priest who pounded a broadcast pulpit from Detroit, built a virtual congregation in just four years. For tens of millions of Depression-era believers, his Shrine of the Little Flower was a beacon of hope--until an embarrassed church pulled the plug. And though there was plenty of anti-Semitism, isolationism and fear mongering in Coughlin's speeches, there was little irony: even as he used all this blessed new technology, he damned the capitalist economy that produced it.

By the time evangelism was ready to make the leap to television, however, that resentment had dissolved. In the 1950s a new generation of media-savvy ministers--Bishop Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts--started directing their crusades at the TV audience. And if the subtext of the awesome Catholic liturgy had always been God's immutable power, the plot of these TV revivals was tailored for the medium of Father Knows Best. In broadcasts from million-dollar sets-cum-cathedrals, TV evangelicals preached not just about the miracle of Jesus but also about the blessing of communications technology. Religion and TV became so indistinguishable that it took a neologism, televangelism, to fully capture what was going on.

And now we stand at the start of a new movement in this delicate dance of technology and faith: the marriage of God and the global computer networks. There's no sure way to measure how much the Internet will change our lives, but the most basic truth about technological revolutions is that they change everything they touch. Just as the first telescopes forever altered our sense of where we sit in the cosmos, so the Internet may press and tug at our most closely held beliefs. Will the Net change religion? Is it possible that God in a networked age will look, somehow, different?

The Net is so new, and changing so fast, that scholars are still struggling to answer that question, or even make sense of it. Most traditional religious thinkers are skeptical. "I don't think the computer revolution has any cosmic implications for religion at all," says Notre Dame's Plantinga. "We already know God."

But for a whole culture of technology-loving--and in some cases, perhaps, technology-worshipping--futurists, such words smack of 1st millennium thinking in the face of 3rd millennium faith. They tend to see in the Internet something larger than themselves, an entity so much greater than the sum of its parts as to inspire awe and wonder. "People see the Net as a new metaphor for God," says Sherry Turkel, a professor of the sociology of science at M.I.T. The Internet, she says, exists as a world of its own, distinct from earthly reality, crafted by humans but now growing out of human control. "God created a set of conditions from which life would emerge. Like it or not, the Internet is one of the most dramatic examples of something that is self-organized. That's the point. God is the distributed, decentralized system."

"It seems as though the Net itself has become conscious," says William Gibson, the science-fiction writer who coined the term cyberspace and used it, most famously, in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. "It may regard itself as God. And it may be God on its own terms." Gibson hastens to add, however, that he is "carefully ambivalent" about whether anything that exists solely on the Net applies to the real world.

These radical notions dovetail with a spiritual movement known as process theology, whose proponents argue that God evolves along with man. In their mind, the immutable God embraced by scholars like Plantinga make no more sense today than an unchanging computer operating system. "If God doesn't change, we are in danger of losing God," says William Grassie, a Quaker professor of religion at Temple University, "There is a shift to [the idea of] God as a process evolving with us. If you believe in an eternal, unchanging God, you'll be in trouble."

In fact, as much as the Net is changing our ideas of God, it may be changing us even more. For many, signing on to the Internet is a transformative act. In their eyes the Web is more than just a global tapestry of PCs and fiber-optic cable. It is a vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas about God and religion can resonate, where faith can be shaped and defined by a collective spirit. Such a faith relies not on great external forces to change the world, but on what ordinary people, working as one, can create on this World Wide Web that binds all of us, Christian and Jew, Muslim and Buddhist, together. Interconnected, we may begin to find God in places we never imagined.

--Reported by Greg Burke/Rome, Bruce Crumley/Paris, William Dowell and Lisa Granatstein/New York and Richard N. Ostling/New Orleans

THROUGH THE AGES

Milestones in religion and technology

CIRCA 3500 B.C.
Ancient Sumerians etched their deepest hopes and fears on clay tablets

CIRCA 100 B.C.
Jews recorded the stories of the Old Testament on long papyrus scrolls

CIRCA A.D. 1200
In the Middle Ages, God's words were copied and illuminated page by page

A.D. 1456
Gutenberg's movable-type press made it possible to mass-produce religious texts

1926
The controversial Father Coughlin built a virtual congregation on the radio

1952
Bishop Sheen drew 30 million viewers to his Life Is Worth Living TV show


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