Religious communities have a moral obligation to make the internet better

Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.

Photo by NordWood Themes/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — How many times have you heard a sermon from a religious or spiritual leader about the internet that doesn’t simply talk about unplugging, or more recently, how to call into the next Zoom service. How many dharma talks, khutbas, d’var Torah or Gita studies have directly addressed how digital technologies have impacted our civic life and our religious traditions?

Over the last two decades that I’ve been studying the effects of the internet on religion and society I have asked this question in many settings and the answer is always: not many. 

That’s a problem, because the internet is the most disruptive invention in human history, affecting every area of our personal and communal lives. The dawn of the internet is often compared to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, but the fact is the internet is more powerful, as it is interactive, immediate and omnipresent.

Like the printing press, the internet has major implications for how religion is expressed, how communities are formed and how we understand ourselves and others. Yet unlike the invention of print, the creators of the internet are not as likely to be embedded in religious communities, which had a huge advantage over the general populace in literacy in Gutenberg’s day. Today, religious leaders, theologians and ethicists largely sit on the sidelines and let others make decisions that radically impact humanity.

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There are 300 million (and growing) internet users in the United States who are online an average of 8.5 hours per day — a third of their daily lives. A third of Americans say they are online almost constantly. The internet is where we work, play and pray.

The internet is the space where we gather with our friends and community and where we encounter new people from different backgrounds. As my colleague Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said recently: “Online and offline are false distinctions. Digital spaces are just as much a part of our everyday lives as streets and sidewalks.”

As more and more of our lives are mediated by digital technologies, people of every religious background need to reflect on what this means for our traditions and beliefs and equip ourselves to engage this technology and leverage it in a healthy, productive way that stays true to the values of our beliefs.

This is especially important in the face of rising evidence of the negative effects that the internet is having on our civic life as dangerous disinformation proliferates, and tech algorithms too often serve to inflame tensions rather than help solve them. The internet poses specific challenges for religious communities who are targeted for their religious identity, with both Jews and Muslims among the groups most frequently experiencing hostility.

However, the internet also offers an unprecedented opportunity for people of diverse religious backgrounds to encounter and learn about each other and build new bridges of understanding and cooperation.

Photo by Philipp Katzenberger/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Photo by Philipp Katzenberger/Unsplash/Creative Commons

The internet, in other words, is what we make of it. So let’s make it good.

Here are six areas that religious and spiritual leaders should be addressing with their communities right now:

The history and context of the internet. Most people, especially younger people, have no idea how and when the internet was started, the motivations behind its development, who controls it or the built-in mechanisms that make it both wonderful and dangerous.

How to spot dangerous disinformation and avoid spreading it. We all know that the internet is filled with misinformation and disinformation. Yet sometimes even well-meaning people can spread it inadvertently because they don’t recognize it when they see it. Religious and spiritual communities should consider it a sacred duty to quash misinformation, starting with ourselves. While we are at it, we might offer our communities the top 10 sites our congregations or institutions can turn to online for reliable information about our tradition.

How to build bridges online. While much has been made of the negative effects of the internet, the technology also affords unprecedented opportunities to reach out to someone new, to engage them positively and learn and grow with them. Bridge-building can happen online when we have the right preparation. Religious values such as curiosity, openness and empathy can help. 

How to build community online. One of the most interesting questions the internet poses for religion is: What does it mean to be present to one another? For instance, if it takes 10 Jews to make a minyan necessary for certain prayers, does being together online count? As more religious communities gather online, these questions come to the fore, as do technical questions of what kind of technology can help build, maintain and moderate these communities. 

How to care for oneself spiritually and be safe online. Given how much time people are spending in online spaces, religious and spiritual leaders need to address how the internet affects their well-being and suggest strategies for how people in their communities can protect themselves. This can involve understanding some practical safety tips, as well as helping people develop their own spiritual self-care plan for when they are online.

Contribute to public debate on internet technology and ethics. Where the internet affects the lives of individuals and communities, ethical concerns about privacy, hate speech, access to the internet and net neutrality deserve the consideration of religious and spiritual leaders. Become informed, discuss in your faith community and be active in the decision-making process.

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If you’re interested in taking the next step, I encourage you to participate in #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, an innovative, online learning experience aimed at equipping a new generation with an increased awareness of the specific role the internet is playing in our civic and religious life and train interfaith leaders how to maximize the impact of digital technologies for good.

Pope Francis said in 2014, “The internet offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” 

We can make the internet better, but it won’t happen without good people from every spiritual, ethical and religious tradition working together to ensure that the internet is a blessing for humanity, not a curse.

(Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is senior adviser for public affairs at Interfaith Youth Core. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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