Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: Religion and Technology
Heidi A. Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance, discuss the meeting of religion and digital culture, and its effect on religious communities. Carla Anne Robbins, senior fellow at CFR, moderates.
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FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. This series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in a cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, the audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Carla Anne Robbins with us to moderate today’s discussion on Religion and Technology. Carla Anne Robbins is a senior fellow at CFR. She is also Marxe faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Dr. Robbins is an award-winning journalist and foreign policy analyst. She was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
So, Carla, thank you very much for moderating this conversation. I’m going to turn it over to you to introduce our distinguished speakers.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. And thank you so much for inviting me. I don’t know an enormous amount about this topic. I know a reasonable amount about the internet. My mother would say, she hopes I know a reasonable amount about religion as well, but not from an academic point of view. So, as Irina said, we’re going to have a conversation here for about twenty-five minutes, and then we’re going to turn it over to you all for questions and conversation.
Dr. Heidi A. Campbell is professor of communication, affiliate faculty in religious studies, and a presidential impact fellow at Texas A&M University. She’s also director of the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies, and a founder of digital religion studies at the university. Dr. Campbell’s research focuses on technology, religion, and digital culture, with emphasis on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian media negotiations.
The Reverend Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance. He’s an ordained Baptist minister, and a long-time leader in the interfaith movement, working to protect an inclusive vision of religious freedom for people of all faiths, and none—I love that, people of all faiths and none—in both online and offline spaces. Throughout his twenty-five years of ministry, he has maintained a presence in both IRL and URL spaces, including digital journalist at Beliefnet and HuffPost Religion. He has also served as senior advisor for public affairs and innovation at Interfaith America, and as associate dean of religious life in the chapel at Princeton University.
So, Heidi, I’d like to start with you. As a now-academic, I know the scramble we went through taking classes online overnight at the start of the pandemic. And there’s been debate ever since in my shop about whether online education is worse, whether it’s better, or whether it’s just different from in-person classes. Can we start talking about that pivot point for religious communities and organizations? How hard was it to adapt? And is there a similar debate going on in your community?
CAMPBELL: So, back in 2020, it was interesting to watch from my perspective of someone who studied religion and technology, especially the internet, for the last three years, that almost like an overnight change from, one week there was about a dozen people in my Facebook feed that were streaming their services, and the next week it was fifty. And then the next week it was one hundred. Religious communities experimenting with different ways to use digital technology in their ministries, and in their communities and communication, isn’t new. We have examples going back as far as the 1990s. But it being a widespread phenomenon rather than the exception to the rule, it’s been very new.
There was a lot of initial resistance in some groups because it was not just requiring them to learn a new thing on top of a very uncertain situation, but it was also asking them to rethink what it means to kind of create a worship environment, what it means to have religious gatherings. And so I think a lot of the debates have been over not just the instrumental use of the technology but now, a couple years on, what has it meant to how we change our ways of interacting to one another? I talk to pastors and rabbis all the time. And it’s been a strong learning curve, I think. And kind of three camps right now.
There’s the people that are thinking, wow, this has been the best thing for us. It’s forced us to think outside the box and it’s been a positive innovation. There’s people that are now saying, well, we spent all this money and time getting up online. And people in our congregation, have a demand for this, so we feel like we have to keep going. And then there’s groups that are still what I would call technologically reluctant, or hesitant, in that they actually have access to the technologies, but for them religious experience and actions will always be embodied. And so they just can’t wait to get back to more of that traditional kind of space. So there’s still a wide range, but digital technology in the church and in ministry is here to stay. And our future is definitely hybrid.
ROBBINS: Thanks. So, Paul, you were a very early adopter of this world. And then suddenly the world was where you were. Do you find that most people are just basically transferring what they did before online? Or do you see more and more people actually doing creative things? I would say among my colleagues, and I say this with love, that far too many of them still on Zoom look like they’re reading hostage videos. I mean, if you’d had a newspaper in front of them, you’d know they were in a basement somewhere. Are you seeing more creativity as time has gone by, or are people still more hesitant, the way Heidi was saying?
RAUSCHENBUSH: Well, as Professor Campbell has said, this has really made plain some of the questions that were already present before the pandemic happened. It’s made us examine some important questions, like what does it mean to be embodied? The question of when ten Jews are online is that a minyan, is a question that no one has really quite answered. When two or three are gathered in Christ’s name online, is Christ there? And what does that mean about an embodied faith? They seem kind of glib, but they’re actually really important for how we view the body, what we mean by community.
So I think there has been incredible innovation on many parts, but it does bring into question what does it mean to be a community. So when you have a community that is not geographically focused, what is that religious community’s responsibility to geography? Meaning, if the majority or even all of your congregation is online around the country or around the world, what does it mean for the local neighborhood that really needs a food pantry, or needs a place for AA to meet? The local responsibility. So these are big questions that are coming up for religious communities around the internet.
I would say, I have seen incredible innovation. You can really tell, though. It’s kind of like the difference between when radio happened, or when TV happened, there’s all of a sudden TV evangelists who are, like, OK, I see what the possibility is here. I see what this allows me to do. My community, which is a more mainline Protestant liberal community, has not been that great at it, though there have been many people who have been good. You also see these new influencers, like TikTok pastors, and TikTok rabbis, who are really there. They have constituencies. Whether they’re communities, that’s another question.
ROBBINS: So, Heidi, can we talk a little bit more? You’ve written about three common approaches, and you were talking about this. Can we talk a little bit more about the transformational ones? Are they using particular digital platforms? Have they come up with particularly cool ways of using, leveraging the technology so that it is a new experience, a truly religious experience, rather than just preaching at people? But using technology to have them truly experience the religion?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, so during the pandemic, there were two innovative strategies. One was kind of a translation strategy. And that was people realized putting a smartphone up and trying to get the whole sanctuary or church wasn’t the best strategy. That just not transferring online. And so a lot of congregations decided, how we do actually restructure the front of our building? We saw a lot of churches and congregations actually go out of the church or synagogue building and go into maybe a fellowship hall, even into pastors’ homes, and making the sermon into more of a talk show format, or a fireside chat kind of format. And realizing in a time when people were feeling disconnected, maybe the service and liturgy needs to be changed to adapt to that sense of more need for community, more need for connection, more ability to address loneliness.
Now, some of those experiments, especially the talk-show kind of format, have kind of transferred back to just streaming their services online. But there’s still a lot of churches that have now kind of added Sunday Bible study groups or discussion forums, or synagogues and mosques will have these community chat groups. And using some of those alternate paths. And the transformational, I would say that that was—when people were not just kind of looking at how do we get our services online, but really looking at, OK, what does the internet do well, and allow us to do internet well? And how do we actually leverage that for our community?
And so here’s where you kind of see more creative forms of, whether it’s religious study or outreach. I’m doing a big study of churches in Indiana and how they were affected over a three-year period from the pandemic. And we heard lots of interesting stories about little rural churches becoming the internet hub for the community, setting up picnic tables outside. And now they run a kind of web hub kind of community center for people because that became a real need. And it became a gathering point just to decompress during the pandemic.
So I think that there’s a lot of innovation. But most, the majority, I’d say, is going back to this kind of translate strategy. And we have to remember that the average religious congregation in the U.S. is sixty-seven people. So those churches, it’s usually the pastor and maybe one other person who had to work to get them online. And so if they didn’t have any technological training or technological resources, just the acting of getting their service online was a huge change. And it’s really only now that they’re starting to be able to think through what it would mean to experiment at a greater level, especially if our church is now going to be online and offline, this hybrid reality.
ROBBINS: Thanks for that.
So, Paul, I actually have two questions for you. My first question is, are ten Jews on Zoom a minyan? And I’m serious. And where is that debate taking place, for all of the questions that you raised?
RAUSCHENBUSH: Personally, I think that there is no escaping it now, but I think understanding the depth of what we mean when we say that, and not doing it glibly. Not saying, oh, it’s just the technology. But rather understanding that our world has been radically transformed by the internet—radically transformed. At its root, we are different than we were thirty years ago. I don’t think we’ve begun to have that conversation in religious communities. There’s been no innovation or invention that is similar to the internet. We have not begun to delve into what it will mean for us. Eric Schmidt, one of the executives of Google said, “This is the first invention that humanity has made that humanity does not understand.”
We don’t understand what is happening. And there has been very little theological reflection on that. And this is an unfortunate, unfortunate thing. I often introduce lectures about this saying, how many times have you heard a sermon about the internet, or a rabbi talk about the internet, aside from saying, well, you need a sabbatical. That’s not going to do it. We have deep questions. Today on the front of the New York Times, “it’s time to talk to your kids about the chatbots.” Well, we haven’t begun to talk to the kids about the internet. There are people, and religious communities could be doing this, could be offering a conversation about what the internet will mean, what it is doing already to us. Meaning, what does our body mean? What does it mean to be online?
We don’t have those conversations, and it’s a real problem for religious communities that I’m shouting—Professor Campbell is one of the few people that’s been shouting it longer than I have. (Laughter.) But I’ve been shouting it since my beginning too, that this is really, really important. So, questions like, is ten Jews—I think rabbis are going to disagree strongly about that. The question that that begs is, what is the internet doing to us? And that’s the question I really want us to dive into.
ROBBINS: So one of the things, and it’s always the conventional wisdom, is that too much of what has happened in our digital world has separated us rather than brought us together. What is the most creative use you’ve seen of online platforms that are bringing people together more? I would say from a teaching point of view, I love breakout rooms. (Laughs.) They have made me a better teacher. I am much less on transmit and much more on receive. That’s the one thing that Zoom has made me better as a teacher. So are there things that you’re already seeing that are going on, I’m going to ask both of you that, that you think that is easily leverageable, that makes the experience better?
CAMPBELL: Well, I would say that, as someone who for thirty years has been following some of these trends, I actually see less innovation happening right now than I did ten years ago. Because the people who were doing it were doing it because they wanted to. And right now, we’re in this space of we have to do this and have to figure it out. But I think there still are some interesting ways that people are leveraging together. In these congregations that I study, one group has this weekly Bible study. And it’s for anyone who’s ever been part of the church. And some weeks there’s ten people, and some weeks there’s fifty people.
And it’s become this kind of common thing. I’ve even had friends say, “oh, hey, I have to get off the phone because Zoom Bible study is starting.” And really seeing how can you actually just integrate it into the fabric of people’s everyday lives. Oftentimes I’ve found that religious organizations will say, OK, we need to use TikTok, or we need to use Instagram. And so they build some kind of tool and then it’s, like, if we build it, they will come.
But the strategies that work the best is seeing how are you people in your congregation actually using the technology? And what kind of things do they need? Do they need community? Do they need support? Do they need teaching, or spaces for prayer? And matching what they need with what they’re already doing online is the best way to get these different innovations up and running quickly, I think.
ROBBINS: Paul, anything to add on that? Something that you’ve seen that’s given you excitement about this, about the use of it?
RAUSCHENBUSH: Oh, I mean, so many things. It’s amazing how people are reaching out. I mean, this is an incredible opportunity to be able to dive into areas of the world that you had no idea about, and that you’re no longer restricted because of geography or because of who you know. You’re allowed to expand. So the opportunities for learning about people of your own faith, different faiths. The experience of people in other communities. I for a while have done a little bit in the Metaverse. And the opportunity in the Metaverse to dive into experiences where you are kind of oddly embodied, but not really embodied, to but be able to meet people from around the globe who are in the Metaverse, who may actually say, hey, we set up a news broadcast of news from our country, and we’re inviting anyone to come by and let us translate it for you.
The opportunity is to meet people and share in experiences. And, like anything, if you go in there ready to fight, and ready to judge, and ready to hate, then you’re going to have an experience. And you’re going to have other people experience you that way. If you go in there with curiosity, with real interest and love, the internet is an incredible—I mean, it’s amazing—there’s nothing like it. For what I do, which is largely interfaith work, you can build bonds. You can learn. You can grow. You can follow people from diverse traditions and learn so much about what they’re doing, in a way that was just not available to use before.
So all of that is present. And then all of the opposite is present, too, because it’s people. And ultimately, we have to figure out how to navigate the internet in positive ways. And also almost thwart the internet’s effort to make us the product for commerce or for other kinds of purposes. We have to know what we’re up against, and then use it for ways that can be positive.
ROBBINS: So, Heidi, and this is a perfect transition to this question—and then I want to turn it over to the group—can we talk a little bit about the downsides, and how much are the communities that you talk to aware of and coming up with strategies to deal with the rise of disinformation and the amount of hatred and alienation that is out there? I mean, the internet is very good for bringing people together but, as Paul alluded to, it’s also really good at spreading hatred and a huge amount of just bad information.
CAMPBELL: Well, I think one of the challenges of the internet, and one of the things that’s always praised, is that it’s a space that we can all go to, and we can meet one another and have this global conversation. But internet is still an exclusionary space. It’s exclusive by the kind of technologies that you have and have access to. There are some places even still in this country where there isn’t WiFi access. And so depending where you are, you may think it’s an egalitarian and equal space, but it’s still a (inaudible) space in that perspective.
And the other thing, and this is something that scholars found early on, that the internet is a place to build community. But because it’s so vast, in order to tame the space, as it were, people usually gravitate toward like minds. Interfaith work online is actually—like Paul’s—is really hard, because there’s, oh, I want to find all the people who think like me, so that we can have this shared conversation. And so it creates a kind of online tribalism. It doesn’t inherently create diversity. You have to actually design your space and kind of design how you’re going to run your events or your environment to create that.
And so obviously, whenever you put people in the same mind, it’s easy to form an echo chamber of just, yeah, yeah, we all believe this. And there’s no external voice of accountability. And so that’s why we’ve seen, especially, whether it be the dark web, or these spaces where antisemitic voices or religious extremists emerge, it’s because, again, they find their tribe. But their tribe may be problematic. And again, while the internet gives us access to a lot of information it’s not like a peer-reviewed journal article where it’s been vetted by four or five people. And I’m always having to teach my students, how do you discern and how do you evaluate the resources that go to it?
I can go to a website that looks like a full-on academic journal, but it’s just two or three people’s opinion. And so I think this is the challenge. There’s some innate things the technologies do really well. Like Twitter is really good for spreading information. Facebook is really good for building communities. Instagram is really good for collecting digital stories. But knowing what the technologies do well, as well as what kind of tendencies they can encourage away from communal accountability to an individual preference, is important.
ROBBINS: So, Paul, final question by me before I turn it over. Heidi said that the internet was hard for interfaith work. Do you find it harder for interfaith work? Or are you leveraging it particularly well?
RAUSCHENBUSH: Sure. I don’t want to put—I would never put words in Heidi’s mouth. I think she said that you have to work against some currents of the internet, which algorithmically encourage you to stay with people who are likeminded. And so I do think it takes intention. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. I do think that what we also are up against as far as interfaith is intentional spread of disinformation about different religious communities, as well as the spread of hate. Intentional targeted spread of hate—37 percent of Jews say they feel harassed online. We’ve got close to that of Muslims, other traditions as well. These are things that are happening now, and they’re happening intentionally.
And we have white extremists, largely Christian extremists, who are spreading manifestos. They’re finding the internet. They can share manifestos. They are broadcasting mass murders or either actually live or telling their community right before they do it. And they’re being supported in that effort. So this is the real downside of it. And so part of my role now at Interfaith Alliance, we put out a report on big tech hate and religious freedom, saying that actually the fact that big tech has not found a way to counteract hate in a productive way that safeguards freedom of speech actually curtails religious freedom, because religious freedom is both an online and an offline experience.
And right now we are, again, experiencing something where there’s a case in front of the Supreme Court. And five justices said, I don’t understand the facts of this case. It’s so complicated. We’re in a moment, again, where the internet is such a very difficult thing that our Supreme Court justices are confused about the basic facts around the case. So we are in a very—one thing to remember, and Kevin Kelly has said this, the founder of Wired, that we’re in the beginning of this technology. This isn’t going to end. We’re in the very beginning of it. We’re in the throes of this technology.
So if we haven’t figured it out yet, it’s OK. Now is the time to really lean in and say, what do we want this to be? And things are happening very fast. And so I encourage us to take it really seriously, especially in the interfaith community where you can do all the offline work you want, but one bad Facebook post because someone hasn’t thought about it can blow up six months of work. And so I just encourage anyone who does interfaith work to take the internet very seriously and train people up on how to be good interfaith citizens online as well as how we train people to be engaged in person.
ROBBINS: Thank you for that.
So we want to remind everybody about how to ask a question. And while we’re doing that also, we do have one question already in the Q&A. So I will turn it over to our operator host to remind people how to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Great. Thank you, Carla.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And we have some raised hands, so our first question will come from Don Frew from Covenant of the Goddess.
ROBBINS: Thanks, Riki.
FREW: Lower hand. There we go. Hi, hi. I’m Don Frew at the Covenant of the Goddess.
And my own path, Wicca, was very much an early adopter of technology. A lot of the early religious webpages were Pagan. And then, conversely, with the pandemic, that really hit us a lot harder than a lot of other religious traditions, because when you’re casting a circle it’s not the same thing as going to a church. You can’t really do that online. Working magic online is not something that works very well. Both of you have focused very much on the internet and Abrahamic faiths, but what about the online experience of other religions, especially indigenous traditions?
For many years, I served on the board of the United Religions Initiative. And we would go out of our way to try to connect board members, especially who were indigenous practitioners often in South America, to the board. And that meant getting them technology, laptops, and internet connection. And once that connection was over, we found that that then became a platform for various indigenous spirituality practitioners around the world to be able to connect using the technology that the URI had provided. So there’s been a real growth in indigenous networking using that kind of technology. Although, that hasn’t really been practicing the faith traditions online. That’s just been networking. So I’m wondering, can you say something about technology and non-Abrahamic faiths?
CAMPBELL: Yeah. I mean, I remember back in the 1990s, I spent a lot a good deal of time in a techno-Pagan community. And this was in the 1996 to 1999 time period. And here these were people that kind of—where you had affiliations to Paganism in different kind of forms. And they wanted to see how could the internet, first of all, give them a community space because Abrahamic traditions, it’s easy to find an offline space to gather. It’s not so easy, especially if you live maybe in a more remote area of the world or community.
So the internet became this great gathering space for Zoroastrianism, with all kinds of religious traditions. But also there was kind of a tension within some of those communities of like, OK, do we—again, do we just transfer our traditional practices to the extent we can or we feel we can online and try to go by a certain kind of tradition or dogma? Or do we try to innovate? In this techno-Paganism community I was studying, they were interested in saying, OK, how can we leverage what technology allows us to do and maybe create new ways to do spells and see if they work or not.
And so I think that a lot of the early adopters were, again, smaller religious communities that didn’t have these offline spaces and allowed people to connect with them, but also there was just a sense of, do they follow the tradition or do they innovate. And we see both kind of digitally born religions as well as kind of reimagined forms of religious traditions as much as we’ve seen alternative or smaller minority religious communities emerging online.
RAUSHENBUSH: I’ll just add, I think it’s really important for indigenous communities because of the importance of place and the land, and to make their own decisions around this as well as Pagan communities. And those that the question of whether or not ten Jews online is a minyan is very analogous to whether you can create a circle or these are questions that have to be developed by the communities themselves and they will be answered one way or the other. But the question of land and religion that indigenous communities often bring into the—is a really, really challenging one for the internet.
ROBBINS: Riki, can we have Daniel Joranko next? Because he had his question in the Q&A.
Daniel, do you want to ask your question?
JORANKO: Yeah. Can you hear?
JORANKO: I’m putting out kind of a difficult question. But I worry very much about the internet. I mean, as Paul said, it’s this vast new thing and there’s a difference between technology as a tool, and a tool can very much work, and as a system, and I worry about the system and the amount of screen time that people are spending, the amount of emotional distress young people feel.
As a person who works in interface staffing, just the busyness that is cause for people that are working in this field. People just seem more and more busy because you can get online and schedule thousands of meetings and there’s not a lot of reflectivity as much anymore.
And so I almost worry that it’s making us collectively ill in a certain respect, and just your thoughts on that. I mean, again, I’m not proclaiming that. It’s more of a worry. So—
CAMPBELL: Well, I like to think of the internet not just as a one village but actually this whole kind of new country, because the internet, we use it as this monolithic term. But I, as a researcher, think about it as internets.
Everybody’s experience with the internet is different because it’s a network of networks and we choose which platforms that we spend time in and we choose which spaces that we have our interactions. So I could go to one space and just because of the—how I choose to—who I choose to interact with and the choices I make it can be a very positive experience and I can go to other places and it can be damaging and hurtful and dangerous.
So I think the key thing is for religious communities to get a better sense about what are these spaces of the internet, and what spaces can be really, well, what I call cultured or cultivated to religious communities because it allows them to do those values of you building religious identity, giving accountability, providing community and care. And then also being aware of these are the spaces that you could happen into that may not be positive spaces.
And I don’t mean to say let’s create ghettos on the internet, but it’s just a sense of awareness that it’s not just the internet that is problematic or system. It’s the people and I think sometimes we can see it just as a tool and it’s a neutral thing. But the technology is cultured by the people who live there and for the purposes that they use it for, and so we need to see that it’s the users that are actually bringing the negativity and the problematic, not the technology itself.
They do encourage, again, more individualistic behaviors rather than communal, which is one of the challenges. But having this level of discernment and understanding about what these spaces are and how to use them is, I think, important.
ROBBINS: Doesn’t it seem to be that religious communities can play a role if they are educated enough and not—don’t sound too nannying and actually educating kids on how to use the best and not fall into the worst?
CAMPBELL: Yeah. I think that it’s important for religious communities to have a digital literacy kind of thing. We tell them how behave and what it means to live out our faith values in different spaces.
Well, how do you live that out online, to treat the other as a friend rather than an enemy, and to show care and concern, and to call—speak truth to power as well.
So I think, yeah, these are the things that—maybe education isn’t something that’s being seen as part of religious communities, but it’s the world they swim in, and especially for young people. And I think more seminaries, more religious institutions, need to have this digital literacy and digital understanding, not just the technical side but the cultural impacts in their training of future religious leaders.
RAUSHENBUSH: Strongly agree. I’ll just say we assume that people understand the internet, especially digital natives, but the internet is hard to understand and it’s always changing. And so it is really important that we don’t assume that people understand the waters they’re swimming in but also recognize that water can be life giving but it can also overwhelm you.
And so you need to really be thinking about how you’re interacting with the internet. But, it’s becoming less and less of an option. I mean, it might be a forced option for people who do not have access. But for those of us who are in urban areas it’s not an option and so it means that we—exactly as Heidi just said. We need to be very intentional about the way we show up.
We need to tell our young people about disinhibition where you are more likely to do things online that you wouldn’t do offline and that’s because the technology affects us in a certain way, and, again, we’re at the beginning and there’s a lot of stuff that will be coming at us very quickly.
One thing—I’ll just take the liberty to mention right now—the one thing that I’m very concerned about is AI and religious leadership. And someone is going to create—we asked—when I—this was ten years ago when I was at Huffington Post. We asked Siri about God, and at that point Siri said: I don’t talk about God; you should ask a human. Pretty soon we will probably have AI pastors. We’ll have AI rabbis. These will be invented. Someone will decide to invent it, and then AI pastors and AI rabbis will learn from the questions. They’ll have this vast library at their background. And so it’ll—this all will happen.
How do we educate our young people about what that means and when they’re—my kids ask our Alexa, which we finally got this year, they ask them everything. They ask them everything. And so, people are going to ask about religious questions and we’re not ready for it. We’re not ready for it at all.
ROBBINS: AI gods. Yes. So I suppose Lawrence Whitney is next. I’m taking Riki’s prerogative here.
WHITNEY: Hi. Yeah. Thanks. Larry Whitney, research associate at the National Museum of American History and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Mind and Culture here in Boston.
Thinking about, historically, the invention of the printing press was a technology that had a profound impact on the future of religion, particularly in Europe and then globally, and transformed religion profoundly and provoked a lot of the same theological question—or analogous theological questions, I should say, to what the internet does, in terms of in that case it was about the meaning of text, and who was responsible and authoritative in interpreting texts and that sort of thing. And the answers to those questions as they emerged in history were, largely, independent of the individual answers that religious leaders and theologians gave to those questions at the time.
So I’m interested in how you’re seeing religious leaders now responding to these theological questions, such as are ten Jews on the internet a minyan, or are baptism and Eucharist valid when performed over Zoom, right. Wrestling with those questions not just theologically but as having a profound implication for the future of their traditions. What decisions they make in answer to those questions now will have an influence on how their traditions—the viability of their traditions and how they evolve but also that that future is somewhat beyond their control and how that impacts their decision making about engaging with technology. Thanks.
CAMPBELL: Yeah. I think in many respects with the internet we forget that that we’ve been here before. There is really nothing new under the sun because you can map the debates about positive and negatively about the internet from the 1990s directly on to the debates that were happening around the printing press.
And it’s interesting, if you look actually back, the Catholic Church was not against the printing press when it first came out. They actually were very supportive, brainstorming about how they were going to be able to standardize priest education and sharing their teachings.
And it wasn’t until basically people began to use it to critique the church that they went ah, oh, this—actually technology undermines our authority. And that’s really the base kind of thing for religious communities. They realize that with this smartphone I can do what you could do in a television studio fifty years ago.
So individuals have become as powerful as religious institutions. So we see the internet is both challenging religious authorities because individuals have this ability to present themselves, but as religious authorities and groups become more literate there’s been a huge trend in the last decade to bring on not just communication directors but digital media directors, social media curators for religious groups, that then they say how they can actually use the internet to solidify their position and also be more of a kind of accountability or a critique of some of the narratives that are coming out.
So I think religious communities, they don’t have to feel disempowered but they do need to say about having that digital expertise and bringing in digital create—what I call digital creatives and think of them as a partner and a collaborator rather than as a competition. And I think as groups begin to do that that we’re going to see a lot more creativity and fruitfulness come out of religious groups’ uses of technology.
RAUSHENBUSH: The only thing I’ll add is I think that it is analogous but it is times a million or maybe infinity. The questions are the same. The pace is radically different. The scope is radically different. How quickly everyone has the ability to publish and be an authority, how communities were ruptured.
These are all things that are happening much, much quicker and with much less time for traditional religious authorities to react. And the other thing that just was not a part of this is the AI factor, which is, the advent of artificial intelligence and what it means for religion, and how there’s just a different level of ability for truth to be chopped up in so many different ways and digested by machines that are not thinking with trained theological hearts or anything but aside from technology.
So I do think the questions are similar and the pace is greatly—I mean, I can do something—while we’re talking here I could write something absolutely inflammatory or outrageous. I could threaten to—which I would never do but, people threaten to burn a Quran and all of a sudden immediately, within a minute, the world knows. The scope of that happens so fast. It flies around the world, and then things get initiated that are very hard to pull back in.
And so we’re dealing with a question of factors of time and space that are greatly exaggerated and we have to keep that in mind as we imagine what religious communities can and should do, all of which are what Heidi mentioned.
CAMPBELL: I would just jump in here to say I would totally agree that we have seen a total amplification in the time/space area, that while these things are not new it is a lot quicker and it can have much more of a global impact. And one individual can have a huge impact, which can give a disproportionate sense of how people think on a certain topic.
So and I think it’s important. And there were chatbots back in the 1990s. I remember talking with them on MIRC before there was chat forums. But they were programmed and they had much more limitations. This new level of technology is a learning technology so it is actually growing.
So no longer do the creators have control. So while the first generation was a competition between the individuals versus the community, now it’s the whole community in competition with the technology. So we’ve lost control to some extent of our own creations and that can have—
RAUSHENBUSH: That’s what will be so interesting when that gets mixed in with religion and what will be the impact of that when that technology begins to intersect with religious morality and religious truth?
ROBBINS: Interesting and terrifying. Jane Redmont? Whatever question you’d like to ask.
REDMONT: One of the things I wanted to bring up is the issue of spiritual formation. Not spiritual formation on the internet, although some of us are doing that, but spiritual formation just like higher education or lower education, taking into account the new technologies and forming us spiritually as bodies, as minds, as users of the web in different ways.
I think spiritual formation can take a whole different dimension. We need to learn inward disciplines as well as outward ones, both in the flesh and on the internet, that are, if you will, spiritual exercises the way Ignatius of Loyola had spiritual exercises, but the new version, a kind of hybrid version.
Am I making sense to you? I’ve started doing that and working on that a little bit. But I don’t think we’re talking about that enough or doing it enough in our organizations.
Never mind religious literacy, which I found we had too little of when I was a college professor.
Any thoughts on that, Paul and Heidi and Carla, about this formation idea? And if you have a better word than spiritual formation please use it because it’s a narrow word.
CAMPBELL: Well, since you referenced the Episcopal tradition, there’s a huge movement within the Episcopal Church coming out of Virginia Theological Seminary. They have e-Formations, and the one thing I really appreciate about that is a lot of what we’ve seen that’s come out of the pandemic is how do we leverage these tools for doing spiritual direction.
I’m a spiritual director myself and I’ve been actually doing online direction since the very beginning. It wasn’t common till about three years ago. But we also need to think about not just how to leverage these technologies to create these sacred spaces or holy spaces but how is the shape of this culture that we’re in, what kind of traits and values is it cultivating in us, and how is that shaping our formation just by being in a digital space.
And I think the realization, even for churches that say, hey, we don’t want to do digital worship, we don’t want to have digital tools, but they’re still being impacted by this culture that we live in, which is so enmeshed with the digital. And I think that level of values, education, mixed with digital literacy is so important to be what kind of spiritual beings are we becoming and is that the direction that we really want to cultivate in our communities.
ROBBINS: That’s great. Thank you. I am not an expert on this but it seems to me that no one can wall themselves off from it and I think, Heidi, that’s sort of a fundamental point that is shaping our entire society. And if religion isn’t going to help and we in education aren’t going to help people wrestle with it, we are failing in our duties.
Steve—is an Ohnsman?
OHNSMAN: Yes, it is. Thank you. I’m a pastor at Calvary United Church of Christ in Reading, Pennsylvania, and we embraced a digital ministry immediately. We had already been doing some of it. So we did everything online for a while. But one of the big questions was: How do we do good works as a community of faith?
And so I came up with this—I think it’s worked out really well because we have people all over the country who will tune in and be involved. And every two weeks I throw out a mission challenge and I ask everyone to do this wherever they are and then send me what they’ve done and then we post it anonymously. So and so, a person did this, this, this, this, and then what we’re basically doing—I’ll say, feed a family in the next two weeks and then everybody feeds somebody where they are, whether it’s through a food bank or a church program, and we’re doing the ministry together even though we’re really far apart and that’s been very cool.
RAUSHENBUSH: Yeah. I’ll just respond to that because I raised the question of commitment to locality and I think that that’s really interesting for those communities that are disparate to recognize that there’s still a need for immediate service.
One other way to add to that would be how have you extended love on the internet. How have you shown someone love, or lack of judgment, or uplifted someone? When you come across a stranger how have you loved this stranger? I mean, using some of the Christian language. That could be translated to other communities, what are ways that the mandates of our traditions—ethical mandates—can be translated into life online?
I mean, on average each of us spend eight hours a day online in various ways, three or four on social media. For young people, it’s much more than that. That’s the average of all Americans. So we’re spending all this time in online spaces. How are we exercising the mandates of our traditions.
ROBBINS: I had wondered about how you bridge this, the online and the real world community—I’m still thinking of virtual communities as not as real—and what Steve Ohnsman was talking about is one fabulous way of doing that.
Are there other examples of ways to—because you both began talking about the danger of losing contact with the community around you. Have you guys heard of other ways that the churches and other religious groups are finding ways of making sure that their communities remain intact or even grow even as they, perhaps, have services or Bible study solely online?
CAMPBELL: I’ve seen a lot of interesting examples over the pandemic. I know that some congregations, I’ve heard them encouraging their people to get onto the Nextdoor app, which is about being in your local community and then to volunteer. Say, hey, I will pick up medicine for you or food or I can do this or that. And so really especially trying to help people who were homebound, elderly people during the pandemic, and using the digital tools to provide those connections.
I also saw a lot of people, in the Pinterest and Instagram community, people making a lot of very personal kind of encouragement posts and then sending them to specific people that either that they knew or had met online. But really trying to say how can we spread kindness and care, and so that’s what religion is truly about and not just some of the kind of more negative press that it’s often given.
ROBBINS: Thanks. Riki, we have, I think, one more.
OPERATOR: We do. Our last question will come from Albert Celoza from Phoenix College.
CELOZA: This is Alberto Celoza from Arizona Interfaith Movement and Phoenix College.
Is it the internet or is it the pandemic that has caused a decline in terms of religious participation or participation in religious services? Also, has the internet caused the increase in the number of nones, N-O-N-E-S? Any thoughts?
CAMPBELL: I would say no, that it hasn’t—again, it’s kind of like the technology. It hasn’t started it. It’s just made it more visible and maybe made it more easy for people to leave their congregations. The rise of the nones was starting to be documented post World War II. After the big world wars, a lot of people were disillusioned with all kinds of institutions, and so we see that.
But I think in an era of the internet where it allows you to express your opinion in the safety of behind the screen, I think a lot more people are feeling, hey, there are a lot of us that are nones out there or that we’re wanting to leave the church and so we’re done. And so it’s easy to—easier to self-proclaim that. It gives them more confidence to do that on surveys.
And so, obviously, we have seen an increase but it wasn’t the internet that started it. It’s just facilitated something that’s already started in culture. That’s my opinion.
RAUSHENBUSH: No, I think that’s right. I think that these were trends that were already in play before the internet and it has allowed, just as Heidi said. I think that there’s also ways that there are new communities forming that could be viewed as quasi-religious communities and many of the folks who have left traditional religion would not be themselves—do not call themselves atheists or other things.
They find community in social justice movements. They find community in other—in arts movements. They find—so there is ways that—are ways that the internet has actually found—allowed people to find one another. Black Lives Matter could be an example of a movement that attracted a lot of people who might have not been involved in traditional religious worship.
I think there’s a—there is a transformation and it’s—I really appreciate where that question is coming from and what we might imagine is what’s coming next and what are ways to—especially for someone like yourself who’s involved in interfaith work, how do we invite those people into questions of interfaith, questions that interfaith communities deal with, around meaning, around working together across lines of difference for social change and things like that. So I think all of those things are very, very interesting.
I’ll just take a moment just to say one thing because we’re at CFR. I do think that there’s a massive implication for the internet and for religion vis-à-vis trans-global politics. These are—this is a way that religious communities are connected, so many different manifestations of religious communities across national boundaries immediately and in very intimate ways.
Diaspora goes all different ways and religious communities are being mobilized across the globe. What happens, for instance, in India is not separated from the Indian community in America, or the Hindu community in America and other Indian religious communities in America. Likewise with Israel, Palestine, likewise with the war in Russia and the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
So I offer that just as a closing word that this is very relevant for CFR’s work, and so I’m hoping that there are also opportunities in the future to talk about specifically how it impacts foreign relations and international relations.
ROBBINS: And also gives a voice to the voiceless and the—(inaudible)—if you look at what’s happening in Iran right now, the way it has—
ROBBINS: —given voice to women and to young people and, certainly, for unrepresented and suppressed communities—minority communities, religious communities. So not all is bad on the internet. There are other possibilities there.
I want to thank you. We’re going to turn it back to Irina. I want to thank you, Dr. Heidi Campbell. Thank you, Reverend Paul Brandeis Raushenbush.
We will share—Paul, you mentioned a report that you have just developed. We want to share that with everyone who’s attended today.
Heidi, if there’s anything you think we should be reading and sharing we will share it with the group as well. And, Irina, back to you and thank you, everybody, for fabulous questions.
FASKIANOS: I echo those thanks. It was a very smart and insightful conversation. So thank you. We will send the link to the video and transcript and Paul’s report. Heidi, anything you want to share.
You can follow Heidi Campbell on Twitter at @heidiacampbell, Paul at @raushenbush, and you can follow Carla at @robbinscarla, and Carla is also newly co-hosting a CFR podcast The World Next Week. So you should tune into that. You can also follow us, CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program, on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And, again, please do email us, [email protected], with feedback, suggestions for topics or speakers, and any questions you might have.
Again, thank you all for doing this, for the amazing questions and comments, and we hope you all have a great rest of the day wherever you are.