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A digital 'Reformation': How the internet is impacting religious experience

POSTED: October 31, 2017 5:40 a.m.
Editor's note: Oct. 31 marks 500 years since, according to tradition, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Germany — an act that sparked the Protestant Reformation and changed both religion and Western society. This article is part of a package of stories exploring the Reformation's impact on the world we live in today.

Scrolling through her Facebook feed earlier this year, Teresa Berger came across an invitation to chat with Pope Francis.

Berger, a practicing Roman Catholic and a Yale Divinity School professor of liturgy who has written about worship practices in a digital world, was naturally intrigued by the idea of conversing and praying with a "pope bot." But the 60-year-old academic was surprisingly moved when the automated pope wrote: “Teresa, I know that God loves you and walks with you on the journey through life.”

"I almost broke into tears," she said, recalling how she tried to process what had just happened. “One thing I know that happened, and it's that I was called into prayer. And whether it’s Pope Francis standing next to me, or a digitally mediated bot that works through algorithms, that moment of prayer was a truthful one for me.”

The experience was not unlike that of others finding faith on the internet, according to scholars who study new media and religion. Most people having online encounters are young adults, and many aren’t intentionally looking for religion when they go online, research shows. But they consider their spiritual experiences through a digital device real, not virtual, and as a result, they are redefining religion's role when it comes to who teaches them and how they determine what’s true, false, moral, immoral, right or wrong.

“I call the current period a 'digital reformation,'” says Elizabeth Drescher, who teaches religious studies and pastoral ministry at Santa Clara University and writes about spirituality and religion, including the relationship between religion and new media. “It is characterized religiously by ordinary people redistributing materials … largely without significant involvement of people with (formally recognized) authority.”

That trend has similarities to another reformation that began 500 years ago this month, when a rebellious Catholic monk named Martin Luther discovered that his writings pointing out corruption in the church had gone viral, sparking what would become a religious and social revolution that changed western culture and society forever.

The invention of the printing press enabled 16th-century publishing houses to distribute tracts of Luther and other reformers, effectively sidestepping the Catholic hierarchy and allowing a new religious movement to take root outside of its influence. Today, research is inconclusive as to whether the internet will have the same impact on religion. What scholars are certain of, however, is that millions of people congregate — even pray — online through blogs, tweets, photos and snaps, and unless religious leaders personally connect with them digitally, they risk losing the influence they’ve had over previous generations.

“People are now far more interested and used to engaging in social (media) in which authority has more to do with how viable or authentic or compelling you are than what institutional status you might have,” said Drescher, whose recent book, "Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones" explores the spirituality of the religiously unaffiliated.

Virtual reality

Religious institutions have historically been slow to react to new technologies and recognize their value, historians agree, with radio being a notable exception. In the 16th century it was the printing shops that first realized Luther's "95 Theses," which according to tradition was posted on the door of the Wittenberg, Germany, church in 1517, would be a big seller.

"They realized they could make money if they found literature people wanted to buy, and religious literature in the early days was the largest category," said Stewart Hoover, a media studies professor and founder of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado.

Within two weeks of posting his 95 theses blasting corruption within the Catholic church, local printers had distributed it throughout Germany without Luther's permission, according to an account in Christian History. But Luther and other reformers eventually caught on to the power of the press, and that became key to the rapid and widespread change brought on by the Reformation.

Unlike the 16th-century printing business, the internet came into popular use in a more secular context. "Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg weren’t asking themselves, 'Gee, I wonder how I can make the gospel more available through this technology,'" said Paul McClure, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Baylor University.

But faith and spirituality are not obscure topics online, either, surveys show. A 2017 Baylor survey, co-authored by McClure, found 45 percent of Americans used the internet to access religious and spiritual content. And a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed 46 percent saw religion shared online. Around 20 percent in both surveys said they shared their faith online.

Scholars and researchers observe that most of that content is coming from the ground up, as the internet gives the power of publishing and broadcasting to anyone with a smartphone. By contrast, the cost of printing presses and broadcast studios made earlier communication innovations inaccessible to the masses.

The result has been a new realm of diverse spiritual and religious experiences, like Berger's pope bot encounter, surfacing outside of the chapel. They come in the form of blogs, online prayer and scripture reading groups, religious devotional apps, or simply personal status updates on social media.

"I think of places like Instagram and Pinterest as the stained glass of the digital world," said Drescher. "You put in the term Christian, spirituality, prayer, hope, … Jesus and you find millions of images that illustrate how ordinary people see their faith today."

And those individual expressions have the potential of reaching a global audience, many of whom are more likely to unintentionally stumble across someone's religious musings online than walk into a church and listen to a sermon.

"None of these (online encounters) are, for the most part, institutionally mandated or encouraged," said Berger. "They just happen by people living their faith every day in an increasingly digital culture and world."

Engage them or lose them

Research into whether a digital culture is driving people away from formal religion is inconclusive. But most scholars agree it's more than a coincidence that the rise of both the internet and the nones is happening at the same time. One study in 2014 did find a strong correlation between the increase in internet use and the drop in religious affiliation since 1990.

The Baylor survey found large majorities of various faith groups, including the religiously unaffiliated, agreeing the internet exposed them to new perspectives. But McClure noted that "new" could mean ideas that either challenge or reinforce beliefs.

But concerns that the internet is driving people away from faith, and data showing less than a majority find or share faith online, shouldn't give religious leaders reasons to discourage or dismiss online religious activity, scholars said.

"If religious leaders don’t interact with younger generations online … I think they risk giving those people up to the influence of others who hold different values and beliefs," McClure said.

That engagement has to go beyond a website or Facebook page announcing next Sunday's sermon or sign-ups for youth camp. Consistent, personal interaction with congregants through social media channels can be a rich resource for pastors to "understand the spiritual realities and needs of people they serve," Drescher said.

Pope Francis, whose Twitter account has 40 million followers, is often mentioned as an example of a religious leader who "gets it" when it comes to online engagement. "When he's willing to tear down walls through social media, he's incredibly engaging," Drescher said, noting his posts that find common ground with atheists who also want to do good in the world.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a long history of embracing media to have its institutional voice heard, recently announced more of its missionaries will receive smartphones and use technology to identify possible contacts. The change is part of a decade-long initiative encouraging members to dive into social media and represent their faith.

“May each of you have the courage to blog, pin, like, share, post, friend, tweet, snap and swipe up in a way that will glorify, honor and respect the will of our loving Heavenly Father,” Elder Gary E. Stevenson, of the Quorum of the Twelve, said at a BYU women's conference in May.

Scholars don't believe the digital realm will ever replace the physical experience of religious worship — although some entrepreneurs have attempted to perform religious sacraments in a gaming-like environment, Berger said.

"I think all the research that has been done points to the fact that people are not choosing either-or, for the most part," she said. "That vast majority draw on a breadth of ways of practicing their faith, including kneeling in pews in brick and mortar churches."

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