Is Technology Destroying Faith and Religion?

Joel Kotkin at Forbes.com recently published an article titled: “Our Father, Who Art in the Apple Store: The Decline of Christmas and the Looming Tech Nightmare.” As someone who is strongly religious but also passionate about technology (specifically my MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPhone) the article caught my attention. Furthermore, as a millennial who works for a religious blog, I know that the intersection of technology and religion is where the new evangelization should focus its attention.

Kotkin’s premise is that technology, and specifically the Internet, is causing the secularization of the world.

According to a recent poll he cites from the UK, “seventeen percent of UK residents believe that Google has their best interests at heart. Seventeen percent believe religious institutions do. A dead-even tie.” The percentage of UK residents who are confident in their religious institutions is shocking. But according to Kotkin, U.S. millennials are not far behind: “Religious disbelief has been rising particularly among U.S. millennials, a group that, according to Pew, largely eschews traditional religion and embraces technology as a primary value. Some 26 percent profess no religious affiliation, twice the level of their boomer parents.”

Quoting a computer scientist who has done research on the intersection of technology and religion, Kotkin asserts that the Internet is responsible for religious decline. According to him, technology champions the self and contradicts fundamental religious values of community.

Kotkin also believes that digital interaction is having a detrimental effect on society and human relationships. Intimate relationship are harder to forge and family formation is delayed. Kotkin also notes the trend toward “biological computing” and the subsumption of the human into the machine.

I agree with Kotkin that there are many problems with the rise in technology, but as with all forms of technological advance prior to the digital age it is the faithful and the Church’s responsibility to figure out a way to deal with technological innovation.

I was recently at a seminar conducted by the director of the New Media Project, a fascinating project on the intersection of faith and technology out of the Christian Theological Seminary. Many of the participants at the seminar where both excited and worried about advances in technology and what that means for the faith. In reflecting on this topic, I came to a few conclusions that I would like to share:

  • Christianity has always used technology to further its efforts at evangelization. Roman roads and other forms of transportation allowed for the dissemination of the faith quickly across the then known world. Likewise, the printing press was used to standardize the faith and disseminate information quickly and cheaply.
  • Local Christian communities have valued direct contact, but Christianity is made up of local communities that are often far removed from one another. Letters between Paul and the churches or bishops and other bishops during antiquity were often the only means of contact between different Christian communities. Letters are not all that different from the Facebook messages, posts, and tweets of the modern world.
  • The Church can utilize technological images to make the faith understandable to people today. I will give one example. Our ecclesiology holds that the universal Church is made up of all the bishops of the local churches in communion with one another. The Church is therefore a vast web of parishes connected to one another through the communion between the bishops of every diocese. The internet is exactly the same thing: local computers tied together by routers, hubs, etc.

Instead of being fearful of what technology is doing to religion, those of us who are technologically literate should help the Church harness technology for evangelization. Our theological language can be digitized and even our liturgies come to incorporate technological innovation.

Yes, the Church should be cautious about technological integration, but technological integration will be more successful than technological isolation. If the Church continues to isolate herself from technology then she will find herself becoming as obsolete as my Windows 95. As more and more people begin to “plug in,” “unplugging” the Church is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

The Church should “plug in” and do its best to go viral.

What are your thoughts on technology and religion? How can Christianity utilize technology in its liturgy? How can the faith go viral?

16 comments

  1. Missalettes are (old) technology that many parishes use in their liturgies, hymnals are another example. As you point out, Christians have made good use — and poor use — of technology over the centuries.

    One concern I would voice is that some studies suggest bad behavior (flaming comment wars, trolls, shaming news) tends to attract more hits than good news. So I wonder if some of the tension is around the possibility that what makes a virtual place on the web viral is precisely what does not build up the Body of Christ?

  2. The recently celebrated Incarnation tells of a God through human contact. The more and more technology filters human contact, the farther and farther God will become. No matter how many podcasts, big screen hymnals, facebook pastor posts, or inspirational instagrams, the real issue is the void of face to face real time conversations of value that parishes are now deflecting to technology to stay current.

    Until the Church becomes known for that, and works to do that well, today’s human will quickly move on to something that downloads faster. The Catholic Church is a Church that connects revelation through a human and while videos, lighting, email blasts serve informational purposes, the church has to raise the issue to transformational purposes.

    I have spoken about technology in this post citing face book and email…I know…that is so 2008. My apologies. Yes Michelle (#1) the building with shifting foundations races on.

  3. Catholic Christianity is all about Embodiment. Its music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; its poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. (With apologies to Ezra Pound.) The Power-and-Wisdom of its message is confounded in the fleshless, bloodless realm of cyberspace, and always will be.

  4. Here is Aidan Kavanagh, in Elements of Rite, opposing the use of audio-visual aids, “especially moving pictures”, in the liturgy:

    Ritual activity is a “cool” medium which seduces people into the celebrative freedom of common activity. By comparison, electronic media are “hot” and tend to shove people into corners of passivity or isolation where they are manipulable by unseen wills. For this reason it is difficult to visit or converse with others while a television set is on in the same room. Electronic media, in all their aggressiveness, are better used in unritual contexts for instruction education, or therapy. To conflate the liturgy with such aids is similar to interrupting a play with recorded reflections, aural or visual, on how the performance is going.

    I think he is right.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #4:
      Thanks for that quote, Jonathan. I think it is naive to talk about “harnessing” technology unless one has also taken the time to study McLuhan, Ong, and others who devoted much of their intellectual life to the study of the effects of technology. Not that you have to become a “McLuhanite” or agree with everything he says. But the point is, there is an ongoing intellectual conversation about media in the world – anyone grappling with the use of media and technology in evangelism should at least be a part of that conversation. It worries me that I almost always see such a simplistic breakdown of this issue (even in official documents): “The Church has always used technology. Therefore all current forms of technology should be harnessed. Period.” I think the idea that media are purely neutral (whether or not you accept “the medium is the message”) is no longer tenable in light of human experience and thought.

    2. @Jonathan Day – comment #4:
      I have my doubts, Jonathan, that Aidan Kavanagh is right here. His theorizing of electronic media is very outdated (to say the least), and — as Jared pointed out — far too simplistic.

  5. People need to learn how to unplug, as well. I admire greatly the idea of a “sabbath from technology” that some have been promoting, where, on Sundays at least, one puts aside the smart phone, the internet, etc., and actually RESTS in the Lord — for instance, by taking up the Bible and reading, slowly, some paragraphs or pages of it, or praying part of the Divine Office, or even just taking a long walk outdoors. Technology is not going to contemplate for us; only a human mind and heart can do that.

  6. Setting aside the issue of technology in the liturgy, there is great untapped potential to use technology in other areas of parish life including community building, formation, and evangelization.

    Ten years ago it was enough to have a brochure-type website with some basic information about the parish. Most, but not all, parishes are at this level today. But few parishes have tapped into the connective dimension of social media. This might be a blog where Sunday’s homily is posted for robust discussion by your parishioners in a comments section. This might be an online library of material arranged by topic and age group that can people can search and share with others via social media. This might be live streaming or archived video recordings of your Sunday Mass where seekers can check out your church’s worship before deciding to show up some Sunday.

    Other denominations are running laps around us in these regards while the communication for many Catholic parishes remains in the hands of some “I don’t really know computers” secretary.

  7. Rather than lamenting the malaise of the media, there’s a good case for saying that the Church should embrace this technology. But, and I think it’s a big but, there’s a difference between utilizing the technology for evangelization, formation, etc, and utilizing some aspects of it in liturgical celebration (I’m thinking of the debate we had recently about the impact of very large projection screens on the “balance” of a worship space).

    On the other hand, I can see a day coming, perhaps as soon as within a decade, when missalettes and hymnbooks will have largely vanished (and so will large projection screens) and all assembly members will have a tablet containing everything we want them to have in their hands (and no more than that!). Perhaps even sooner than that, I think large tablets substituting for altar missals, lectionaries and books of gospels will be with us. In fact they already are. Rather than bemoaning that, we should try to improve the technology so that it becomes 100% reliable, and the appearance so that it is seen as worthy. And in an era where it seems that our liturgical texts will continue to change, perhaps even frequently, that sort of change is much easier to handle electronically than via printed media.

    I was present at a liturgy recently where the readings were proclaimed from a tablet, the intentions for the intercessions were read from another one, and the presider preached from homily notes on his own tablet. Musician friends have for some years (in some cases) been singing and playing from iPads. It’s coming. It’s here. The big question is how to make it look good. And foolproof, of course. We need to be proactive, not reactive. If we are not, the technology will leave us behind. We still have a chance to control technology, but not if we try to ignore it.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #8 (and others):

      Call me old-fashioned, but I am a bit less sanguine about electronic-based texts, lest the Mass grind to a halt because of battery failure. I have heard from friends who have either seen this or experienced this in parishes where the technology is already being used in the manner you described. Once people get used to electronic solutions, they quickly forget how to do things manually with the “old” system. Will our Readers, musicians, and more importantly, congregation, still remember how to open a Lectionary, hymnal, or missal / Bible and find the right readings if they don’t automatically pop up for them on a screen? Having worked in the technology sector for a while, I can say from experience that no system, no matter how well-touted, will be 100% reliable. Forgive the expression, but 100%-reliable technology tends to fall into the same category as “precision-guided munitions.”

      I have another more philosophical concern with replacing the printed texts. I wonder how having the Scriptures, the prayers of the Mass, and all the other liturgical texts in electronic format will influence our reading of various passages. How does the recent Gospel about “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…” change context when “the word” (small “w”) is electronic rather than physical? With so much discussion in the modern world about “Photoshoping” pictures, how does the ephemeral nature and mutability of electronic media influence our understanding of the permanence and immutability of the Word? Will younger generations, knowing how electronic pictures and text can be easily altered, have the same “attachment” (no pun intended) to the Word when they see electronic media as easily manipulated by anyone with a little skill? How will this potentially affect their idea of an unchanging God–the Word? Will they see God as “hack-able?”

      I have a lot of questions about this.

  8. Paul, I wonder about making electronic devices — e.g. a tablet rather than a printed Missal on the altar — “look good”. Would we disguise the tablet by hiding it inside a book? Or have a tablet built into a missal stand, something like this?

    Better to be open about these things, I would guess, if we are going to use them in the liturgy.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #10:

      At least one priest in this part of the world has been presiding from an iPad for a couple of years and more. He mounts the tablet inside what looks like a beautiful old hand-tooled leather-bound book. There are many of these on the market now.

      I suspect that he is an exception, and that most of his brother priests (and their number is increasing all the time) who, in preference to toting a hefty missal, take an iPad with them when they are on the road to outstations opt for a dignified plain leather cover.

      Without having seen them “in the flesh” yet, I wonder about WLP’s ceremonial tablet cases. $75 each seems a lot to pay for high-impact molded plastic.

  9. I am a strong opponent of television for all people, regardless of religion. Just throw the darned thing out, or repurpose a lcd television as a computer monitor. Also, I try to avoid streaming video, especially from social media. I usually read the video synopsis, and most often this is enough to fulfill what I need to know about the news item.

    I also oppose the use of tablets instead of printed and bound missals. A printed missal, just like its illuminated manuscript predecessor, never changes the location of word and image within its pages. A person can turn to a certain page, and be reassured that the Canon page will be there. However, a tablet’s very attraction is the manipulation of word and illustration as ephemeral images which can be rearranged easily. In fact, any notion of the permanence of word and image is often viewed as a hindrance to a fast-paced concatenation of information. Readers looking for a very concise way of absorbing information are drawn to electronic devices. Mass, however, is not a rapid discharge of information but (ideally) a slower unfolding of worship and adoration.

    The omnipresent didactic turn of the liturgical revolution, however, suggests that a focused and sustained meditation on even prints of illumination are of negligible value when beauty is subordinated to “evangelization” and other fungible ideas.

  10. I agree that parishes, and the church as a whole, could leverage technology, certainly including social media, much more than they do. Parishes are led by pastors who, on the whole, are older than the congregations they lead, are not well-trained in Internet and social media technology, have managed to live most of their lives not immersed in these technologies, and haven’t had a compelling technological vision articulated for them which they can adopt and adapt to their parish. They don’t trust technology, don’t like technology, don’t have time to spend learning new technology, and don’t want to invest any money in technology. Technology may seem more threat than opportunity to a pastor if he isn’t its master and needs to entrust it to someone else.

    Pastors and parish leaders more generally tend to be old dogs. They need to learn some new tricks. Websites, Facebook, etc. are not adjuncts to the parish; they are the parish. Until parish leaders, including pastors, learn to think of the virtual reality of the faith communities they lead, we probably won’t make the progress we need to make.

  11. Indeed technology is destroying faith. Moving forward in faith means moving back from technology but that truth to 99% of the human race is impossible.

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