Yesterday, The New York Times posted on "Room for Debate" about "The First Church of Facebook." Here's the intro:
Nearly a third of Facebook users in the U.S. now list a religion in their profile, and they are highly engaged with religious pages — commenting, “liking,” socializing. Many religious people celebrate this new medium for outreach, but early this year Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning: "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."
Facebook replaced Christmas letters. Online dating replaced “friend of a friend” setups. Can online communities like Jesus Daily take the place of offline religious life, like what happens at synagogues and churches?
"Supplementary" sites of religious experience and community, of course, have a long history, especially in the American context. So does fretting about religious siphoning and competition from the more tech-savvy or consumer-minded. On that, it seems like they're debating a settled point. Religious leaders and groups have spent years and decades, if not centuries, creating "communities" in physical places where meaning, direction, solace, empowerment, and all the emotional and social experiences we call "religion" can be found or fomented. That's a religious infrastructure that's fairly hardwired, both on the map and in the mind.
The better question, then, seems to not be about whether all that will go the way of the steam shovel and cowboy.*** Rather, it seems to me -- as it does to a few of the contributors -- that it's better to ask: What drives someone toward a Facebook faith? What is to be found there? What happens to someone when they seek out an online God group? Who and what stands to benefit - or lose - from an online religious experience? Does it create religious encounters, interchange, conflict, segmentation, segregation? What does it mean for religion in the private, public, and political spheres? Additionally, how do we, who study "religion and spirituality" write or think about online religion? Are our present conceptual models -- informed as they are by past forms of tech-mediated religion, from the book to TBN -- applicable or workable in the Facebook age?
I suppose it all comes down to a basic question: Looking back in fifty years' time (or perhaps even less), will the rise of online info-tech and social networking platforms have proven to have been revolutionary for religion?
*** Thanks to my son, Will, for introducing me to these provocative examples of creative destruction.