Christ is risen!
Today I thought it might be worth jumping back into a blogging presence by raising the question of whether internet usage is inherently “bad for religion.” Recently, an article claiming precisely this has been receiving some attention. Since we did not blog during Holy Week and not for a bit after Easter, the question seems appropriate. Weren’t we, here at RRO, implicitly acknowledging this very fact?
To give the short answer, no, we weren’t, but I think if we turn to investigate what the article is explicitly addressing, we’ll find the point isn’t so much about behavior in terms of how we treat people, but behavior with respect to church attendance. The author, Downey, cautions that although correlation cannot equal causation (for the cause-effect might work the other way around, or other factors could be involved), it seems to him that an increase in internet usage leads to a decrease in church attendance. That is, a cautious conclusion may be drawn from correlations if one is unable to account for other likely causes. Two other correlations to keep in mind are that religious upbringing affect people’s later commitments in life and that college education is correlated with a drop in church affiliation (though to a lesser degree than internet usage). BTW, if you don’t have time to read the original article in pdf, you may try this piece, which reflects on it.
What is interesting is that even Downey acknowledges this doesn’t account for all loss of attendance and affiliation because younger people are less likely to be affiliated but being born at a later date, in itself, isn’t causal. That is to say, there seems to be a trajectory here. This is where I believe reflections such as are found here on RRO (not to mention other sites) can be a positive first step. There is a serious problem in America and anyone who thinks his/her church is unaffected simply is not living in reality. More than that, it is important for us to get at what is good and what is bad about the internet itself. After all, it’s not going anywhere, so we need conversations and discussions centered on what can be “baptized” and used and what should be avoided.
I realize Downey’s article is centered on whether internet usage itself isn’t inherently a problem, but I suspect most of us realize we cannot avoid it and that behavior toward one another online is of consequence. I certainly believe it is and, in fact, I am currently working on a short book that uses a virtue ethic (derived from iconography no less) that explores cyberethics. It’s not being written in ivory tower fashion, either, so hopefully, it will be usable to the rest of us in the church building. But even without that book being finished, I have no trouble admitting there are people who use the internet in better and worse ways toward one another. There are a few people who have had comments not see the light of day here, for example, because they simply hurled an insult or two. Ad hominem need not apply. Likewise, in a medium in which it is easy to talk past one another, we have likely all experienced someone who purposely chose not to read what we typed but simply kept rejecting our first point, as though we hadn’t added any qualifiers. We also have seen church leaders use the internet to tear down other church leaders. For example, one bishop who claimed (whether truthfully or facetiously doesn’t matter) that he he typed his rapid-fire attacks at others on OCANews.org while on the toilet certainly didn’t help increase the respect people have for clergy. The point isn’t clergy disagreeing or having different views, but the ways in which we disagree and share those views. We can also probably each name an internet “troll” or two (or more!).
So in light of that, and Downey’s article, can one still make an argument for a beneficial use and engagement with technology from a Christian perspective? I think so, and though it will be arguing that some expressions are not virtue-producing, I hope my book will become one very very small pastoral example of how this could be. Nonetheless, Downey’s article presents a real challenge. If the church is to survive the internet age, it must find a way of navigating this new technology. The fact that this is, at best, only half the problem, is likewise sobering but anyone following American Christianity has known something is not right for some time.