Religious communities have a moral obligation to make the Internet better

January 19, 2022

Religion News Service

How many times have you heard a sermon from a religious or spiritual leader about the internet that doesn’t just talk about exclusion, or more recently, about how to call the next Zoom service. How many lectures on dharma, khutbas, d’var Torah or Gita studies have directly addressed how digital technologies have affected our civic life and our religious traditions?

Over the last two decades, as I have studied the effects of the Internet on religion and society, I have asked this question in many settings and the answer is always: not much.

This is a problem, because the Internet is the most destructive invention in human history, which affects all areas of our personal and common lives. The dawn of the Internet is often compared to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, but the fact is that the Internet is more powerful because it is interactive, direct and ubiquitous.

Like printing, the Internet has major implications for how religion is expressed, how communities are formed, and how we understand ourselves and others. Yet, unlike the invention of the press, the creators of the Internet were not so likely to fit into religious communities, which had a huge advantage over the general population in literacy in Gutenberg’s time. Today, religious leaders, theologians, and ethicists generally sit by and allow others to make decisions that radically affect humanity.

There are 300 million (and growing) Internet users in the United States who are online for an average of 8.5 hours a day – a third of their daily lives. One-third of Americans say they are online almost constantly. The internet is a place where we work, play and pray.

The Internet is a place where we gather with our friends and community and where we meet new people from different backgrounds. As my colleague Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, recently said: “Online and offline are false differences. Digital spaces are as much a part of our daily lives as streets and sidewalks. “

As more and more of our lives are mediated by digital technologies, people of all religious backgrounds need to think about what this means for our traditions and beliefs and equip ourselves to incorporate this technology and use it in a healthy, productive way that remains true to our beliefs.

This is especially important given the growing evidence of the negative effects the Internet has on our civic lives as dangerous misinformation spreads, and technological algorithms too often serve to inflame tensions rather than address them. The Internet poses particular challenges for religious communities that are targeted because of their religious identity, with both Jews and Muslims among the groups most likely to experience hostility.

However, the internet also offers an unprecedented opportunity for people of different religious backgrounds to meet and learn about each other and build new bridges of understanding and cooperation.

In other words, the internet is what we make of it. So let it be good.

Here are six areas that religious and spiritual leaders should address with their communities right now:

History and context of the Internet. Most people, especially younger ones, have no idea how and when the Internet came into being, the motives behind its development, who controls it or the built-in mechanisms that make it wonderful and dangerous.

How to spot dangerous misinformation and avoid spreading it. We all know that the internet is full of misinformation and misinformation. Yet sometimes even well-meaning people can inadvertently spread it because they don’t recognize it when they see it. Religious and spiritual communities should consider it their sacred duty to suppress misinformation, starting with ourselves. While we’re at it, we could offer our communities the 10 best locations our assemblies or institutions can turn to online for reliable information about our tradition.

How to build bridges on the Internet. While much is made of the negative effects of the internet, technology also provides unprecedented opportunities to reach out to someone new, to engage positively and learn and grow with them. Building bridges can happen online when we have proper preparation. Religious values ​​such as curiosity, openness and empathy can help.

How to build a community online. One of the most interesting questions the internet asks about religion is: What does it mean to be present with each other? For example, if it takes 10 Jews to make a minyan necessary for certain prayers, does it count to be online together? As more and more religious communities gather online, these questions come to the fore, as do technical questions about what kind of technology can help build, maintain, and moderate these communities.

How to take care of yourself spiritually and be safe online. Given how much time people spend on the Internet, religious and spiritual leaders need to address how the Internet affects their well-being and suggest strategies on how people in their communities can be protected. This may include understanding some practical safety tips, as well as helping people develop their own spiritual self-help plan when they are online.

Contribute to the public debate on internet technology and ethics. Where the Internet affects the lives of individuals and communities, ethical concerns about privacy, hate speech, Internet access, and net neutrality deserve the consideration of religious and spiritual leaders. Get informed, argue in your religious community, and be active in the decision-making process.

If you are interested in the next step, I encourage you to participate in #Interfaith: Engaging Religious Diversity Online, an innovative, online learning experience that aims to equip the next generation with increased awareness of the specific role the Internet plays in our civic and religious life. to maximize the impact of digital technologies for good.

Pope Francis said in 2014: “The Internet offers enormous opportunities for meeting and solidarity. This is something really good, a gift from God. ”&

We can make the internet better, but it will not happen without good people from all spiritual, ethical and religious traditions working together to ensure that the internet is a blessing to humanity and not a curse.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Public Affairs Advisor at Interfaith Youth Core. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the Religion News Service.

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