Religion does not always embrace the views of science, but it hasn’t been shy about adopting science’s most-marketable product — technology. Particularly in the history of Christianity, technology has been a means of spreading the “good news” to every part of the globe, beginning with the first book ever mass-produced by a movable-type printing press — the Gutenberg Bible.
In the modern era, technology has become all the more ubiquitous in people’s modes of worship. In the early-20th century, especially in the United States, radio took evangelical sermons out of the sacred space of the church and placed them right in people’s living rooms. Television took that concept even further, and a whole generation of celebrity televangelists was born — Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Jerry Falwell, to name a few.
Billy Graham, probably the most iconic of all mid-century evangelists, made his career by understanding the power of mass-communication technology. First, he recognized the power of the microphone, which, although already in existence for a century, was perfected in the late 1940s. For the first time, masses of people in baseball stadiums and other large outdoor venues could be addressed in a way that included all the subtleties of human speech, without echo or reverberation. On top of that, microphone production was cheap, allowing virtually every gathering place to benefit from amplified speech. Graham took his show on the road in the form of Billy Graham Crusades, where thousands of people gathered (1.1 million at one event in South Korea) to hear his inspiring Christian message. By the time of television, his reputation was already set, and he was immediately offered the opportunity to broadcast. This combination of multitudinous crowds and TV broadcast would set the standard for many televised megachurches to come.
In the past couple of decades, the Internet has been the technological game-changer in spirituality, just as it has been in so many other aspects of our culture. Now, a would-be spiritual teacher does not have to gather an audience and secure a TV contract before broadcasting his or her message. YouTube allows anyone to upload videos and create stations for their own content. Some spiritual teachers like Matt Kahn and Teal Swan, have created their following entirely through this medium, while others, like Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, have dramatically increased their audiences. Other social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have proven another effective way to reach spiritual seekers.
One difference clearly separates the Internet spirituality of the 21st century from TV and radio evangelism of the 20th century: Dominant and traditional forms of spirituality no longer get all of the air time. This has allowed spiritual seekers to roam widely and with ease, gathering spiritual information from a variety of sources, instead of simply receiving the same old bromides from their traditional religions. Eastern philosophies and other “alternative” forms of spirituality, which are now highly popular on YouTube, had cultural presence in the last half of the 20th century, but they had remained marginalized, part of the hippy counterculture of the ’60s and the maligned “new age” spirituality of the late ’80s.
The Internet’s open forum for spiritual discussion has had a number of effects on the way people practice spirituality. First of all, it appears to have diminished devotion to traditional spiritual paths. In other words, with so many choices, people are less likely to simply choose their family’s and culture’s traditional preferences, and it has increased the likelihood of dabbling in many traditions instead of just one. This trend includes increased willingness to choose atheism or agnosticism, stances once so taboo that people were unlikely to identify as such due to social stigma. Those that do not believe in a god have found a united voice by connecting digitally to those with a similarly skeptical mind. Self-identification as agnostic or atheist has skyrocketed since the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s, becoming the top spiritual identification in the U.K. and the second-most likely in North America, Australia, and Europe.
Not everybody is abandoning the spiritual ship, though, even if they no longer feel bound by dogma. The label “spiritual but not religious,” a label born out of the phenomenon of Internet dating services, has become increasingly popular as well. Just as access to Wikipedia and the rest of the Information Superhighway makes everyone feel like an instant expert, the Internet can make everyone their own guru, too. By shedding attachment to a singular religion while they surf from one spiritual perspective to the next, they also reject the authoritarian nature of traditional religious leadership, relying instead on their own powers of discernment as they blaze their own paths suited to their own desires and interests.
Dogma is far from dead in the Internet age, however. In fact, the most extreme forms of dogma are thriving in cyberspace, perhaps wielding more influence than they have in decades. Just as the Internet has been a perfect breeding ground for the darkest elements of the political “alt-right,” it has emboldened and empowered the more extreme elements of religion, too. Perhaps partly in reaction against the spiritual permissiveness of the Information Age, people of a more-fundamentalist bent find each other and connect. In this spiritual echo chamber, they find their own dogmas, along with their worst fears about the spiritual decay of society, constantly repeated and reconfirmed. On the more extreme sites, violence in defense of one’s dogma is encouraged and supported by the Internet community, as has been the case with Christian anti-abortion and Islamic jihadist terrorist groups.
Nonetheless, many spiritual practitioners see the Internet and technology as a force for good, a tool that can unite humanity spiritually in a way that will make a better world … someday. New age guru Deepak Chopra sees the Internet as an extension of the human mind and consciousness, and believes it to be a harbinger of a great leap in human spiritual development.
In an interview for Mashable, Chopra commented: “They [conversations] are the extensions of our mind. Right now, you and I are influencing each other’s neural networks because of our conversation, through the flow of info and energy. And when this info is put on a social network, it influences the minds, and therefore, the neural networks of everyone participating. So unbeknownst to us, society is moving in the direction of a planetary mind through the social networks.” Recent developments in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation oil-pipeline controversy serve to support Chopra’s point, while also painting a picture of the future of the intersection between spirituality and technology.
After months of protest, both native and non-native spiritual leaders called for a mass, interdenominational “global synchronized prayer” in support of the cause. Notice spread like wildfire over email and social media within a matter of hours. On the same day, at 10 a.m. on December 4, 2016, an estimated 72,000 people from more than 40 countries connected online and participated in the focused prayer. At 3:30 a.m. the same day, the United States Army Corps of Engineers rejected the permits needed to finish the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Whether the prayers actually caused the desired result remains a matter of personal belief, but the power of technology to effect a spiritual cause and to create a spiritually powerful event was undoubtedly evident.
Spirituality will likely be present alongside technology for a long time, perhaps because technology makes the need for spirituality even greater. Albert Einstein famously once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” At its worst, spirituality can polarize people, encouraging bigotry and fear. At its best, it cultivates virtue and love for one’s fellow humans.
Ironically, the information technology that is defining this era has similar tendencies — it can polarize and isolate people, or it can connect and empower people. So, perhaps it is up to us to use both, in tandem, to bring out the best of what we as humans can be.