Technology and Religion in the Washington Post

This morning I came across a recent column from Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller on the subject of technology and religion. Keith has done a fine job approaching this subject here lately at ESI (your can read his posts here, here, and here), so my curiosity was even more piqued when I saw the headline: “The religious authorities and pundits are wrong: Technology is good for religion.”

As you’d expect from the headline, Miller makes the case that, contrary to the opinion of some (more below), technology is in fact a boon for religious practice. On the whole, however, I found the piece to be a bit clumsy as a result of its assumptions and lack of nuance. Here’s three examples of what I mean:

1. Is there a big anti-technology religious faction out there?

I suspect that columnists don’t write many headlines, so it’s hard to know where this one went astray. Miller mentions an atheist alleging that the internet is a “death knell for religion as we know it” and an Orthodox Jewish group lamenting the “erosion of values in their communities thanks to the internet.” Beyond that, she mentions generic “pundits” and “Luddites.”

Am I the only one who has failed to see this mass religious protest against technology? If anything, I suspect most Christians are more likely to accept technological developments uncritically than oppose them. 

2. Technology is a good thing, but it can be readily used for the wrong ends.

Because technology arises from God’s good creation—including physical materials and human imagination and engineering—it’s fair to see it as fundamentally good in a robust sense. However, the presence of sin in our lives and world insures that what is in essence good is often warped to serve the wrong ends. In this, our rapidly changing digital environment is unremarkable. The average shovel, for example, remains a wonderful piece of technology in its own right. It’s extremely useful for digging moderately sized holes. The same shovel, however, in the hands of someone with less than noble intentions, could also double as deadly weapon.

Because of this, it’s not generally helpful to issue blanket evaluations of various forms of technology, whether positive or negative. Instead, we should be carefully thinking about the potential benefits and drawbacks of the tools at our disposal. For example, we now stream Sunday morning services live through The Crossing’s website. This is real benefit in certain situations—consider a parent with sick kids. But someone who substituted watching the live stream for normal involvement in the community of the church would, over time, clearly miss out on important aspects of the latter. 

3. Why does everyone assume that it’s religion that needs to change?

Miller closes her piece this way:

But Heidi Campbell, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University, points out that religious authorities have long wanted the faithful to behave in ways that they do not behave. To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking. As Campbell argues in an article she published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last year, social media are dramatically changing ideas of authority, hierarchy and community. When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.

“If you don’t pay attention to digital technology, you’re going to be out of touch with the assumptions and values of your synagogue or church, which is more than just not having a Web site,” she told me. If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.

These paragraphs point to the widespread but questionable idea that, when religion and culture differ, it’s the former that needs to change. I won’t speak for every religion, but I would readily take issue with this in the specific case of Christianity. I’ve argued many times here at ESI that Christians should be culturally engaged, and so they should. But the church has often taken its most significant steps backward when it has uncritically adopted the spirit of the age in ways that run against historic, orthodox doctrine. Ironically, this has happened in spite of repeated predictions of doom and irrelevancy if it should fail to take such action.

Could it be that the spirit of the age and its advocates would benefit from submitting to, rather than seeking to “improve upon,” orthodox Christian belief (and practice)?  That’s a worthy question to ask with regard to a faith that boasts a timelessly relevant gospel, and has outlasted more than a few empires…let alone a few technological trends.

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