“Have you met my friend?” A question asked too often at malls in the Midwest yet now, it carries a totally different meaning in the post-Facebook world. Muslim and Christian Evangelist of all shades and colors, who includes you: early Sunday morning door-knocking Jehovah’s witness, have been making our life more colorful by stopping the normal flow of our lives at malls, schools, and even at our own home with attempts to salvage our souls. Now they have gone digital and with a zeal.
The Holy Book in my right and a mouse in the left?
The mating of religion and social media seems like a perfect match but is it? Let me extrapolate; Evangelists are always striving to save as many people as they can, why else would they go to the depth of the Amazon spending decades trying to convert some reclusive tribe. Therefore, tools that enable them to reach a wider audience would surely be of an interest to them. The internet is one of those tools, and social media is definitely where the people are at. So in recent years, we have been seeing many examples “religious” people using social networks to further their cause. Popular ministers such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have about 30,000 followers each. You can even find people as important as His Holiness on the web.
The Muslim’s won’t be outdone either!
Christians aren’t the only faith group embracing social media; all of them are. If you went to the Middle East Island in Second Life last week you would have been greeted by this lovely invitation.
This is an invitation to a lecture presented by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, they are the same people that banned cats, dogs and the color red. The lecture commemorated Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, and encouraged the denizens to bask in the holiness of the month. The community that is hosting the lecture in their own virtual estate proudly boasts being able to “revert” 7 people from the United States to Islam when they visited the mosques. Online evangelism is hardly as passive as this lecture makes it seem! Religious people are taking a trick out of their playbook and being more proactive in their activities in the virtual world. So instead of waiting for people with similar interests to flock to their virtual Meccas, they are going out soliciting con(re)verts.
Religious freedom has a total different taste when you experience it in a virtual world; it turns into something more akin to the taste of spam. Now it might be one thing to willfully join such a discussion but how often are we confronted by an unwelcome and overbearing piece of religious wisdom on our space. “Become a fan of Jesus” anyone ?
The blessing of having your faith tested…
The only catch is that social media, and the internet at large, is naturally a medium where you have little control over the discourse. That poses a slight problem to people trying to put forth a clear message. Do you really need an example? Have you checked the Facebook page of His Holiness lately? You will find such lovely gems such as this:
Under this garb, we’re perfectly ordinary Citizens:
That’s hardly an isolated case, you can just ignore it but there is a more interesting reaction that people are having. You must have noticed it yourself, that sometimes you would have just enough words, and balls, to actually go and let those ideas loose. Even though you would never dare to say those exact words to your pastor or imam, somehow donning your internet persona makes you think “Yes I can”. That reaction is creating a phenomenon where religious taboos are being discussed more often and they are losing their taboo status. Probably the situation was put best in the words of Rev. Bill Reichart:
“If total control is what you want, social media will frustrate you, But the trade-off is the ability to hear and learn, reach out in new directions”… “The young don’t do e-mail anymore,” he said. “They do Facebook.”
Now it’s still too early to tell what affect this phenomenon will have on religions at large but one this is certain, the presence of religion on the internet and social media opened the flood gates of discourse. This discussion is no longer bound by the limits of what is religiously acceptable, and this brought to light the “newly” discovered atheists’ movement.
This is a group of people who always existed but were never able to find their voice; through the anonymity of the net they have been able to voice it loud and clear. Now the religious institutes are exhibiting a knee jerk reaction and dubbing it neo-atheism while the arguments they are making are as old as religion and its apologetics, they just recently could be voiced comfortably without an immediate fear of retribution.
Regardless of how you view atheists and other free thinkers on the net you can’t deny that they became an important component in any religious discussion. They definitely have the internet to thank for disposing them of their muffles and enabling them to express their dissent.
This in only one facet of how religion has been affected by the internet and social media, and we still haven’t fully grasped what consequences such discourse will have on religion in the long run. Given that the majority of internet users are younger will that allow them to grow up to be more accepting of the differences in beliefs people hold or will it radicalize them?
As social networks become more penetrative are we going to invite more and more virtual proselytizing? How would you feel about it if someone tried to convert you online? Do you consider it spam?