Googling God

Religious scholar asks, “How will we make the internet a blessing?”

From the printing press to the Twitter feed

The arc of Christian history bends toward greater and greater access. Think of the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. Think of William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in the 1520s.

Think also of religion and the internet in this century.

“The internet is the most important thing to happen to religion since the printing press,” said Rev. Paul Raushenbush.

Raushenbush is the Huffington Post’s senior religion editor and was Princeton’s associate dean of religious life and chapel. He came to Nebraska Wesleyan University in May to deliver the Mattingly Visiting Distinguished Scholar Lecture on the internet’s impact on religion.

The printing press and the English Gospel brought tumult to the 15th and 16th centuries. (See Tyndale’s grisly fate.) And Raushenbush sees similar jostling today as the faithful and the powerful reorient to a changing digital reality.

Making the authorities nervous

As the internet cranks up access to people and information, it cranks up anxiety within established authority. “When authoritarian regimes feel threatened, what’s the first thing they do?” Raushenbush asked. “They switch off the internet.”

The internet is the most important thing to happen to religion since the printing press.

Raushenbush looks at the internet’s power and feels both wonder and worry. “In our smart phones, we hold the largest repository of religious information the world has ever known,” he said. We can use that tool for tremendous good.

He described his experience with a family member in her last hours. With his phone, he could access Episcopal prayers for the dying. After her death, he pulled up and shared prayers for the dead. “It allowed us to experience her death in such a different way,” he said.

“That’s the blessing. The curse is misinformation.”

A new online ethic

Google “Jew,” he said, and you will find a jumble of hate speech and legitimate information. “Google doesn’t have an ethic,” Raushenbush said. “It has an algorithm.”

Those algorithms make foolishness and wisdom equally shareable. So when a pastor with a congregation of eight burned a Quran and uploaded a video, it traveled the world in seconds. And blood spilled in hours. In this way, the interplay of religion and the internet “is a life and death issue.”

It’s also an issue of integrity. As full of hate and snark and misinformation as the internet is, Raushenbush also sees a budding code of virtuous conduct. “The internet is now part of what it means to be a citizen,” he said. “I think there could be an ethic of the internet, but it’s just developing.” And Nebraska Wesleyan students will be among those to shape it.

“Where this goes from here,” he said, “is on you.”

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Paul Raushenbush