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Finding Religion Online

Finding Religion Online

Ever since the old AmericaOnline, people have used the Internet as a way to learn more about religion and to engage with likeminded co-religionists. The Senior Religion Editor of Huffington Post, Paul Raushenbush, published an interesting article about the search for religion on the Web. He writes that “Religion is one of the hottest areas of the Internet because religion is one of the most intense and contested arenas of human relations and ideas.” He’s right. Popular blogs like the Washington Post’s “On Religion” and attract millions of visitors eager to discuss, debate and digest information about the different world religions including atheism.

Here is Raushenbush’s blog post:

Want to know something, anything? Want to find out what day Hanukkah starts? When Mussolini was born? How many eyes a common housefly has? Want to know if someone is gay? Why Sikhs wear turbans? Wondering if God exists?

Ask the Internet.

Yeah, you can ask the Internet all those things and most people have asked an even more eclectic set of questions during their time on the web. The Internet has become our anonymous (ish) oracle that we turn to with our shaman search engines named Google or Yahoo. And they will use their carefully guarded magic formula and point us toward answers — some of which will be clear (Hanukkah starts on Dec. 8; Mussolini’s birthday is July 29) and others, such as “Does God Exist” will provide a mix of responses and requires a bit more work.

The point is that most of us go to the Internet to “get” things such as knowledge, purchases, experiences or communication. But this consumer based approach leaves out an important element that is within the DNA of the Internet. The World Wide Web is meant to be a place of take and give. A place where we don’t just passively receive what is there but are active participants in creating the answers we ourselves are seeking.

As the Religion Editor at The Huffington Post, I often ask audiences: “How many of you use the Internet in your religious practice?” Often people keep their hand down, surprised anyone would sully their religious practice with the web. Then I ask how many of them have ever looked up a Bible passage, a prayer, researched a religious figure or watched a guided meditation or prayer — all of the hands go up.

Religion is one of the hottest areas of the Internet because religion is one of the most intense and contested arenas of human relations and ideas. There are many people who are taking information from the Internet that is shaping their religious thought and perception. But all that glitters on the Internet is not gold. The web has only the ethics that people bring to it and provides the perfect vehicle for those who wish to spread misinformation, ridicule, provoke or incite people of a different culture or belief. Take one example: Right now if you type in Jew into the Google search, an Aryan nation site comes up on the first page.

We have all heard of the butterfly whose wing flap can affect the other side world — that has come literally true with the Internet. Just think of the latest amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad. The stakes of the Internet are literally life and death.

The initial reaction of some people is to figure out a way to censor or monitor the web, but that is both impractical and also dangerous. While you might wish for others to be censored, that knife can, and usually does cut both ways. Censorship is a poor solution to bad speech, or bad religion. The better approach, of course, is good speech and good religion.

A few months back, an editor at Reddit snapped a photo of an unaware young Sikh woman as she stood in a line. The young woman had facial hair and a turban and the young man took the photo to mock her for looking so different. When she found the photo online she responded not with outrage, but with almost super-human kindness and compassion as she explained her religion, and her appearance.

And you know what? The Internet responded.

Millions of people saw her note to the Reditt editor, saw her wisdom and even her beauty and were convinced by it. Eventually the editor at Reddit did the most thorough mea culpa and apology that I have seen on the web. It was clear he was really sorry. The Sikh woman did not just take from the Internet, or complain about the Internet, or be vicious back at the man who took the photo, she made a difference on the Internet by adding her good voice that triumphed over the bad.

During the height of the war in Gaza, when there was incredible tension on the Internet, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim in New York took 10 minutes and wrote on cardboard boxes as a Jew and a Muslim asking: Why can’t we please get along? They posted the photo on Facebook and amidst all the negativity and hopelessness on the web it became a beacon of hope, small but bright, and people flocked to it.

In both cases of the Sikh woman and the Muslim and the Jew, they became huge stories to cover. Now, “photo gone viral on the Internet” is itself a news story. There is so much negativity and conflict when it comes to religion, that when we can find a positive story we will jump on it. And the Internet can respond to positive. We got literally millions of people coming to HuffPost Religion for just those two stories. Please, give us more beautiful stories to cover.

Today I had the privilege of being with young people at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. These were young people from around the world who had created short films about how their faith had inspired them. The finalists came from all around the world and they created wonderful, beautiful films about religion from points of view, including non-religious. Their films were funny, poignant, beautiful and authentic. You can find the entire list here. These young people figured out that they had something important to offer the Internet, and we are all the better off for it.

The Internet is ours. Instead of the bombs of negativity, distrust and conflict that can find their way into religion on the Internet, we can provide bridges to unite us in more understanding, compassion and courage. What positive contribution can you make to the Internet today that will enrich all of our lives — on and offline?

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