Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wild speculation

My second column went up Monday. It's called Drops of Water Turn a Mill and it speculates about the long-term effect that the Internet will have on religion. I also think it has one of my better opening lines:
I doubt I will ever forget the moment when I saw the White House destroyed by aliens.
The bulk of the column is about the relationship between media and how people think, a subject that shows up in Al Gore's latest book The Assault on Reason and in Neil Postman's 1980s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. If the Internet gives us new experiences and changes the way we think, it's also likely to change the way we do religion.

Take a look, then come back here to comment.


Matthew said...

"Theologies will not come down from the academy or the pulpit, but will bubble up from countless ordinary people comparing notes on their personal experiences and their efforts to live the best lives they can."

So how do you think the scientific method will interact with large-scale swapping of second-hand religious experiences?

uuwonk said...


Four years ago this summer the news was full of excited accounts of how the internet was revolutionizing American politics. In particular, the ability of Howard Dean to raise significant sums of money with little fundraising expense by using the internet was seen as evidence of a new era in which insurgent candidates could connect directly with their base and circumvent established party organizations.

Four years later, this dream seems to have disappeared. Ron Paul is the leading internet-powered candidate, but he isn't doing much compared to many pre-internet insurgents such as Goldwater '64, McCarthy '68, Perot '92, or even Bryan 1896. All the major candidates are spending enormous sums on fundraising. Sure, DailyKos is still around, but is it all that different from an old-fashioned highly partisan newspaper?

It is hard to argue that the country was more in crisis in 2003 than in 2007. Polls suggest that the government, and certainly the President, were much more popular in 2003. So what happened?

My guess is that the new wore off. In 2003 giving money to Howard Dean by the internet was new and exciting. By 2004 many of my friends had their in-boxes so swamped by political solicitations that they lost interest.

Ultimately, I don't think you can replace relationships based on ongoing mutual commitment. At church one sometimes thinks, "This person may be irritating me at the moment, but since we are probably going to be on a lot of committees together in the next few years, I am going to handle this in a mature and considerate fashion." You mention the success of covenant groups. They are the anti-internet. In a world where people feel worn down by mass media, having a cup of coffee with someone you have known for a while is a special pleasure.

So I agree that the internet is good for religion. People will go to church to escape from it. I know I do.

Doug Muder said...

I guess from the outside Daily Kos might look like it's "still around" and no different from a partisan newspaper -- if a partisan newspaper were written by thousands of people who were forming a common political consciousness and learning activism together. You have to be involved in something like this to really appreciate what is happening. That's where the comparison to covenant groups and base communities is meaningful.

I remember years ago someone said that we would know that e-business had made it when no one talked about it anymore: It would just be "business". We're almost at that point with political campaigns and the Internet. Ask George Allen about the effect of the Internet in 2006.

The question of whether or not the Internet will "replace relationships based on ongoing mutual commitment" is a non-issue. I can't think of anyone who has made such a prediction. Did the printing press replace such relationships? Of course not.

Doug Muder said...


I'm not sure what you're asking. Here's what I meant: Old-style theology is done by individuals introspecting deeply into their religious experiences and intuitions. That's where the terms and concepts come from.

But what if you have thousands of people introspecting together, and terms and concepts arise in a more evolutionary way: Concepts shift from one person to the next until you get a meaning that starts to resonate with large numbers of people.

And rather than one person putting together a big theory, you get lots of little explanations that get tested and verified by many people. Little by little the community starts to assemble them into something that makes a larger sense.

Robin Edgar said...

Unfortunately these drops of water could not turn a rather obstinate Miller. . .

ShelbyMeyerhoff said...


I enjoyed your article. You raised an important point about how the internet can encourage participation and collaboration among those interested in liberal religion.

However, one question that remains for me is : How would you address the concerns about social inequality being replicated on the internet? The structures of inequality currently in place stand in the way of a truly collaborative blogosphere.

In general, white male bloggers still receive greater acclaim than women bloggers and bloggers of color. Some women bloggers also face harassment and threats, a growing problem. And then there is the "digital divide" between those who can afford home computers and internet access, and those who cannot. In light of these inequalities of opportunity, how can liberal religious people form a truly collaborative online community?

kim said...

If you have any doubt that Shelby is correct about the sexism on the internet, have a look at this article by Brad Hicks, entitled "Misery Chick":

Matthew said...

Regarding my question about the scientific method: I'm not quite sure what I'm getting at.

Another blog I frequent is having a discussion of Douglas Hofstader's Strange Loops, which does a lot of work that seems to bring high-level descriptions of things into the world of scientific respectability. And it's those ideas that I am absolutely convinced have something to do with this idea of gestalt internet religion ... I'm just not sure what. I just have that feeling that all these sorts of things are interesting ... together ... if that makes any sense.

Doug Muder said...

shelbymeyerhoff and kim bring up social and economic inequality issues.

Sexism certainly is widespread online, but I think it varies from one community to another. We can hope that a liberal religious online community would be at least as equitable as the liberal political blogosphere, which has gotten considerably better in the last few years.

Now that digby has de-anonymized as female, and firedoglake became the go-to blog for the Libby trial, female visibility is way up in the liberal political blogs. Of the recent front-pagers on Kos, I recognized five as male, four as female, and two that I couldn't identify. Kossacks like McJoan, BarbinMD, and Georgia10 seem pretty well respected to me. And Gina Cooper was the public face of the Yearly Kos convention.

The access issue won't go away easily. Internet access is easier to come by than a printing press, but the well-to-do are always going to have better equipment.

Doug Muder said...

This article on FireDogLake seconds (or firsts, really) a lot of what I just said.

ogre said...

It's a nice observation; it raises the more abstract point that McLuhan made, "the medium is the message."

You're looking at the medium, and its nature, and the inherent nature of the medium, to look at what the message is--and what it will mean.

One might argue that the old Latin axiom, Vox Populi, Vox Dei is likely to become increasingly apt.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I tend to agree with your premise. But use of the Internet for politics and/or relgion is very much in its infancy. How we use it now is not really indicative of anything. We can't know what either "world" (politics or religion) will be like 10, 20 or 50 years from now. The FireDogLake piece reflects the changing of generations and we don't really know what that means either. So we keep plugging away with what we know. The trick is to be adaptable to change, that proverbial only constant. Anyway, nice piece. And we'll see you in Quincy ...

Anonymous said...

Hello! Just visiting another UU blog.

Nice to meet you.

David said...


"The access issue won't go away easily. Internet access is easier to come by than a printing press, but the well-to-do are always going to have better equipment."

I think you're on to something here but there is more to this issue of participation/inclusion than just the technology and economics. There are also sociological barriers, such as those you've raised elsewhere, to participation by others in this new religious dialog.

Also, I think UUWonk has it right: there is something powerful about relationships that we choose to nurture not simply because we like the other person but perhaps even in spite of how we feel about them because we are part of the same community. There is some of that on the 'Net but the klunky technology still makes it easier to dismiss or ignore others here than it does when they are sitting across the table from us in a church meeting room or kitchen.

That's why, after all, the Kos folks get-together from time to time in meatspace, isn't it?
David Johnson
Chandler, Arizona

rehn said...

What do you think of In what ways does it help or hinder spiritual growth?