Since the first computer, technology has been criticized of being an enemy against humanity; a “tool that alienates us from what makes authentically human”, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger puts it. But over the last couple of decades there has been an unimaginable technological advance. Data algorithms, robotics and internet have reshaped our lives. We are connected online almost as much as we have a life outside of it. This continuous progress has also influenced religion and spirituality beyond its traditional conceptions, up to the point that it has redefined one of our deepest human feelings, faith.
‘Clicking’ for the divine
In a religious context, faith means trust and believe in God or in religious teachings. Buddhism translates faith as a serene commitment in the practice of Buddha. In Bahá’í teachings, faith is required for spiritual growth. And in Christianity and Islam, faith must be aligned with the ideals and the example of life of their respective religious entities.
Faith is a silent prerequisite in religion and it’s a prescribed practice: the place where to express it, to whom to devote our faith and how to properly execute it; it’s all written. It’s an historical practice -it still is- but many scholars are discussing the possibility that faith, beyond its traditional teachings and religious scriptures, has found another source of support: the internet.
In 2005, British academic Linda Woodhead wrote ‘The Spiritual Revolution’ in which she analyzed the possibility of new forms of spirituality overtaking traditional forms of religion. One of her observations was that people were displacing their faith. Believers, she observed, “were turning away from organized religion and moving towards practices designed to foster individual’s own sense of who they are”. In a way, what Woodhead discovered is that people were starting to define their own faith, and technology is partly responsible.
From computer-based rituals, mass’ streamed live on Facebook and digital churches, to buddhist phones and apps that remind you of fasting times during Ramadan season. Religious practices have adapted to this new digital era. In fact, Christopher Helland already observed this in 1999. Described as religion online, Helland identified that religions were starting to use the web to extend their messages, just like the Pope does with his 18 million followers Twitter account which he uses to encourage adherents to follow the Biblical path in only 280 characters.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 17, 2019
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 31, 2020
Religions are adapting, it’s true, but also new forms of spiritual practices are emerging. Cyberspirituality, for example, aims to bring spirituality to where people spend most of their time: in front of their computers. AI is shaping a new religion called Way of the Future which, according to its creator Anthony Levandowski, will also have its own god. And social media is introducing new entities who people start to follow, and who subsequently dictate our lifestyles and belief systems.
These new forms of spirituality are often dismissed as a cult, and received with the same skepticism as the supernatural and mysticism. “Is it possible to be touched by God in cyberspace?”, “Is praying online any different from praying in a house of worship?”, “Could Kanye West be considered a God?”.
It’s modern, it’s new, and the unknown is scary. When Levandowski was asked about this new god he said: “It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?”.
This is a thought that has featured many nightmares. Fredric Brown concluded his short story with this frightening idea. The moment Dwan Ev heard the machine saying there was a God, he immediately “fused the switch shut”.
Dangerous or not, digital innovations have penetrated into society and people have gradually adapted and assimilated those tools into their lives. But how exactly are believers responding? Are they embracing an online practice or drawing a clear line between their theology and technology? Does internet really have the potential to carry humankind to higher levels of consciousness?
The 21st century is setting the stage for a diverse religious scene, where techno-oriented practices are unfolding quickly. There are many uncertainties and questions to be answered, and we would like to start the conversation by asking ourselves: in this digital era, where do we evoque the feeling of faith?