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Drops of water turn a mill

Does the Internet Age augur a revival of liberal religion?
By Doug Muder
8.13.07

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I doubt I will ever forget the moment when I saw the White House destroyed by aliens. Though it was more than a decade ago, the images remain fixed in my mind: the enormous spaceship hanging silently in the air, the blue-green ray shining straight down from its center, and one of our great national monuments flying apart in millions of tiny bits.

Maybe you saw it, too—in the 1996 movie Independence Day. And like me, you probably have not the slightest confusion over whether this event actually happened. With today’s technology, seeing is not believing any more. At the movies we regularly invert the beatitude of John 20:29: Blessed are those who can see the most amazing things in the most exquisite detail and still not believe them after they leave the theater.

Another fake image I will never forget appeared on the website of California congressional candidate Howard Kaloogian in March 2006. It is a photo of a peaceful and ordinary urban street scene, which Kaloogian claimed to have taken during a recent trip to Iraq. The photo was captioned “Downtown Baghdad” and was presented as evidence that Iraq was actually much calmer and safer than mainstream American news coverage made it seem.

A blogger on the liberal web site Daily Kos raised doubts that the photo was really of Baghdad, but the Kos community quickly realized that there was only one way to make that case convincing: They had to find the place where the picture was really taken. With many eyeballs staring at the photo, many bloggers trading clues, and Google’s ability to search for images, they had their answer by the next morning: The scene was from a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey. A tourist photo from wowturkey.com showed the same buildings with the same billboards—and the sign over a public transit station. Kaloogian, who said using the photo was a “stupid mistake,” lost the Republican primary.

This story points to another way that technology has changed life in the twenty-first century: The Internet allows many amateurs to pool their efforts and produce results that rival (and sometimes surpass) what a professional organization can achieve. Wikipedia and the Linux operating system are the most famous such efforts, but there are many others—some ongoing projects with organization charts and other collaborations as ad hoc as the people who came together to investigate the Kaloogian photo.

My college roommate recently told me about his participation in Project Gutenberg, which is making books available on the Internet after the copyrights expire. The process begins by scanning a book page-by-page and running the images through an optical character recognition (OCR) program. But OCR is still not accurate enough to produce a consistently high-quality text, so human proofreaders are needed. In the twentieth century that proofreading would have been a full-time job for an entire bureau, and since there is no money to pay them the whole idea would have run aground right there.

Instead, countless volunteers download single pages from the Internet, proofread them, and upload them back to the Gutenberg site. After you get up to speed, you can proofread a page anytime you have ten minutes free. Even if that’s all you do, your tiny contribution will combine with the tiny contributions of others to produce something of real value.

It would be fun to speculate about how such projects may change the world, but I wonder how participating in such projects will change us. A new medium makes new experiences possible, and new experiences can change people and societies profoundly.

Look what happened with the printing press. Before Gutenberg invented movable type in the 1450s, proclamations were read to you on the public square. Sermons were preached at you in church. But when you could hold competing pamphlets in your own hands and read them by candlelight at your own table, you became the judge and overseer of the debate. What voice you heard next was up to you, and if you needed to hear a point repeated, you read it again. The printing press gave any literate person the direct experience of being the sovereign of his or her own mind. Whatever opinions people read and considered, the simple experience of reading them plowed the ground for those who would preach individual liberty in both politics and religion. Printing presses did not overthrow kings and disestablish bishops by themselves, but they tilted the playing field in that direction.

Television tilted it a different way. After the yes/no decision to watch, a TV viewer is passive. Rather than experiences of mastery, TV offers us vicarious relationships. Larger-than-life celebrities come into our living rooms, and it is hard to shake the illusion that we know them personally. In so many ways, they seem closer to us than our co-workers, our parishioners, and perhaps even our friends and families. Television has made our leaders so familiar that we now judge politicians less by their policies and skills than by how it will feel to have them in our homes. In the Age of Television, picking a president is like picking a housemate.

Liberal religion in the West was born with the printing press and has not fared well in the Age of Television. Unitarian Universalist congregations have almost the same number of members now that they had collectively after the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged in 1961—and that makes us a relative success story. Membership in most mainline Protestant denominations peaked sometime in the 1960s and has fallen considerably since then. In both numbers and influence, liberal religion in America is a shadow of its former self.

So what should we expect from the Age of the Internet? Are the experiences the Internet creates better suited to liberal religion than the vicarious relationships of television? I think they are.

The simplest thing to predict is that the Internet will end the passivity, apathy, and sense of helplessness that is so typical of the TV era. In some ways we are already seeing a change: The number of people contributing to political campaigns, for example, is way up. Rather than shrugging helplessly at the ability of the rich to buy political representation, more and more individuals are balancing that power with smaller contributions of their own.

It’s not hard to imagine why. The Internet has given many people (like my proofreading friend) the direct experience described in hymn #157 of Singing the Living Tradition:

And by union, what we will
      Can be accomplished still;
Drops of water turn a mill,
      Singly none, singly none.

Participation will likely increase across the board, because on the Internet even the smallest participation has an effect. When you talk back to your television no one hears. But when you comment on a blog, people respond. Your questions get answered—maybe by the individual blogger, but more likely by the larger commenting community. You are given references, reminded of similar incidents to the one under discussion, linked to background articles. Your arguments get challenged, refuted, and then maybe picked up and fixed by someone else. Even if you don’t have an airtight case, even if you haven’t checked all the details, your point may be worth making. Someone else may take the baton from you and carry it a little farther. And then someone else and someone else.

Drops of water turn a mill.

My fonder hope for the Internet is that it will do for religion what the printing press did for science. Publication meant that the process of science—its experiments and its data—could become public, and not just its conclusions. The scientific community moved beyond the individual gentleman in his laboratory and became a truly communal intelligence. It was fine if no individual understood everything; no one had to. The scientific community as a whole understood.

To my knowledge, no religious Internet community has yet achieved the critical mass necessary to make a similar leap. But the larger political blogs are beginning to. You can spend a great deal of time on either a liberal blog like Daily Kos or a conservative one like Redstate without realizing who the original blogger is. The commenting community is the star, not the founder.

In the Television Age, politics is dominated by ideology. Small packages of ideas come down from on high and are endlessly repeated in sound bites. But while the political blogs certainly have their share of ideology and repetition, something else is happening too: Ideologies are being tested against the everyday experiences of thousands, and a new kind of understanding is emerging from below. Where this understanding will take us, I cannot guess.

Eventually, I hope to see something similar happen in religion. 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. Imagine the base communities of liberation theology or the covenant groups of small group ministry enlarged and multiplied by a thousand. What might they create?

The spiritual understanding that emerges will be too large to fit into any individual human mind. As in science, you will be able to master any segment of it you like, but the whole will always be too much for you. And like science, it will not be a set of disembodied abstractions, but rather work its insights all the way down into the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

In a world where seeing is not believing, and the individual is ever more easily fooled, the emergence of such trusted theological communities can hardly happen fast enough.


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