Religion and information technology

Religion has always depended on information technology. Vital to the longevity of a religion is getting new followers, and in order for that to happen, the sacred texts, beliefs and rituals need to be spread and passed down. Central to this process, historically speaking, are books. We’ve talked before about the sacred origin of our reverence for the written word.

Of course, there were also times when information technology and religion have butt heads. The Catholic Church, for example, was famous for this. In its earliest days, it was against writing entirely. When printing came around, the Church was delighted by the ease with which they could print letters of indulgence and thereby raise money for their projects, but they were likewise horrified by the ease with which the general public could spread heretical ideas (see The Protestant Reformation).

Today, we’re very comfortable with the concept of finding sacred texts in books. But what does the next wave of innovations in information technology have to offer?

Buddhists are one group that has been quick to adopt new technology. Joyce Morgan wrote a wonderful article on the Huffington Post about why this might be. Indeed, historically speaking, Buddhists have always been on the cutting edge. Buddhists in Japan and in China were the first people to adopt wood block printing on a large scale in order to mass produce and disseminate their sacred texts. That was a huge innovation in a predominantly oral world. And today, some Buddhist communities are taking advantage of the Web and podcasts more than practitioners of many other religions. ZenWest, for example, is a Zen community in Canada that cultivates an e-sangha, where Buddhists from all over the world can take part in a religious community—which is especially helpful for those who do not live near a physical community. On their website, newcomers to Zen can even take online orientation courses and join in discussions. They even have a podcast with regular lectures.

In the Great Courses audio series on the Sacred Texts of the World, Professor Grant Hardy poses this wonderful question:

With the advent of the technological revolution knwon as the Internet, is there some religion that might be able to harness its power to their own spiritual ends? Are there certain kinds of religious practices that may be better suited to the Web than to codices? In some cases, for example in Sikhism, it’s easier to find their sacred texts online than in printed form. And for traditions such as Hinduism, in which the chanting or the singing or scriptures and ritual performances might take precedence over solitary study, YouTube is a marvelous resource. I’m sure that the Internet will transform religion in future generations. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how that affects different religious traditions, because one of the secrets to having a tradition that continues and expands is being able to take advantage of technological and also scholarly resources that come along.

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