Rabbi and author A. James Rudin, in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, tolls the warning bells for traditional brick-and-mortar religion in the western world. We live in a virtual world where nearly any need may be met through the Internet. You may satisfy your hunger by ordering out online, and consult a virtual nurse online later when you don’t feel so good. Holiday shopping is a breeze without having to do anything more than tap out a wishlist on your keyboard and then click your mouse. Why should spirituality be any different? Rudin points out that many classics of western religion used to be confined in research libraries, but are now freely available online. Any number of self-appointed doyens of spirituality offer the truth in electronic form. What need have the faithful of starting the car on a cold morning, facing bitter winds and blowing snow, to march into a half-deserted house of worship when God is only a few keystrokes away?
There can be no doubt that the Internet has changed views of religion. Exposure to exotic or unfamiliar practices and beliefs is common. American religion has often been compared to a marketplace, and the best place for comparison shopping is online. This is not, however, cause for alarm. Ancient religions, including the early Judaism that will give birth to Christianity, accommodated other belief systems they encountered. There is no pristine form of religion that preserves the exact original recipe. The change took place more slowly in ancient times, but take place it did. Judaism, for example, moved from a basic, colorless Sheol to a fully populated Hell in Christianity, complete with lakes of burning sulfur and trident-wielding demons. These views were not indigenous to Judaism, but after rubbing shoulders with the Magi, such ideas eventually worked their way in.
All that the Internet has done is speed up the process. Without the web, people took longer to encounter and learn about different religions. Some of us took university degrees to figure out as much as we could. Now it requires little effort and minimal time. Like most e-commerce, if you don’t like what you’ve bought somebody else is offering something similar just a server away. What web-culture has done is to hold up a mirror to our bizarre shopping attitude towards religion. We can see in fast-forward what appeared smooth and organic in real-time. Religions change and the methods of selecting religions change as well. My observation is that clergy who take courses in web-casting will be at the front of the class until the next technological revolution comes along.