Raushenbush discusses religion online, the blessings and the curses

Paul Raushenbush, senior religion editor for The Huffington Post, speaks in the Hall of Philosophy Monday afternoon. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

When the Rev. Paul Raushenbush’s partner’s mother’s health worsened last year, events progressed rapidly. While the two were by her side in the hospital, they learned she had about two to three hours to live. Using his smartphone, Raushenbush connected to the Internet and found prayers for the dying. They said a prayer as she died, and one after she passed away.

“This changed completely the way we experienced the death of his mother. It was extremely powerful, and it has a great deal of implications,” Raushenbush said.

That would not have been possible without Raushenbush’s cellphone or the wealth of religious information available online. The advent and progression of the Internet and digital technology are changing the way people in our world experience life, particularly the study and practice of religion.

On Monday, Raushenbush, senior religion editor at The Huffington Post, opened the Week Six religion theme, “The Life of Faith and the Digital Age,” with a lecture titled “Behold, I Set before You a Blessing and a Curse — The Power of the Internet in Our Spiritual Lives.” In his lecture, Raushenbush focused on the Internet’s positive and negative impacts on religion, and he also discussed how religious leaders and practitioners can transform it into a positive place for faith and spirituality.

“One thing is very clear: The Internet and the technologies involved with it are not going away,” Raushenbush said.

Raushenbush is former associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, and an editor of http://www.beliefnet.com. In 2004, he published Teen Spirit: One World, Many Paths.

“You’ve heard that when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, it can be felt on the other. This has become completely true with the Internet,” Raushenbush said.

The Internet can bring people together and expose them to information and knowledge that educates and inspires. It is a platform used to call for social justice and solidarity. It has proven to be a vessel for group action in the face of crises, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or injustice, as in the case of a bullied schoo­­­­­­­­­l bus monitor, Raushenbush said. ­­­

Conversely, the Internet has also been a method and means for fostering hate and destruction and spreading prejudice. That was evident last year when a previously little-known Florida pastor decided to film burning the Quran and upload that video to the Internet. Most media outlets elected not to cover the hateful act, but the story spread via the Internet and social media. It was seen around the world, and it sparked fatal protests and riots in Afghanistan.

Raushenbush’s history as a religious person and leader has paralleled the rise of the Internet. He has always been interested in understanding how religious messages are carried outside the church. In 2009, Raushenbush wrote Arianna Huffington an email that read, “You’re not doing religion. You should do religion. And I can do it for you.” Huffington accepted the offer, and Raushenbush became The Huffington Post’s religion editor that same year.

Today, Raushenbush leads a staff dedicated to following the mission statement he established at HuffPost Religion’s inception. The statement reads: “Huffington Post Religion is dedicated to providing positive encounters with religious wisdom and ideas. The site offers the opportunity for learning and cooperation across religious divisions and encourages productive discourse on the many different ways religion influences personal, communal, national and international life. The tone of HuffPost Religion is intelligent, creative, forward-thinking, rigorous and is marked by generosity towards religious people and respect of religious tradition,” Raushenbush said.

At The Huffington Post, Raushenbush said his section must cover the negative aspects of religion, but it tries to push stories that show religion’s positive, intelligent side. In that way, his work at The Huffington Post is a ministry, he said.

During his lecture, Raushenbusch asked the Hall of the Philosophy audience how many viewed the Internet as part of their religious practice. A sprinkling of attendees raised their hands. He next asked how many had searched online for information regarding their faith — be it a scripture, prayer or a meditation. Almost every hand was up in the air. He asked again, “OK, how many of you view the Internet as a part of your religious practice?”

It is time to acknowledge how intermixed the spheres of religion and the digital media are, Raushenbush said. In 2000, 21 percent of Internet users went online to find religious or spiritual information; in 2001, the percentage jumped to 25; and by 2004, 64 percent of Internet users were utilizing the Web to discover information about religion, Raushenbush said.

According to a poll administered by Pew Research Center in 2011, 79 percent of religiously active Americans use the Internet. Ninety-three percent of online community members said the Internet helps them stay informed about social issues, Raushenbush said.

Those statistics evidence how effective the Internet is as an information delivery mechanism. The nature and virtue of the Internet is not about the abstract concept of the Web, it is about the person using it, Raushenbush said.

“It’s all about the intention,” he said. “There’s good and bad — it’s what we bring to it.”

Raushenbush discussed the blessings and curses of technology and religion: the breadth of the information it provides access to, the sense of community it allows, the egalitarian venue it creates, and the actual technology itself.

“It is perhaps the most remarkable tool ever created to aid people in search of information about religion,” Raushenbush said.

With a few clicks of a mouse, people can access websites that represent their own faith teachings, stories and liturgies, scriptures, meditations and prayers, Raushenbush said.

“If you have a smartphone, you have the most grand, extensive religious library that ever existed,” Raushenbush said. “Each day, more texts, more theological reflections, more podcasts are being uploaded to the Web — it is absolutely extraordinary.”

The Internet also gives unprecedented access to information about all faiths, wisdoms and religious traditions, regardless of the researcher’s geographic location. Historically, the process of learning about religious traditions was impeded by distance; that distance evaporates online. To celebrate Ramadan, HuffPost Religion is publishing daily reflections by Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University.

“I read them every day, and I feel enriched,” Raushenbush said. “I’m growing in my own faith through his.”

One of the best ways to reach an intelligent and trustworthy website is for responsible religious leaders to be active online, and to point people towards information that will enlighten our minds and feed our spirits.

-Rev. Paul Raushenbush

Though an inexhaustible wealth of positive, useful religious information exists online, there is also a great deal of misinformation published on the Internet by those seeking to influence or to mislead.

“It is put there by people who are ignorant, or they are willfully malicious,” Raushenbush said.

It is important for anyone researching online to pay careful attention to the source of information, what a website’s “about” page says, and what types of organizations promote or link to it, Raushenbush said.

“Google and Yahoo search are the shamans of the Internet, and they don’t care,” Raushenbush said.

If a person searches the term “Jew” using Google, the second link returned directs the seeker to an Aryan Nation website.

“One of the best ways to reach an intelligent and trustworthy website is for responsible religious leaders to be active online,” Raushenbush said, “and to point people towards information that will enlighten our minds and feed our spirits.”

The Internet is an egalitarian platform, Raushenbush said. Religious authorities are no longer the key holders to information, and dissenting voices are easily found. In some religious institutions, that has resulted in increased transparency. Last year’s United Methodist Conference was streamed online and live-tweeted, Raushenbush said.

The leveled playing field worries certain religious leaders. Recently, 30,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews organized and attended a rally against the Internet and advanced technology.

Raushenbush said he was sure many found out about the rally online.

Once it sold out, tickets were available on eBay, he said.

There is a sense of anonymity online that allows people to masquerade as theologians or active religious leaders. A few years ago on Second Life, an online virtual world that allows users to interact through avatars, a priest pretended to hold a virtual Catholic Mass. Unfortunately, the person behind the avatar was not a priest, or Catholic, and the mass was invalid, Raushenbush said.

The distance from a central authority the Internet allows has not been lost on religious leaders. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called on Catholic leaders to develop a more active online presence.

He wrote, “Priests stand at the threshold of a new era as new technologies create deeper forms of relationships across greater differences. They are called to respond pastorally, putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the word,” Raushenbush said.

The Vatican created and used a Twitter handle this past Lent, but it made a poor name selection — @Pope2YouVatican — Raushenbush said.

The levels of communication and interaction facilitated by the Internet make geographical barriers obsolete.

“Using Facebook, or Tumblr or Pinterest, a person creates a mix of spirituality that can include Rumi, Augustine and Nina Simone,” he said. “This act of curation of a spirituality can be personally liberating and put the individual in touch with a diverse group of kindred spirits who span the Internet.”

A Buddhist woman who attended Princeton while Raushenbush was there once told him she felt completely alone in her rural hometown, detached from any Buddhists. But with the Internet, she was able to connect to a Buddhist center in New York and communicate with people of her own faith by downloading podcasts or talking on Skype, Raushenbush said.

When communities connect online, that often translates into an offline community or action. When a pastor from Washington, D.C., began posting his prayers for Africa on his Facebook page, he eventually garnered 100,000 likes, and the community worked together to send him to Africa, Raushenbush said.

The drawback to virtual communities is that often people go online alone, and there is a sense of detachment from the reality of belonging to the community. Digital communities or connections are much easier to leave or break, Raushenbush said. Additionally, the idea that the Internet protects a person’s identity is a misconception that often leads to vicious comments.

“The perceived anonymity leads to an incredible amount of vitriol and animosity,” Raushenbush said.

When Raushenbush’s nephew died a few years ago, he posted the eulogy to his HuffPost Religion blog. In the comment section, he received many messages of condolence and affection. When one commenter chose to say something negative, the community reacted in a way that silenced the offender.

“I think there can be an ethic, and there can be a vulnerability and a beauty, to community on the Web, and I’m trying to figure out … how we elicit that,” Raushenbusch said.

In the conclusion of his lecture, Raushenbush discussed the digital ways in which religious traditions manifest online. For example, it is possible to go to a virtual Hindu temple and lay a flower on a shrine. There is a website that lets people electronically send missives that are then transcribed and brought to the Wailing Wall. There is a prayer application for smartphones that consists of a blank screen. If people fill it out with a prayer and hit “send,” what does that mean, Raushenbush said.

“The question is, does that go to God?” he said.

If a person is trapped behind his or her computer, and he or she finds a digital outlet to reflect, meditate or pray for just a few moments each day, what sort of experience with the divine is taking place, Raushenbush asked.

There are many different opinions on those developments. But the most important thing is that people stay aware of the changes in communications and technology and accept that they will not disappear.

“The question that each of us needs to ask is how we are taking part in this conversation,” Raushenbush said, “how we — all of you — can be a part of the force that bends the Internet away from the curse and towards the blessing.”

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