Religious Doctrine and the Internet

If a religious tradition wants to evolve, it may also need to forget

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s series of Reith Lectures is called ‘Mistaken Identities‘.  I really enjoyed listening to the first lecture on ‘Creed‘ and am looking forward to the rest: ‘Country’, ‘Colour’ and ‘Culture’.

In the first lecture, Appiah walked us through the idea that religious practices and doctrines are far more fluid and open to interpretation and change, than the fundamentalists would have us believe.  This is a good thing in my view, as it offers hope that illiberal ideas spread under the guise of religion can eventually be abandoned.

But I found myself wondering whether the Internet and digital technology may actually stifle that process.

Conventional wisdom would say that the opposite is true.  Surely the Internet, which enables dissent and different voices to come into contact with doctrine in a way like never before, will catalyse change?

I am not so sure.  First, the same technologies appear to be facilitating a Big (Digital) Sort, where we retreat into ideological silos and eschew alternative views.  Its not certain that out-group criticisms of a religion will cause that religion to change.  In fact, it might cause aherents to double-down on their existing practices and beliefs.

More crucial however is the fact that digital technology and especially digital archives mean that nothing will ever be forgotten.  In the past, a religious practice or indeed any cultural tradition could be changed in the span of just a couple of generations.  The old ways of doing things were not recorded in any detail and could be conveniently ignored (my favourite example of this is cultural, not religious: until the 1950s, pink was for boys and blue was for girls).

But now, the old traditions can be recorded and captured for posterity and referred to as if they had happened yesterday.  This is clearly a great thing for, say, indigenous cultures struggling to survive.  But for a culture or religious tradition that wants to evolve, it may also need to forget… and that’s actually quite difficult in the Twenty First Century.


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