Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The iGod:

Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.

So writes Andrew Sullivan in his latest column for the Sunday Times. And yet it's not just culture that's been affected by the advent of what Sullivan calls the iWorld; it's the "cult" around which culture exists as well.

An untold number of Christian groups, for instance, have created virtual "iChuches" where a person can read devotionals, take Bible studies, hear a sermon, join an online community, and even take a quiz that will tell you whether you've been saved and, if not, how to do it--all without ever actually meeting another human being in person.

So far, I haven't come across a site that promises to baptize or celebrate the Eucharist via the internet. It also bears point out that, at this point, it would be premature to suggest that the iChurch is anywhere close to being ascendant in the religious world. Still, this does not mean that Christians shouldn't be more wary than perhaps we are about substituting the internet or television for the weekly ekklesia ("gathering") that, for 20 centuries, has been the definitive practice of the Christian faith.

Our God may well be the God of the Internet; but he is not an iGod, and he did not create us to live in isolation from one another--least of all in our spiritual lives. The promise of Satan--that a self unencumbered by the bonds of community will flourish and find happiness--is a lie. Just ask those who've spent time in solitary confinement. They will tell you that the self is the smallest and loneliest prison of all. The real wonder is why so many of us who don't have to bear such a punishment nonetheless choose to do so.

But it's not just ourselves we need to worry about. Proponents of other faiths are also busy setting up virtual religious communities, including some who stand ready to exploit the loneliness of those who seem to have no ties to any real community at all. The recent Satanic ritual slayings discussed here, for instance, highlight a growing problem in the secular, atomized cultural landscape of western Europe:

Beyond the violence, Italian officials are concerned about young people who develop personal forms of Satanism, outside the sects closely monitored by police. They often learn about the devil through the Internet.

"It's a more spontaneous and hidden phenomenon, a problem of loneliness and isolation, a problem of emptiness, that is fulfilled by the values of Satanism," said Carlo Climati.

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