THE INTERNET & SCIENCE/RELIGION DIALOGUES
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
Though e-mails and the Internet have a much longer history, it was only in the 1990s that they became widespread enough to become a worldwideweb. Since then the world has undergone a communications revolution that is as major as the invention of writing and of books in print. Like every human invention, it has had its good and ill-effects too. Most of all, the Internet has opened up a knowledge-availability resource that is within reach of anyone with a computer in a country that does not control the free flow of information to its people.
In this context many perspectives, politics, religious claims and attacks, propaganda, advertisements, and such have proliferated. Inevitably, debates, discussions, and diatribes on Science and Religion have also emerged the world over. It has facilitated enormously an important aspect of democracy: giving everyone the opportunity to blurt out whatever he/she thinks on any subject. Whether and to what positive extent all this serves the cause of better understanding, more enlightenment, spreading more informed knowledge, and deeper appreciation of the other is not quite clear. In any event here at IRAS we have an active and spirited forum for exchanges on Science and Religion through IRASnet. Open to all our members, at least a dozen or so of our members actively participate in the exchanges.
Our Website with its bimonthly editions of Perspectives has been functioning for almost two years now. It is here that our members have been sharing their views on a variety of topics related to Science and Religion through short essays.
In the following we can read the views of some of our members on the impact of the Internet on these issues. I thank them for responding to me invitation to write.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
The Effect of the Internet on the S/R Dialogue
Perhaps the most visible effect of the internet on the S/R exchange has been to speed it up. People can now communicate in real time; communicating in real time, with a global audience, issues are stripped down readily to their bare essentials. This has had the effect of relativizing some of the expressions of religion that ignore the human rights of women, of gays and lesbians, and of people who do not follow all the tenets of a religion in its extreme form. That must be counted as a positive. On the other hand, the internet has tended to polarize the science and religion exchange around just a few issues. By publicizing the views of a few celebrities representing either side, it has also tended to create a false positive for the polarization of the debate. It is unlikely that celebrity atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins are going to find common ground with high-profile religious leaders, and to expect that either side will accommodate in such a debate is fruitless. That is all the more true if the debate is defined by issues on which both sides are known to hold incompatible and opposing beliefs. If you ask whether the universe was created in seven days, according to Genesis, or if it was created according to modern cosmological theory, obviously there cannot be literal agreement. If you oppose two other luminaries known to hold diametrically opposite views on a topic such as gay marriage, it is unlikely either will leave the debate with their views changed. However, such debates are likely to gain a host of comments on the internet. Since much of the debate on the internet is driven by commentary on media other than the internet itself—TV, radio, and sales—we must also factor in the likelihood that these outlets seek drama over debate in many instances, and drive a similar tone on the internet. They are thus motivated to seek, and internet exchange is likeliest to be fueled, by the opinions about which the most famous people are the likeliest to be deadlocked. Such are not necessarily the debates in which common ground can be found, in those areas where both parties are engaged in contribution—on the ground. Nor will they always be the areas where the most interesting comparisons can be made between philosophies.
There are many areas involving both science and religion as contributing parties, beyond the predictable disagreements about the origins of nature (with religious extremists providing much of the “noise”) and/or the social role of religion (with some “noise” on the part of positivist atheists). Medical humanities are one area to which science and religion can contribute to an equal degree, not from the standpoint of competing proofs but rather as tributaries feeding into the same body of water. Indeed there are many potentially creative differences of approach within the helping professions, depending on the point of view from which professionals begin. This does not mean that the same people who pool their resources cannot also come together in debate over questions of origins and ethics. But the contact does not always have to begin at these ultimate flashpoints. The potential exists for the internet to show users the entire spectrum of beliefs and opinions to which people representing the “science” or “religion” viewpoint (or both) can subscribe. However, it seems the greatest chance for exploiting this potential will be through the back door, beginning with conversations that are not set up for maximum friction.
Science, Religion and the Internet
Whitney A. Bauman
Many philosophers have posited the idea that technology is not just something that humans use in order to turn the worlds resources into human benefit, but rather, technologies fundamentally change what it means to be human. Donna Haraway’s cyborg ontology most readily comes to mind. Part of this idea suggests that such an understanding erodes the idea that humans (and our cultures and technologies) are somehow separate from the rest of the “natural” world. Furthermore, it also suggests that humans are not the only agents in the world. To use the language of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, we are assemblages of multiple flows of plants, minerals, animals, histories, and technologies. Or to use the language of Bruno Latour, there are multiple actants in the world: atomic, chemical, animal, human, and machine. Assuming that technologies do change our very humanity, assuming that we are in some sense evolved by technologies as much or more than we evolve or create technologies, what can be said about the internet and how it is changing our human relationships to one another and to the rest of the natural world? I think (along with others) that there are at least three primary ways in which the Internet is changing our humanity and our relations with the rest of the natural world that concern the broad realm of science and religion.
Connectivity, Collectivity, and Hybridity. Starting with, perhaps, the most obvious point first, the Internet is making out of all of us (and all life in general) a more collective, connected, and hybrid bunch. From the perspective of human beings our histories and cultures are so much intertwined now that the questions of authenticity, originality, and purity so critiqued by “post” thinking are now becoming obsolete. The Internet has made information about so many traditions, histories, events, and possibilities for living accessible that the tradition one is raised in has forever been shot through with multiple histories and other traditions. In a sense, we are all becoming more and more hybrid. Granted, this process is not an even process, but none-the-less, the Internet makes it possible to find one’s community in multiple places around the world and to patch together a hybrid identity of multiple world traditions. In this sense, the Internet is helping to materialize the postmodern condition.
Freeing up of Memory, Time, and Space. With an increase in the flow of information and materials, comes also the freeing up of brain space for tasks that once required our time, energy, and space. Noreen Herzfeld, in her book Technology and Religion: Remaining Human in a Co-Created World (2009) (and in other places), writes about the ways in which technologies (including the Internet) help us offload our memories and create communal memories, among other things. How many times do we simply look to the great oracle “Google” for answers to everyday things in life, from directions, to historical questions, recipes, and scientific information? The Internet is literally becoming an extension of human memory and will perhaps lead to different neural connections from our ancestors who passed down information through oral traditions and print communications. We are literally more and more hybrid as the Internet becomes the repository of information and thoughts. This leads me to my third and final point: speed.
The Pace of Lived Life and Planetary Systems. The real ethical questions fall here at the question of the lived pace of our lives. For those whose careers, lifestyles and lives depend more and more on the Internet, our lives are being lived at a more rapid pace. We can simply do more and more in less and less time. This is related to the pace of consumption of energy, materials, and information. What happens to those billions of people who are not connected on a daily basis to the Internet? What happens to animals, ecosystems and the planet itself when the consumption of some human lives is literally outstripping the regenerative capacity of the planet? In the end, I think we have to ask, as Teresa Brennan does in Globalization and its Terrors (2003): at what pace can we continue the process of connectivity, hybridity, and connectivity without outstripping the life-systems of the planet? Might there be a way of developing planetary technologies that recognize the goods of such connectivity without the current levels of violence that lead to mass species extinctions, mass economic inequities, and destruction of planetary systems? Can we think with the rest of the planetary community and ask how this great tool can be used to foster planetary flourishing rather than just the flourishing of a few at the expense of the many? These are just a few of the many questions raised by paying close attention to how the internet is affecting our humanity, our relationships to one another, and the rest of the planetary community.
The Internet as Global Brain
The effects of the connectivity provided by the Internet on communication, and occasionally, serious dialogue, are well documented. To the Neoliberal, to whom being connected is an end in itself, the Internet facilitates market globalization, oils the wheels of commerce, venerates and increases Choice, serves to maximize transactions and contracts. To the contrarian ideologue, the radical and the reactionary, the Internet provides a means to disseminate some Truth, or, at least, preach to the choir. To the various national security states, connectivity is a window through which populations may be monitored. To many it is the very source of culture shock. Is connectedness of this sort a moral imperative, or value-neutral? Can we utilize it to come to truly innovative, i.e., non-entrepreneurial solutions to the great existential issues we face, or will our unprecedented connectivity continue to atomize humanity into ever more narrow nooks and crannies, cliques and cults, further dividing and conquering us?
A bit of hypothetical fancy in an IRAS context: In the midst of an online S/R dialogue, so often fraught with misunderstanding, were we able to understand - to hear in our minds - everything a religious skeptic of Science was thinking, and perhaps even feel what they are feeling, and they us, would we be better able to find common ground? To allay their fears of our intentions, and vice versa.... To convince each other of our moral uprightness and fair-mindedness.... To persuade them not to seek to legislate religious matters in fear of some detraction from their value system or societal morals at large.... Would the dialogue be enhanced? Would such profound familiarity breed contempt or affection?
When I began to study what to add on this topic, I thought of an interview with Rodolfo Llinás by Roger Bingham on The Science Network, in which Llinás described his vision of the future of brain-wiring. Nanowires and receptors threaded throughout the brain's vascular system. The interview is fascinating, particularly as the conversation alights on the topic of Free Will, but over an hour in duration. A briefer description of brain wiring by Llinás and crew can be found in this nine minute video taken from a rather MTV-esque PBS science series of a few years ago.
I don't know how or if that project is going, these days, but it is an interesting idea to ponder in any case. Would near perfect understanding of each other be conducive to agreement or harmonious disagreement? Would there be anything to gain collectively by being able to share another's deepest concerns and fears, rational and irrational, and they ours? To grasp the depth of their courage or resolve in the context of our disputation? This might not be as preposterous as the idea may initially strike us. According to Llinás, it is probable that this mechanism will be realized.
The internet has been characterized as a global brain. I anticipate that the metaphorical quality of this characterization will disappear, one day. Would such an eventuality bring harmony or havoc? Utopia or dystopia?
In the meantime, we shall hold conferences and write essays and proselytize and ponder our approach and scheme to keep our voices from being drowned out in the Cacophony.
the impact of the internet on S/R dialogues
J. Ash Bowie
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The primary impact of the Internet on conversations related to science and religion has been (1) the increase of participants and (2) unprecedented access to information. It isn’t this simple, of course, but it’s fair to say that the combination of an expanding base of participants and easy access to information has shifted the dynamics significantly. At one point it required expertise or at least an established reputation before one was given a platform upon which to speak about either religion or science. This is no longer the case. Now anyone with a connection to the Internet can find virtually any kind of data that’s been published and voice an opinion about it that has the potential to reach thousands.
Before continuing, it is important to understand what we mean by the “dialog between religion and science.” There really isn’t any such dialog. What we have is a lot of individual communications, ranging from formal debates to hyperbolic monologues. Pro-science and pro-religion groups put forward position statements, people write and comment on blogs, YouTube hosts countless videos of every kind, and on and on. And the number of such communications is increasing rapidly.
But why are we even having these particular conversations? After all, we don’t talk about the science-government dialog or the religion-sports dialog. We talk about the science-religion dialog because in many ways they are in direct competition. Both are in the business of explaining what exists, how it all works, and what we can predict about the future. Yes, religion does a lot of other things besides that, but those other things are often grounded in what people believe is true.
There’s more at stake than merely bragging rights over who got it right. So many people are engaging online about this because the world views offered by religion and science have a profound impact on how we think about the world, how we solve problems, and, perhaps most importantly, how we think about ourselves. Our identities are, in part, formed in respect to our perceived relationship to the larger world around us and what we think of our essential nature. When we are faced with a competing view of reality, and thus of ourselves, it can cause anxiety, dissonance, and offense. And many people deal with this by going online to find supportive communities or to debate (or harass) the other team.
With all this in mind, I think the real question at hand here is if the Internet has had a positive impact on bridging religious and scientific world views. By bridging, I mean a decrease in tensions along with an increase in mutual understanding. Frankly, I see little evidence of that...yet. While I certainly can’t see the entire picture, my own experience suggests that a large majority of people do not understand basic scientific principles and are unfamiliar with most established scientific theories. On the other side, a 2010 Pew Forum survey indicated that non-theists know more about religion than actual adherents. Yet this isn’t stopping a growing number of people from going online to shout out any and all arguments in favor of their beliefs, ranging from the profound to the ridiculous.
I think what we’re seeing is people hashing out what they think and what they are committed to. The lines are being drawn, the arguments honed, and the tribes established. We are in a messy phase of things, with long-standing social norms being disrupted. There are folks out there trying to build bridges, of course, but too many people are still fortifying the digital walls. While the kind of rock throwing we see online can be distressing and even counterproductive in the short term, it isn’t really a bad thing. Before we can build bridges, first we need to figure out where the fault lines really are. And getting through this process requires talking about things that for a long time we’ve been told we shouldn’t talk about in polite company. Said another way, lasting harmony won’t be reached until enough people agree that it’s okay to talk honestly and rationally about the implications science has for religion. We have to talk about it. Because bridges cannot be built out of respectful silence.
The Impact of the Internet on S/R Dialogues
Joe Ted Miller
The internet and the Science/Religion dialogue is all about connecting. The Internet and especially IRAS as well as other sites has empowered me to go beyond my steadily continuing to read books after seminary on theology and Biblical studies but also the relationship between science and religion. Secondly, in retirement the Internet has increased my interaction with not just the writings in books but also on line with scientists and theologians and Biblical scholars. So the Internet has been all about connection, connections, connectivity and emergence for me. I could even mention entanglement after that most recently accessed chapter on line through IRAS also because once again thanks to the Internet that chapter gave me still another way of understanding possibilities of the way physical interactions might occur throughout the structure of the universe. As an evolving theist I can also learn new ways of reading theology out of science through the notion of entanglement of God and world. I realize that at least for me none of these systems of thinking answer all my questions about the ways science and religion can inter-relate and learn from and with one another in the polylogical process; however, you all and the Internet have augmented the depth and breadth of my study in these separate fields and in the conversations between them.
In addition the Internet on Science and Religion has an effect on my conversations with the people who seek out my own understandings of how these two can assist one another and also give rise in me to more questions that I can initiate with others that I think might be interested. Because I am currently doing some interviews for the University of Oklahoma on Exploring Religion Vimeo, the Internet is the way these are accessed. More and more I bring in science to the religions issue as to how one religion or denomination or another is dealing with this question in our time as compared with how they have dealt with it in the past.
Of particular interest to me in my study is how to think and talk and study and feel about the how and the why of the development of the universe. Within this question I am most moved by the challenges the Internet discussions and studies offer regarding issues of evolution, emergence, consciousness and how all aspects of religious belief, wondering and trust can or might relate to them.
The Impact of the Internet on the Science/Religion Dialogue in IRAS
Hmm…. Impact of a mother on an offspring; let me count the ways: existence, structure, sustenance, environment, protection, communication, learning memory, culture.. . . . .
Without the internet there would be no IRASnet. As in olden days, this kind of communication within IRAS would occur through letters written by individuals and various physical meetings between conferences. Notwithstanding week-long contacts on the porch at Star and at owl meetings, winters between conferences are long. The existence of this listserve, particularly, perhaps, in the relatively benign confines of Washington University, thanks to Ursula, encouraged participation. Unlike the standard internet social structure, where “friends” may never be met elsewhere and real identities may even be obscured, with the result that many participants (e.g. Tamerlan Tsarnaev) do not really feel a sense of community, the IRASnet is inhabited by folks with established collegial connections renewed with vigor at least annually. The dialogues serve to deepen these associations. The electronic structure, with the “reply” option, which includes the carrying forward of prior communications and their subject names, not only encourages reply but also provides generous maintenance of the substance of discussion and has the additional comical characteristic of showing how a series of letters labeled as dealing with the same topic can morph unexpectedly and often productively. Members are stimulated to opine on subjects they may never have intended getting involved in. Introduction of new subjects or new treatment of old ones gets done with high-quality sourcing by hyperlinks through flicks of buttons and provides all members access to the entire internet, with educational new contacts, and also the opportunity to compare (usually favorably) our discussion with more celebrated ones.
As many prominent people of formerly good repute have discovered to their dismay the internet model is a prosecutor’s, hence an archivist’s, dream. Some members of IRAS have intentionally kept everything on the listserve, an objective that will be easier to achieve in the Google group setting, providing an unprecedented record of the flow of thoughts among a segment of Irasians that appears to be growing (another possible benefit of the internet). We have a detailed permanent record of a lot of thoughts of members.
All of this protected communication engenders learning, memory, and acculturation as attributed to maternal influences above, omitting mother-love. But there’s no question in my mind that the provision of the quantity and quality of discussion in this delicate domain of inquiry, strengthens the warm bonds among the participants, even when they don’t agree. Indeed, there’s evidence of bonding antagonism. Security is an issue as we move into increased exposure, but the issue permeates all electronic communication. This is an area that could become annoying through harassment from truly alien spirits, but unlikely in my opinion to become destructive.
Long live our use and support of this creative product of technology despite its capability, like that of every product of technology, to create significant mischief. The march of technology is unlikely to be thwarted by other than its own self-destruction. Its useful adaptation is best attained by its adoption by the best-meaning elements of society, and, of course, those would include, beyond argument, the IRAS community.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science