God on the Net

God on the Net

Andrew Brown for John Price

God, when you think about it, is a lot like the Internet: both are invisible, omniscient, and omnipotent. Both tend to let their believers down with a bump when they are most dependent; but this does not matter, for their believers are not discouraged by any amount of boredom or disappointment. So itís not surprising that God spends a lot of time on the Net, or that the Net devotes a lot of space to discussing God.

Some of this is gratifyingly wacky. There is a church in California which will ordain visitors to its web site for free, which is why I can legally marry people in California, and my full title (though I seldom use it) is The Sainted Revíd Andrew Brown. D. Theol. Unfortunately, my certificate of sainthood was stolen by an unscrupulous colleague at another newspaper. Iím sure it never fitted him.

In other places the net is used for deadly serious religious disputes. Because it is so cheap to publish a website and almost impossible to police, the Internet is used to broadcast a great deal of deeply poisonous stuff. A church in Kansas City has a notorious website called GodHatesFags, which rejoices in the idea that all homosexuals will burn in hell (along with most of the rest of us). American White Supremacist and neo-nazi groups promote other perverted forms of Christianity.

Most of the churches on the web, though, are simply advertising their services in the normal way., but doing so to a global audience: I particularly treasure the knowledge that if ever I have a Jewish friend going to Alaska, I can direct them to a synagogue which bills itself as the home of the Frozen Chosen. Yet this stuff is only the outer reaches of the religious Internet. Most of the ways in which god moves in cyberspace are private: they are attempts at conversation, not conversion. It was in a group like this that the joke of a liturgy for mobile phones first surfaced, or the "theological engineering" exam which starts: "You may use a calculator, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and the Book of Mormon. The speed of light is c. Show all work. For all problems, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D. No praying during the exam."

But there is some overlap between the public and private worlds: The Anglican theological college at Westcott House in Cambridge operates a slightly more refined version of this sort of service, where enquirers can email theological questions to the students. If they canít answer, the question goes to their teachers; and if they are stumped in turn, it is passed up to the Bishop of Ely: presumably he refers tricky problems even further upstairs.

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