Scitech  The Father, the Son, and cyberspace

Catholicism is embracing technology, but risks losing itself along the way

Who needs to go to Church when an iPhone can walk anyone through a proper confession? A quick Google search inspired by a new application – a “Confessions” app available for $1.99 – brings up a host of further connections between the Catholic Church and technology.

Though the Catholic Church did not approve the application, ranking members of the Church do have personal Facebook accounts, and the Vatican has a YouTube channel and a slew of Twitter accounts. There is even a Facebook application that allows people to send virtual postcards featuring the Pope. While it may seem counterintuitive for a primeval institution such as the Catholic Church to embrace these seemingly frivolous forms of new communication, mass media is actually an effective tool in the modern history of Catholicism.

In 1931, the Vatican established a radio channel and in the 1980s the phenomenon of televangelism – televised sermons – gained immense popularity. Televangelists brought the visual spectacle of preaching to the homes of millions, further increasing the ability to experience religion in seclusion. These technological advancements are accepted as inherently good and useful – after all, the Catholic experience can now be shared worldwide – but the question remains: is more always better?

The Daily asked Torrance Kirby, director of the Centre for Research on Religion, to comment on the relationship between religion and technology. Kirby said that  it is nothing new.

“If you take a very traditional Catholic view of religion, a lot of it has to do with spectacle… Baroque decoration is all about…the tricks of sculpture and painting to bring people to some kind of condition of awe and wonder at the divine splendour.  [Therefore,] is there anything different [between] what Bernini is doing in his design of ecclesiastical spaces and what modern technology does?”

However, Kirby does acknowledge that today’s technology allows for greater individualization and seclusion, which is contradictory to the traditional message of Catholicism and worship.

“There is something qualitatively different when, [compared to Bernini’s Baroque decoration], you think that with YouTube you can project some religious event or service or action around the world which anyone can pick up in their comfort of their own bed.  [This] is problematic to say the least.  There’s some way in which traditional notions of worship are challenged,” explained Kirby.

Kirby was ultimately interested not in the future of the relationship between religion and technology, but the prospect of technology as religion. Citing Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” throughout, Kirby posits the existence of a religion of technology.

“It seems to me arguable that a certain kind of commitment to technology, an unquestioning commitment that technological advancement is progressive and beneficial to humanity, is a kind of religious commitment itself,” Kirby stated.

Most people view technology as means to an end: tools that we control in order to better serve our lives on Earth.  However, what if technology actually controlled us? What if  the way in which we used technology determined our actions, and the technological progress we made was pre-determined by the technology we already possess?

Kirby explained that society tends to assume that technology is ethically neutral. It is merely an instrument of progress that we as human beings control. He told The Daily that Heidegger calls this common assumption into question. “Technology is a way that we as human beings have a relation to truth,” quoted Kirby.

It is therefore possible that this relationship that we have with truth through technology is similar to our traditional understanding of religion. Catholicism is a way in which certain people have a relation to truth. However, there is a fundamental difference between the relationship to truth that religion provides and the interconnection experienced through technology. While technology is a necessary element of modern society, and a valid method of communication for the Catholic Church to pursue, society’s commitment to technology risks overshadowing its commitment to faith.

What is the future of religion and technology?  February 12, 2011 was the 80th anniversary of the Vatican radio.

In his message for the 45th World Day for Social Communications on January 24, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.”

This acceptance of technology further emphasizes the implicit trust society as a whole puts in the virtue of technological advancement.  Every day, people are inundated with an incomprehensible amount of information.  In a matter of seconds, a Google search garners countless Catholic websites, blogs, and podcasts – both official and unofficial – for personal perusal. Our increased unquestioning dependence on technology allows for the flow of more information than ever before and, in the case of the Catholic Church, more people are able to access the Church and experience Catholicism.

While most may argue that this new communication technology is a fact of life that institutions must adapt to in order to survive, some believe that the true meaning of religious worship is lost when using Facebook or Twitter to connect with the Church, and that by using an iPhone app to express spirituality, we are in danger of losing ourselves within technology itself, and missing the true aim of religion.