Perhaps the slowest of all the social niches to embrace the power of the internet, religious organizations have only recently begun to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other online networks. With social media playing such a large role in modern life, many may find this fact surprising.
However, in lieu of influence from more traditional bodies, the conversation about faith on social media has become a much more diverse one, moving away from the rigid scriptures and ideals of more conventional platforms.
There are many ways these virtual outlets for discussion have changed how spirituality is perceived worldwide—albeit not all of them good. However, in my opinion, the overall influence of the following factors marks the beginning of a new age in faith and religion, one of greater acceptance and understanding.
Faith’s greatest enemy has long been ignorance. Throughout history, religious wars, genocide and persecution have taken place due to a foundation of misunderstanding and fear. This can still be seen in our modern world with the recent rise in Islamophobia and religious hate crimes happening all across society.
However, with platforms like Facebook creating a melting pot of users from a whole plethora of countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds, this ignorance could soon become a thing of the past. The photos circulated of the 2011 Egyptian riots depicting a ring of Christians protecting Muslims as they prayed stand as a poetic metaphor for the potential of social networks in the conversation about faith.
Social media offers accessibility without commitment, the possibility to explore alien ideals without having to visit places of worship or invest in scripture. While they also host the views of extremist groups whose online presence has a notably divisive effect, at least there is a balance available for those seeking it.
Discrepancies in faith don’t just happen between different religions, although this is where they’re most evident. In fact, belief is such a heavily interpreted concept that even family members born and raised identically can find themselves coming to different conclusions. Personally, I find this one of the most beautiful elements of faith.
On social media, people feel the conversation about beliefs can be had with less physical threat than in real life; the anonymity of the internet allows them to feel safe about asking those tricky questions without the worry of the conversation escalating to violence. While there have been a few cases of aggressors seeking out their victims because of something they’ve said online, in general, the internet provides a greater level of protection to voice opinions and raise queries safely without unintentionally getting into a fight.
The benefit this has for our universal understanding of faith is tenfold and already evident. Recently a member of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church found her fundamentalist and anti-gay rhetoric brought into question by the responses she received when taking to Twitter to promote the organization. She left the church in 2012 in search of a more moderate and open-minded life.
As we face a time of global unrest and religious tensions, tolerance is something that’s more important than ever to promote. Fortunately, social media has provided a wonderful platform for this.
Due to their very nature, networking sites allow you to get up close and personal with people you may have never otherwise come into contact with. You can watch their lives and listen to the thoughts and feelings of people with faith of all kinds—or none at all. It becomes obvious that no matter what they believe, people mourn the same tragedies, appreciate the same niceties and love those whom they are close to.
Through social media, many strict atheists who discount those with religious beliefs as forceful and pressurizing can expose themselves to a more realistic impression of living with faith, just as the sites can help extremists realize that those with contrasting beliefs aren’t evil.
Although it didn’t originate on social media, a recent news story told of a woman who refused to sit next a Muslim passenger on a plane. Instead of reacting with anger, the passenger took the time to discuss the woman’s anxieties until discovering that her fear came from a simple misunderstanding. This story is a beautiful testimony to the link between understanding and tolerance, and the many Facebook shares it has received highlight the power of social media for positive change.
Unfortunately, it’s not all holding hands and sharing heritage stories when it comes to discussing faith on social networks. Hate and intolerance are very often spread on these platforms under the guise of protest. It’s sad to say, but after the rise in religiously motivated attacks, there are more outspoken protesters targeting and verbally harassing members of different faiths on the internet.
While these conversations and disagreements are important, and often beneficial if done respectfully, the anonymity that online communication provides means that unjust, direct attacks toward individuals are becoming increasingly common.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few instances where online religious protest has been done in an appropriate and fantastically creative way. One example of this once again involved the Westboro Baptist Church. If you haven’t heard of the recent Pokémon Go phenomenon, it’s on online virtual reality game that allows users to go on quests and battle other players to gain control of different real-life locations via the GPS in your mobile phone.
In a stroke of hilarity, the Westboro Baptist Church was set up as one of the sites that could be claimed by different teams. It wasn’t long after the game’s release that a story popped up on social media claiming that the gym had been taken over by a particular effeminate Pokémon called LOVEISLOVE.
This type of innovative, playful and nonviolent protest is something the world needs much more of, and it looks like social media might just hold the tools to achieve this.
We’ve still got a long way to go, but for the first time in all of history we’ve been given a global tool that allows members of every faith and all their internal varieties to talk about their beliefs. We have the opportunity to listen before we react and empathize before we judge. So tweet your feelings, share the articles and comment the questions you’ve been having; the conversation about faith has just gained a whole plethora of new speakers, and the discussion has become more important than ever.
About the Author: Isa is a technology and entertainment blogger for Secure Thoughts and Culture Coverage. As a practicing Christian, she loves studying faith in her spare time and is constantly using social media to share her ideas.