Religion 2.0: Dialogue for the Masses

By Jude Townend

LEEDS, England – Interfaith dialogue is nothing new, but new technology is changing the way it’s done. Before, the average Muslim Pakistani might never have crossed paths with a Jewish Israeli; a Nepali Buddhist might never dialogue with a Christian American. On the World Wide Web, however, social interactions that before were limited are now commonplace. It’s like internet dating for the world religions.

Religious communities have been testing the online waters gradually, having already created e-church services, places of worship built in the virtual world Second Life and countless social networking groups dedicated to promoting beliefs. Clergy have also learned to use the web to amplify their messages – Sunday sermons are now a mouse-click away from being downloaded onto an iPod. But these ventures limit religious dialogue to one’s own community, and highlight doctrinal differences rather than interfaith co-operation.

However, over the last few years, the internet has undergone a transformation from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Whereas the former model consolidated publishing power in the hands of a few editors, Web 2.0 has empowered bloggers to directly publish their own content and online users to start their own conversations. This evolution from top-down communication to people-to-people interaction has implications for the interfaith community as well.

Early last month emerged Faithbook, a social page launched on Facebook, the widely popular social networking platform. The brainchild of a British Jewish organisation, the Movement for Reform Judaism, Faithbook was designed to bring people from different beliefs together on the internet, leveraging such Web 2.0 technologies as social networking.

In traditional media, collaborations between religions are often limited to those in positions of responsibility – such as religious representatives meeting on television panel discussions. Now, the internet opens a forum for dialogue to the masses. Church, mosque, temple and synagogue goers can talk to each other directly without the mediation of their leaders.

Supported in turn by the Muslim Institute, London, the UK’s oldest Muslim think-tank, Faithbook promises “to spark responsible interfaith dialogue across the UK and the rest of the world”, using images, videos and commentary from people of all the major faiths. The director of the Muslim Institute, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, added: “Irrespective of whatever cultural baggage we carry, racial background or faith that we follow, we have to recognise that our creator is the same whatever we call him.”

The purpose of Faithbook is to counter religious extremism, which has the tendency to spread in the largely unmoderated virtual sphere. “We have got to combat that, and create a space where people who may not meet face-to-face can have a constructive debate”, said Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, executive director of the Movement for Reform Judaism.

The alternative to constructive debate is clear elsewhere, even on Facebook. On the “Boycott Islam and all things Muslim” group, one finds none of the gentle niceties of Faithbook. The potential for online religious discussion, while present, is often in a very raw and emotional form.

So far, the Faithbook page does seem to be meeting its constructive mission: abuse doesn’t litter its pages, and its content is positive. Images on the site range from the Dalai Lama (one of the most prominent advocates of interfaith dialogue in the world today), to the Siddur, a Jewish prayer book. On the downside, the page claims only some 640 fans, which isn’t very many given its recent publicity and Facebook’s enormous reach. (By contrast, the group to “stop Facebook closing down” now has close to 2 million members.)

Among the biggest challenges to growth is the fact that the Faithbook page, like many interfaith initiatives, has been implemented by the upper tier of religious organizations. The discrepancy between the views “at the top” and those of the masses was recently demonstrated by the widespread discussion provoked when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams commented that shari’a law (based on Islamic principles) should be integrated, to some extent, into British law – a view not necessarily shared by his congregations. One of the lessons from Web 2.0 is that some of the most effective movements grow from the bottom up with word of mouth taking place via blogs and emails.

In spite of this, positive and cooperative online social networking between the faiths looks likely. The online religion sections of national newspapers in various countries are fast gaining popularity (there’s even a blog called Faithbook on the Washington Post/Newsweek website), and the comments that follow faith-based articles are increasingly animated. Interfaith groups are expanding their online presence. The will to exchange ideas and find common ground is there.

Jude Townend is a journalist currently working in the UK.

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