From the development of the printing press onward – through radio and telephone to television and computer networks – new technologies have opened up increasingly fast ways of communication with increasingly large numbers of people.
The first message transmitted between two computer networks was sent on October 29 1969 over the ARPANET (a precursor to the internet). The first internet community, Usenet, began in 1980, and religion was – and continues to be – a regular topic of conversation. The later development of the World Wide Web; of bulletin board systems (BBS), online diaries and blogs; the popularisation of Web 2.0 and social media have enabled increasing numbers of people to access and create content on the internet. The widespread availability of portable, web-connected devices such as smartphones have furthered this trend, but also popularised new forms of individual, person-to-person communication (such as Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp).
Inter faith dialogue is, fundamentally, about communication. The widespread adoption of new communication technologies – including the ability to communicate instantly with people whom we would never otherwise have encountered – therefore opens up many and varied opportunities for inter faith dialogue. It also – as with all fast-paced technological change – creates a number of challenges.
The emergence first of the printing press and then of broadcast media had already made it possible for people to disseminate ideas (one-to-many communication) widely and quickly. Telephones, radios and harmonised global postal services had also made long-distance communication between individuals (one-to-one communication) possible.
The internet, in facilitating the combining of all of these capabilities within a single, portable consumer device, therefore brings with it the same opportunities for inter faith engagement as prior forms of communication:
- It is possible to develop educational materials (in almost any format) and to make these widely available, with or without cost;
- It is possible to stay in touch and maintain communication with people anywhere in the world;
- It is possible to relay urgent messages near instantaneously to those who most need to receive them.
The internet also brings some opportunities which are more particular to it:
- It is possible to publish anything without intermediaries like publishing houses and editors; specialised, expensive equipment; airwave licenses etc.
- It is possible to interact with – even to form relationships with – people whom we would otherwise never have met, also without human intermediaries (such as pen pal scheme organisers);
- It is now easy for dispersed groups of people to engage in a chronological conversation without being present at the same time (ie ‘threaded’ discussions on Usenet, BBS, email, WhatsApp, Facebook newsfeed etc.).
The internet and associated technologies can, therefore, be used to great effect in areas such as:
- The development and dissemination of religious literacy materials, academic scholarship, and primary and secondary sources (such as sacred texts);
- The ability to find and refer to primary sources (such as academic articles, sacred texts, research papers etc) and to fact-check other sources of information;
- The instant circulation of information (newsletters, statements, event invitations etc);
- Reporting and telling the story of events and activities (through blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, live casting etc) which may not have been prioritised by news editors;
- Entering into and sustaining dialogue.
Many of the challenges associated with the internet are not unique to it, although some may be magnified by it. The ability to self-publish, for example, does not come with the requirement to self-censor, or to fact-check. Online it can be particularly difficult to discern what information is reliable and what is not.
Just as in physical meetings, when discussing difficult or controversial topics online, tempers can fray and the tone can become unpleasant. Whereas a skilled meeting chairperson may help disagreeing parties to remain constructive, many online discussion spaces operate without ‘moderators’, and it is therefore down to the individuals concerned to exercise restraint. Such restraint is often left unexercised.
The internet gives everyone an equal say, and this can be challenging for traditional conceptions/notions of religious authority and representation, and may have a tendency toward elevating charismatic authority or to over-privileging early adopters of particular technological innovations.
Anonymity is an aspect of the internet which divides opinion. Many early discussion and diarying platforms encouraged anonymity. While today, platforms like Facebook encourage the use of real identities and services like WhatsApp require a real phone number to activate, it is still relatively easy to operate anonymously or pseudonymously online. This has implications both for accountability/ responsibility but also in terms of weighing the relative credibility of online sources.
Dialogue and engagement online
There are a number of examples of online spaces being used to engage in effective dialogue, including:
- Creation of dedicated ‘safe spaces’ to discuss contentious issues – such as the use of ‘closed’ Facebook groups or discussion forums. In such contexts, anonymity may be beneficial if tensions are particularly high.
- Use of communications media such as Yahoo! Groups, WhatsApp, Facebook chat etc. to ensure that communications remain open in the event of any kind of emergency (eg, faith leaders’ groups).
- Constructive engagement with other users across all platforms – for example, responding well to criticism on social media, or correcting disparaging but inaccurate comments within or posted in response to Newspaper articles.
Other uses of online media
There are many ways in which inter faith practitioners make use of online technologies, including:
- Advertising – raising awareness of events and activities online;
- Public relations – telling positive stories about inter faith initiatives and projects;
- Educating – providing or referring to high-quality sources of information about religions and beliefs or about dialogue skills;
- Advocating – using online media to generate or encourage interest in inter faith activity;
- Fact-checking – actively responding to inaccurate or disparaging materials about particular faiths/ beliefs with references to reliable sources;
- Challenging problematic beliefs and behaviours – whether of co-religionists or others.
How to go about dialogue online
The general principles and rules for dialogue online are the same as those offline. While it is not always easy to do so, it is important to remember that you should not communicate with someone online in a way that you would not face to face. Online dialogue may seem remote, but this does not mean that conversations should not be enacted without all of the seriousness of face-to-face dialogue.
The Inter Faith Network for the UK’s ‘code’, Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, was developed in 1991 and is adopted by every one of its member bodies. It contains guidelines for dialogue that apply regardless of setting: in addition to principles such as “listening as well as speaking is necessary for a genuine conversation” and “not misrepresenting or disparaging other people’s beliefs and practices”, the Code also contains the proactive commitment to “Correcting misunderstanding or misrepresentations not only of our own but also of other faiths whenever we come across them” which may have particular resonance in the online space.