In 1992, Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged the Catholic Church’s error in condemning Galileo Galilei and his work in support of Copernican heliocentrism. After 350 years, the rectification nullified one of history’s most powerful examples of the presupposed tensions between faith and science.
While the affirmation of Galileo arguably came much too late, its symbolic power reflects the broader trend towards a growing synergism between Christianity and technology. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are rife with examples of this “odd couple” in action: Moody Radio, under the umbrella of the Moody Bible Institute, took advantage of the nascent radio broadcast industry and launched in Chicago in 1926. Buzz Aldrin, who was both the face of American space exploration and an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church, took communion on-board Apollo 11’s lunar module before stepping onto the moon on July 20, 1969. In recent years, Pope Francis has demonstrated an understanding of, and affinity for, technology, using his iPad during public appearances, meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, and Tim Cook, launching apps and social media channels (@Pontifex, if you are interested), and, in 2018, approving and blessing a collegiate hackathon at the Vatican.
On the individual level, everyday Christians have largely embraced technology as a means for religious and devotional practice. While many Christians, especially millennials and digital natives, are enthusiastic about blending technology and faith, there is also concern about inauthenticity and the possible emergence of syncretic faith traditions that stray too far from organized belief structures.
Religion-centered mobile apps are a particularly interesting branch of this tech-faith phenomenon. Take, for example, the immensely popular YouVersion Bible App. YouVersion was one of the first 200 free apps available when Apple’s App Store first debuted in 2008 and, by the end of 2017, had been downloaded 300 million times. The freemium app, which provides digitized, searchable Bible texts in multiple versions and in 1,169 languages, is financed by creator and pastor Bobby Gruenewald’s Oklahoma-based megachurch network, Life.Church.
Although YouVersion is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of its success, hundreds of other Christian religion apps can be found on Apple and Android platforms. Some, like Confession, iDisciple, and Abide aim to assist with specific aspects of Christian and Catholic practice. Others, however, are somewhat questionable in intent – Texts from Jesus, as just one example, features in-app advertising, a tawdry design, and frequent push notifications. Catloaf Software, the creator of Texts from Jesus, has also produced such apps as Fretuoso, Keyboard Cat, Texts from Founding Fathers, Texts from Donald Trump, and Texts from Bernie Sanders. In light of its portfolio, one cannot help but to suspect that the company is simply capitalizing on the religious app trend. Instapray (no longer available on the App Store), one of the more high-profile apps in the space due to backing from Peter Thiel, sought to create a prayer-based social network. Aside from creating another space for religious and political argument, however, its ultimate effect was to reinforce a sort of “status update” mentality for praying. The movement of prayer life into the digital public square, at least in the format offered by Instapray, is not without the potential for a divorce of prayer from spiritual seriousness.
Of more immediate concern to Christian communities is the way in which the technology of religious practice may be contributing to a fundamental change in religious conceptions among younger adherents. According to Reverend Pete Phillips, director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom, a “new kind of Christianity for the digital age is appearing…one that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” Known formally among sociologists as moralistic therapeutic deism, this form of religion focuses less on specific doctrine and deities than it does on the ethical tenets, stated inclusiveness, and charitability common to many organized religions. When doctrine is involved, it is in a “pick-and-mix” fashion, in which each adherent develops an individualized faith comprised of only those doctrines with which the adherent agrees.
This, of course, is not to say that the rise of technology-enabled religious practice is responsible for shifts away from organized religion and toward more secularized spirituality. Instead, such technologies have simply facilitated a larger and pre-existing desire among practicing Christians for what Texas A&M researcher Heidi Campbell refers to as a “more personalized religious experience.” If they choose, YouVersion users can, for example, immerse themselves only in self-selected sections of text and do so without acknowledgement of the context in preceding or succeeding chapters. Even beyond such siloing, critics argue, instant and nearly ubiquitous access to faith – live-streamed and live-tweeted services, for example, or virtual prayer experiences- call into question the need for in-person attendance at houses of worship. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 self-identified Protestants and 1 in 5 self-identified Catholics in America report that they “seldom or never attend organized [religious] services.”
The internet and social media help people to [fashion an individualized faith] in more concrete ways. We have more access to more information, more viewpoints, and we can create a spiritual rhythm and path that’s more personalized.Heidi Campbell, Texas A&M University
In spite of such criticism, proponents of the tech-faith connection point to the potential for better retention of young people already involved in faith communities and for increased engagement opportunities with those who would otherwise consider themselves to be unchurched. Seventy percent of practicing Christian millennials read scripture on cell phones or online, while 54% watch online videos about faith and spirituality – and roughly a third of all millennials do the same. Likewise, technology has enabled churchgoers to hold faith leaders to higher standards, with almost 40% of practicing Christian millennials reporting that they “search to verify something a faith leader or church leader has said” on their phones and other devices.
When asked about the role of digital technologies in Christianity, Abide founder and former Google employee Neil Ahlsten stated, “Jesus met people where they were at and drew them really deep into understanding the truth of God. We’re creating liturgy that people can consume whenever and wherever and however works for them. It fits the modern life.” Caught in the crosshairs of both celebration and consternation, technologically-enabled religious practice is here to stay – its impact on organized religion, however, is much less certain.
*Note: Other faith communities have likely experienced similar trends – for the purposes of this post, I chose to focus on the faith tradition with which I am most familiar and can most accurately describe so as to avoid unintentionally misrepresenting the beliefs of others.