Internet’s role in religion lauded

Thursday, February 8, 2001

NEW YORK — The Internet has led to a “democratization of
religion,” according to Lynne Bundesen of Our Faiths (, a Web
site that hosts chat groups and message boards on a wide variety of religious

“In my definition of religion, the Internet is ‘the’ great thing,”
Bundesen said at a panel discussion Feb. 5 at the First Amendment Center. The
Internet “enables everybody to have a voice … anyone can participate
equally,” she added.

The program, “Faith and Freedom Online: The Internet and the
Democratization of Religion,” was introduced by Adam Clayton Powell III of The
Freedom Forum and moderated by Charles Haynes, senior scholar for The Freedom
Forum’s religious freedom programs.

Michael Gottsegen of the National Jewish Center of Learning and
Leadership agreed that the Internet is a positive development for religion
because “it enables certain forces that are already active in society to move

On that point, Elliot Mincberg of the People for the American Way
Foundation described how his organization got an unprecedented number of people
to visit its Web site to oppose John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney
general. That was a quick and widespread response that would not have been
possible before the Internet, he said.

But Mincberg added that the Internet would only continue to facilitate
change as long as government doesn’t regulate it and filtering remains an
individual choice.

“Overall, I think [the Internet] is a good thing,” he said. “I worry a
little bit about … filtering and censorship.”

Gottsegen agreed that filtering is a “difficult issue. …
I’m always wary of the government getting into the act on

“There is no question … there will be groups with either private
revelations or nefarious intent that will seek to use the Net to catch the
unwitting,” he said. Users need to discern who runs a site and what the site’s
agenda is, he added.

Mincberg, who said he follows the philosophy “trust but verify,”
emphasized that Web users need to be good consumers as well.

“There are reasons to worry about what’s on the Internet … just as
there are reasons to worry about what’s on … any other medium of
communication that exists,” he said.

Gottsegen said parents have a legitimate interest in what their
children view on the Internet. “It’s the same problem that parents have with
TV, but the range of content that’s available on the Web is so vast that one
wants to be able to regulate it as a parent.”

On the other hand, he added, “Most software designed to do filtering
has been, let’s call it, a blunt instrument to get at something which by its
nature requires a more refined, discriminatory capacity. You don’t want to
create a system where in the interest of protecting children you take content
and choice away from adults.”

“Filtering, by its very nature, is never going to be able to sort out
only the things you don’t want and keep in only the things that you do,”
Mincberg added.

But, on the whole, the panelists applauded the Internet’s usefulness
in reaching the faithful.

Religious groups need to make effective use of the Internet to get
their messages out to as wide an audience as possible, said the Rev. Calvin O.
Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, said. “It would be tragic if
the Devil’s disciples were better equipped than the disciples of Christ.”

“[The Internet] will never take the place of the … congregation,”
Butts added, “[but] it’s important for faith groups to utilize the Internet to
our best advantage.”

An online community is an important aspect of the democratization of
religion, Bundesen said, noting that sites like hers allow people who could not
have met any other way to connect and share their views.

“Each religion must change by virtue of the Internet,” she said.
“[Individuals] will change [religion] from the ground up, rather than the top
down,” by communicating with this larger community and bringing new ideas back
to their religions, she said.

Online community is important, Gottsegen agreed, although he added,
“If cyber-community replaced face-to-face community, that would not be a good

“Online community extends the senses rather than dulls them,” he said.
“[There are] many people in this society … who are isolated, lonely … the
most intensely spiritual connection we have is that of interacting with another

And the Internet plays a part in that connection, he added. “As a way
of creating community where it wouldn’t exist otherwise, I think it’s a
blessing,” he said.