Cyber Dialogue: The Future of Interreligious Engagement

If only our congregations were a thousandth as large as Lady Gaga's fanpage on Facebook. That would mean that over 13,000 people would be members, with numbers skyrocketing by the day.

Many have suggested that the appeal of pop culture on Facebook (and Twitter and MySpace) is symptomatic of moral decline and perhaps even the end of religion -- with the assumption, of course, that the two go together. But that fear has existed for generations, with every breakthrough in communication. Radio, records, and television were all thought to lead to the end of faith at one point or another. But there is no end to religion in sight. The idea that social media could somehow snuff it out after it survived centuries of technological advancement is unfounded. Religion is dynamic and has long been able to adapt to social change.

In fact, social networking sites may be of tremendous help to religious communities. They bring together people with strong religious convictions more than ever before. Just have a look at the "Jesus Daily" fanpage on Facebook, which has almost 3,000,000 members, or the fanpage for "Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)," which has nearly 130,000. Imagine a religious congregation with 130,000 or even 3,000,000 members! The hundreds of thousands of people gathering on these fanpages are looking for religious inspiration, companionship, and community, and apparently they find it to one degree or another online.

Religion is in fact one of the most powerful forces in the age of social media. It is a core part of the landscape, with Facebook fanpages and Twitter profiles creating what some might consider to be virtual churches, synagogues, and mosques within the broader online panorama.

A number of websites are responding to the large and growing presence of religion in social media. Just take for example Patheos, which fills a gap in multi-perspective coverage of religious issues; the Washington Post, which has added the On Faith blog to its repertoire; the Huffington Post, which has similarly added the HuffPost Religion section to engage with challenging and timely topics; and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, which recently launched the State of Formation project with the Parliament of the World's Religions to engage seminary, divinity and graduate student leaders in online discourse on identity and current events. If anything, the challenge is not one of insufficient demand for religious content -- the supposed indication of moral decline -- but the presence of too few websites to fill it online.

Yet what is most remarkable about the age of social media and online tools is not the membership within religious communities or even the use of new technology to express those affiliations. Rather, it is the extent to which practitioners of different religions interact with one another. It is now possible to be learning about one religious community by way of its Facebook fanpage while gaining insight into another in a different window, studying Torah while Gchatting with an imam, following a guided meditation on one website while receiving an e-mail from a preacher on another.

For many, the multiplicity of options and interactions may seem like a cacophony -- the cause for confusion, syncretism, and, yes, a different sort of decline for religion. Though these conclusions may lack nuance, they are certainly incomplete. Interreligious interactions may in fact strengthen one's own religious identity, while creating the opportunity for meaningful dialogue about hot-button issues.

To give a personal example, when I was living in Israel during the 2008-2009 academic year, I wrote an article for Sightings that cited the extended period of tolerance in al-Andalus (often known as "Muslim Spain" -- the parts of the Iberian Peninsula controlled from 711 until 1492 by a series of Muslim groups) as a historical example of coexistence from which we can draw for inspiration. A few days later, I received an e-mail from an Iraqi reporter who was surprised and excited to find that Jews, Muslims, and Christians had ever lived together in such a positive way. He wanted to hear more from me about my views -- especially as a future rabbi -- and was even interested in writing an article on the topic.

After googling him, I decided to go ahead with the interview. I had seldom met anyone from Iraq but wanted to do whatever possible to improve interreligious relations. The resulting article, "Jews and Muslims lived in peace with each other," surprised me as much as I think it did the author himself. For me what was surprising was that my comments had been at all unique. As an American, I had many Muslim friends, and having fun with them had long eclipsed simply trying to "live in peace." But to the journalist who interviewed me, the idea that a future rabbi would ever cite a historical period in which Muslims and Jews coexisted -- much less hope for positive interactions in the future -- was astounding.

In spite of our different frames of reference, living in the Middle East gave us both a sense of immediacy in our interaction. The reporter wanted someone to affirm the potential for positive relations between Jews and Muslims, and I wanted to affirm it. Across several countries still technically at war, we found a common space to communicate online. Now Facebook "friends," we periodically continue to dialogue -- even as we adhere to different religions and hold entirely different worldviews.

I am just one person who was fortunate enough to have positive interreligious exchanges online. Though perhaps not "transformed" by them, I certainly was enriched and affirmed. I am not alone in this experience. But the question remains how to create a sustainable, accessible space and format for these online interactions. Many organizations are working to formulate an answer. The future of interreligious engagement will in large part take form in the answers that succeed.

This article was originally published on Patheos.

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