Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Tag Archive: religion and the internet

Digital Technology is Elitist & Dehumanizing; How Should Christians Use It?

Leave a Comment

One of the joys of taking assemblies in our local primary schools is that one never knows what responses will be elicited from the children. Focusing on the subject of creativity and important inventions, and having gone through the wheel, clocks and drugs, with the children to quickly realize that each of these can be both good and bad, I got to the subject of the internet. One little boy, who, according to the staff, is normally “off with the fairies”, put up his hand to everyone’s surprise and said “it is elite”. Stunned silence for a few moments; but, of course, he is correct. This is one of the downsides of our digital revolution – the existence of the digitally deprived or excluded. “Out of the mouths of babes” etc. Although where he had got this idea from is an interesting question. He had probably seen it on the TV or encountered it through the internet!

This may seem of peripheral concern for faith communities, but this is one of the determining factors of the context in which we now operate and to which we have to respond. What we now call “material religious practices” are themselves being shaped by this revolution. So who is shaping whom and to what ends? For instance, the benefice in which I work has now set up its own website, linking to other village websites across the patch; increasingly accesses the Facebook pages of two of the more active villages in order to promote events; and is setting up an email network across our 8 villages for the same reason. Here I am writing a blog post for William Temple Foundation.

As the education researcher Maggi Savin-Baden recently suggested, we are increasingly “digitally tethered”. You only have to travel by train to realize that people no longer talk to each other because they are too busy talking to “distant others”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? When do we reach the point where form determines content, and can we even make that distinction any longer? What is happening to our capacity to relate to those around us?

The mistake that we often make, both historically and ethically, is to imagine that the technologies we develop are “neutral tools” that we simply manipulate to our own advantage. Whether it was the wheel, writing, clock time, drugs or the internet, it is as much the case that they re-shape us and our cultures as that we shape them. In less familiar language that does better justice to this insight, we are always already part of the “assemblages” or constantly shifting and developing combinations and configurations of the human (material) and non-human materials that are the components and  “machines” of our existence. Examples from real church life: couples construct their wedding services from resources accessed on the internet; individuals no longer have to rely on the external authority of church, tradition and minister in order to explore for themselves the varied faith resources on the web; a few weeks ago Anglican bishops produced their pre-election pastoral letter to their congregations, available as a 57 page downloadable document. For those digitally deprived parishioners the only access is through a hard copy from Church House. Would they not have been better to produce the standard 1000 word blog? Who but academics are going to read that length of document on-line? Form determining content again?

So how are we to get a grip on these assemblages and to begin to make critical judgments (like our little boy in assembly) about which are life enhancing and which are life denying? Challenging though this may be, it demands of us a new terminology and conceptual framework – the old assumptions about human autonomy are not “fit for purpose”.

Before I propose some possibilities, I refer the reader to a book on contemporary Russia: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. The writer argues that the authoritarian control exercised by President Putin is established through control of the media and deliberate manipulation of the population by playing on their fears and nightmares; one of which is the narrative of hostile Western imperialism. The route to critical thought and reflection that we might associate with an Enlightenment ideal of reflexivity, is short-circuited by the blatant use of the technology to play directly into what I would call a pre-autonomous level of what it is to be or become human. Emotions and fears come before critical thought and questioning. The even more worrying aspect is that the example of Russia is a more extreme version of what happens (perhaps a little less blatantly) in the West. What is required here is a better grasp of human psychology, and another understanding of how we humans operate, that can at least recognize when we are being manipulated in this way, and can counter this through a level of critical reflection. If the digital technology is being employed to “rewire” a passive population, where is the hope for political change?

The resource that I am finding helpful in this respect is the work of Bernard Stiegler, a French philosopher of technology, who can at least open up these other levels of thought through a different analysis of our digitally tethered assemblages and addictions. Obviously a blog will not allow me to elaborate, but two crucial insights are his use of the term “pharmakon” a Greek word that means both remedy and poison, close to my own understanding of being entangled, and pointing to the double-edged sword which is the digital revolution. The other is his less accessible ideas about human psychology and development, building upon the work of Winnicott and Simondon, which do indeed suggest that technology is being used through commercial exploitation to manipulate those pre-critical dimensions of human behavior, and to short-circuit the longer processes of reflection and questioning which are essential, ethically, politically and pastorally. His counter to this is a reconfiguration of education and the university, but, for those of faith, we might want to explore how and to what extent material religious practices can be, to paraphrase Stiegler’s term “a therapeutics of faithful dissent”.  Perhaps it is possible to enable content to triumph over form after all.

One thing is certain, we cannot return to a point pre-digital any more than we can to a time pre-wheel, pre-clock time or pre-drugs, we can only progress from where we are, fully entangled in the material assemblages which are made up of the human and the non-human.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of William Temple Foundation.

You might also like:

 Religion & Public Life: Top 15 Websites 

 Don’t Vote, Can’t Vote: Youth Empowerment  in an Age of Disillusionment by Nigel Pimlott

 Putting the Carts Before the Horses: Can  Christianity Learn from Economics? By John  Atherton

Share this page:

Religion and Public Life: Top 15 Websites


Are you looking for the best websites on religion and public life?

The internet can be an over-whelming place, so here at William Temple Foundation we’re helping to streamline your surfing by gathering together a succinct collection of some of our favourite online resources devoted to various aspects of religion and public life. Below, we share our top 15 websites on religion and public life including places to find news, research, opinion pieces, and events.

Of course this list is not exhaustive, so if we’ve missed any great websites on religion and public life, let us know by adding a link in the comment section at the bottom of this post.

Happy browsing!

Religion News Service (RNS)

A one-stop shop for up-to-date religion news, ranging from the serious to the decidedly silly. The daily RNS ‘Slingshot’ collects everything you need to know in one email and delivers it fresh to your inbox. Whilst much of the news is USA focused, the bigger (and funnier) international stories also make the cut. One of our very favourite websites on religion and public life.

On Religion

In the online version of this print magazine you’ll find fresh young voices writing comment pieces and longer, in-depth research articles. It is edited and mostly written by British post-graduate students and their efforts to create a magazine delivering informed and in-depth coverage of religious issues deserves our support.

Religious Reader

A relatively new kid on the block, Religious Reader is a project of the interfaith organisation Faith Matters. The website offers a collection of mostly British faith-based news and aims to promote pluralism whilst support social action.

ISA Research Committee 22

A great resources for academic types, this hub for the International Sociology Association (the RC22 of the title relates to the research committee for the sociology of religion) brings together calls for papers, job opportunities, conferences, funding etc. on religion and public life, from around the world.

Huffington Post Religion

In true Huff Post style, expect big, bold photographs and attention grabbing headlines. Delve a little deeper however, and you’ll find an enriching mix of news and blog posts, often featuring topics and stories you simply won’t find in other mainstream media outlets.


This think tank’s website offers news on their activities, research and events. The section we find especially useful however, is the media monitoring section, which collects all of the religion news stories featured in the British press to one handy webpage.


The blog section of Jim Wallis’ Sojourners website offers timely Christian comment on issues related to politics, faith-based action and social justice.

Westminster Faith Debates

If you’re not able to attend the highly engaging Westminster Faith Debates, it’s reassuring to know that high-quality, carefully edited recordings of each debate is available online. This extensive collection of videos, featuring some of the UK’s top thinkers, makes this a great resources and a top website for religion and public life.

Pew Research Center

The folks at Pew are not only leading researchers focused on religion and public life, they’re also highly adept at demonstrating their results through snappy overviews and eye-catching graphics. Their surveys tend to be US-centric, but there’s enough from elsewhere to keep researchers from around the world happy.

Things Unseen

Here’s something a little different! For religious commentary on the go, why not download this regular podcast, billed as a thought-provoking radio show for people of faith, and for those intrigued by the spiritual dimensions of life.

Religion Dispatches

One of the very best (probably!) websites for intelligent, articulate and well-constructed arguments on issues of religion and public life. Curated by the University of Southern California, US domestic issues and policies feature heavily, but there’s lots more besides.

Public Spirit

Perhaps we could call Public Spirit the UK’s answer to Religious Dispatches (above). The well-laid out site describes itself as offering spirited debate about religion and public policy. The website has been rather quiet since mid-January however… but their archive material is still worth browsing.


Launched in 2014, this online magazine covers ‘All things Catholic’ and rather more besides. A user-friendly interface, classy design and stories added on a daily basis, make this website a winner!

State of Formation

This multi-authored blog gives voice to newly emerging young faith leaders and interfaith advocates. For hard-hitting opinion pieces and personal religious reflections, you’ve come to the right place.

….William Temple Foundation!

OK, yes, we apologise for our bias, but we’re very proud of the diverse and engaging blog posts, lecture recordings and exclusive interviews you can find on our website. We hope you’ll check it out.

Did we miss a great website on religion and public life? Let us know by commenting below.

You might also like:

Follow us on Twitter  and ‘like’ us on Facebook

Share this page: