People usually laugh when they hear me say that I think the Internet age will lead to mass conversions to orthodox Christianity. Anyone who’s spent much time online knows that the ratio of sites with base or immoral content to those with spiritually edifying content is approximately a zillion to one, so what makes me think this new medium could possibly be a good thing for the Church?
Having a background in Web site development and marketing, and having observed Internet culture for years, I believe a strong case can be made that the particular type of communication that the Internet facilitates will lead lost souls to discover truth more readily than any medium that has come before it.
This is a subject with which I have some personal experience. Up until about three years ago, I was one of those lost souls. I was a lifelong atheist — a militant atheist. Eventually I developed a mild curiosity as to whether there might be something more to life than meets the eye, so I began searching for God — literally. Not knowing where else to turn, I began typing search terms into Google. I even started a blog. It started out as a simple thought experiment, a half-hearted search for answers to some philosophical questions. I could never have imagined where it would end: My husband and I both entered the Catholic Church just two years later, and have been practicing Catholics ever since.
There are three defining characteristics that make the Internet unlike any medium the world has seen before — and because of these three traits, I believe my husband and I are among the first of many new converts who will be flooding into the Catholic Church during the Internet age.
1. The Internet is Interactive
When I first started paying attention to discussions of religion online, I was satisfied to see no shortage of content that mirrored my own atheistic views. I encountered the same arguments for the godless worldview that I’d heard from friends and family members my entire life, and that I’d often made myself. And yet, there was something different about these arguments when made online: the combox. A hallmark of Internet publishing is that authors allow readers to immediately respond in a comments box (or “combox”), a form field attached to their articles — and this quick and easy feedback changes everything.
I watched with great interest as Christians and atheists debated one another on various Web sites and forums across the Internet. At first, I almost flinched when I’d see a Christian enter the debate. I’d always had the impression that it was only we atheists who could ask the tough questions and whose worldview could withstand intense scrutiny. I expected the Christians to get crushed.
But as the debates played out, it became obvious that any intellectually honest person had to admit that these Christians had some basis for their beliefs. Actually, it started to seem that they might be the ones with reason on their side. I thought I had some good questions for Christians, and I did. But it turned out that they had some good questions for me, too.
In an interactive medium, falsehoods are called out, bad or incomplete ideas collapse under the weight of cross-examination, and anyone honestly seeking the truth will recognize it when they see it. Whatever our belief systems, we can’t isolate ourselves online the way we can in real life. In my case that meant that instead of being affirmed in my beliefs by my atheist friends, I bumped into Christians and was forced to confront their ideas in a way I’d never had to before. Over and over again I noticed that it was only the Christians — and Catholics in particular — whose belief system didn’t crack under the pressure of a flood of tough questions.
2. The Internet is Open to All
The Internet is an open-access, unrestricted medium, open to all. Anyone with something to say can say it publicly. Publishing is no longer the realm of those who have the time to write books, the education to polish them up, and the connections to get them published. The power of the elite to control information is gone. This means more ideas, more questions, and more rapid answers that are more finely tailored to each person’s individual concerns. Because the Internet is so pervasive and unrestricted, you see the theology of working people. That is, you see what works in everyday life, and not just in the ivory tower.
3. The Internet is Informal
This is the biggest and most important difference between the Internet and more traditional media: For the first time, we have a forum where we can see what people publish when their guard is down. Reading blogs and other personal publications is like eavesdropping on the thought processes of the masses. It was in the comboxes, the forums, the obscure blogs that the authors thought nobody read, that I encountered living, breathing Christianity. Here was true Christianity, not the distorted straw men set up by atheists to mock and knock down. This window into the lives of ordinary Christians revealed to me that, yes, Christians really do believe the tenets of their religion, and that those beliefs make a striking difference in their lives. I felt a bit like a spectator in ancient Rome watching Christians die in the Coliseum. I arrived expecting to laugh and jeer; I left puzzled and intrigued by what might be motivating these people.
More information will always benefit orthodox Christianity because it has the truth on its side. And in the Internet age, we have abundant material to appeal to both the intellect and the heart. As I discovered myself, amidst this wealth of information even the most hard-headed nonbeliever can’t help but find truth, even if only halfheartedly looking.