Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online. Here’s a summary.

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

What is religious history?

[I wrote this little article in 2008, for an Institute of Historical Research project called Making History, on the development of the discipline in the twentieth century. Re-reading it now, it seems to stand up well enough, and so I republish it here unaltered, although there are nuances I might now add. The plea in the final paragraph for a reconnection of the churches with their own past foreshadows in a pleasing way some of the concerns of this more recent thread of posts.]

Perhaps even more so than in other areas, the social and religious changes of the British 20th century had profound effects on the very scope and purpose of religious history. Three major questions regarding the nature of the history of religion were posed, and answered in several different ways: the first of these was over what religion itself was.

What is ‘religion’?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the basic subject materials of religious history were clear. Ecclesiastical history was concerned with monarchs and their bishops, religious law, councils, liturgies, and the high politics of international religious conflict and diplomacy. This history, the ‘company history’ of the institution of the church, dominated the field.

Since then, the field of vision of what constitutes ‘religion’ has widened very markedly. To take the English Reformation and Civil War period as an example, work such as that of Christopher Hill, particularly in his Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England,(1) shifted the focus away from the centre toward the locality, to examine the nature of religious activity in local communities. This renewed attention to the local was carried on in the work of scholars such as J. J. Scarisbrick and more recently Eamon Duffy; the religious experience of the individual Christian and the local church has become at least as legitimate a field of enquiry as diplomatic relations between Canterbury and Rome.

In addition to the recovery by social historians of the view ‘from below’ has come the effect of the growing use of anthropological concepts in analysing human behaviour, and with it an ever wider definition of ‘religious’ behaviour. The work of Keith Thomas, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic,(2) put the multifarious array of Christian and pre-Christian rites and practices by which early modern English people sought to make sense of and control their lives at the centre of his inquiry; practices that traditional ecclesiastical history had portrayed as mere pagan superstition. Across all periods, the growing bodies of research on matters as diverse as the use of amulets to ward off the bubonic plague in the 17th century or the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, all witness to the widest possible definition of what constitutes the religious.

Which religion?
Another question, to which the answer is much less clear in 2008 than it was in 1908, is ‘which religion’? The answer at the beginning of the century was clear for historians of England: the Christian religion, and supremely the Church of England. The political and social importance of the established church meant that the Nonconformist churches received relatively little historical attention, and that given to English Roman Catholics was often unjustly unfavourable. Since then, work on early modern England has recovered the stories of those groups who either existed uneasily within or were detached entirely from the institutional church; the work of Christopher Hill is once again seminal in this regard, and in particular his The World Turned Upside Down.(3) In the modern period, work by scholars such as David Bebbington has restored a sense of the social and political importance of British Dissent, and as the temperature of popular anti-Catholicism has cooled, a more balanced picture of the development of the English Catholic community has begun to emerge.

The very late 20th century has also seen the beginnings of an effort to make historical sense of the fact of increasing contact between the world religions, and growing religious diversity within Europe and America. The work of Bernard Lewis and others has opened up the field of the military, economic and cultural interaction of Christianity and Islam in southern Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Work on this area has been drawn upon in the continuing contemporary debate over the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’. Closer to home, the work of understanding immigration, race relations and their religious implications in Britain and other European countries since the 1950s is only in the last few years beginning to be done.

Finally, religious historians have in the very recent past begun to address the issues raised by globalisation, and the shift in gravity in world Christianity from its cradle in Europe to the southern hemisphere. Not for nothing is the 20th-century volume in the recent Cambridge History of Christianity entitled ‘World Christianities’:(4) religious historians are continuing to grapple with the mutations of originally colonial churches in newly independent nations, and the simple fact of the numerical dominance of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America over their mother churches in Europe.

By whom, and for whom?
At the beginning of the 20th century, religious history was by and large written by scholars sympathetic to Christianity. Some were clergy: Mandell Creighton combined historical scholarship with being successively Bishop of Peterborough and London, and J. R. Green wrote his Short History of the English People (5) while librarian of Lambeth Palace. Even those of more limited commitment to the church tended to function, in Winston Churchill’s image, as flying buttresses; supportive but external.

In the 20th century, the business of writing the churches’ contemporary history also remained for many years a clerical pursuit. Archbishop Randall Davidson’s biographer was his chaplain George Bell, later to be Bishop of Chichester. Part of the controversy surrounding Humphrey Carpenter’s 1996 biography of Robert Runcie (6) centred on the author’s apparent lack of sympathy with the subject; the book disturbed long-established conventions regarding the manner of writing episcopal biography.

Since the early part of the century, the historical profession, along with the rest of the population, has been steadily secularised, such that it is now probable that the majority of religious historians approach their task from no particular faith position. The gradual migration of the bulk of historical scholarship away from the rectory and indeed the theological college to the university, coupled with the well-documented general methodological professionalisation of the discipline, has hastened the process.

It is now the case that the historian who is also a committed believer will scrupulously eschew any analysis not fully justified by the sources. Indeed, as Euan Cameron has recently observed, most ‘conceal their belief stances so thoroughly in their writing that readers find it difficult to discern what the author believes, if anything’. This change has almost certainly produced more objective and balanced scholarship, and has certainly avoided the worst excesses of partisan historical writing of previous centuries. At the same time, it could be argued that the contact between current scholarship in religious history and the churches (those whose ‘family history’ it is that is being written) is at a low ebb. It is perhaps time for meaningful dialogue between the churches, theology and church history to begin again.

1. Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964).
2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, 1971).
3. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London, 1972).
4. World Christianities c.1914 – c.2000, ed. Hugh Mcleod (Cambridge, 2006).
5. J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London, 1892–4).
6. Humphrey Carpenter, Robert Runcie: the Reluctant Archbishop (London, 1996).

Religion, politics and law in contemporary Britain: a web archive

[This is an expanded version of a post first published in the UK Web Archive blog.]

It has been over two years in the making, but I am delighted to be able to say that my own special collection in the UK Web Archive is now online.

UKWA (for which I am engagement and liaison lead, based at the British Library) collects and preserves websites of scholarly and cultural importance for the UK web domain. Already UKWA collect some 11,000 sites, and has more than 50,000 instances in total, with series of snapshots of some sites going back the best part of a decade. That’s a lot of data, and so one of the ways into the archive is by means of the special collection, of sites on a particular theme.religion politics law thumbnail

A couple of years ago, long before coming to the BL, I joined a project at the Library which brought together a group of scholars to guest-curate special collections on our research interests. I had become interested in the sharpening of the terms of debate about the place of religion in British public life, particularly since 9/11 and the London bombings in 2005. I’ve long been interested in public debate about church and state; but until relatively recently this happened by means of the print press, public oratory, ephemeral publication and the broadcast media. It struck me that a good deal of this debate had already moved online, and so new ways of capturing and preserving it were going to be needed. And so, the ‘politics of religion collection’ (as it was then known) was born. (See these posts on my progress.)

I fairly soon realised why I’m not an archivist, since all sorts of unfamiliar questions hove into view. When archiving the web, what is the base unit ? A whole domain, such as www.bbc.co.uk ? Or a single URL ? Several sites, like that of the National Secular Society or the Christian Institute were central to my concerns, and so could be included whole. But what does one do with a single post on a PR blog about the handling of the sharia law row by Rowan Williams and his staff ? In fact, the collection is a mixture of whole domains and individual directories or pages from larger sites; an uneasy compromise, but a necessary one.

Also (and I may as well come straight out with it), the collection is selective, and thus in a real sense subjective. As a watcher of contemporary religious politics, against the backdrop of recent history, my impression is that the place of religious ideas, symbols and organisations in public life is at its most contested for decades. Historians are traditionally wary of assessing the significance of present trends, since it leaves hostages to fortune and later events. Yet, all archival choices from a pool of material not defined in advance by provenance involve some judgements as to significance; and historians are as well suited as any to make those judgements. And so I have put the collection together now to enable future historians to begin to answer the questions which I anticipate will be significant. (See an older post on why I think historians should engage with this way of working.)

There were other issues. Were I the archivist for a particular organisation, I’d have no problem with getting permission to add material to my archive: everything produced in-house would be in view. The problem for web archiving is that we’re dealing with other people’s copyright work, and so an individual permission is needed for each site. I have a long list of sites which I would dearly love to add to the collection, but for which (for various reasons) we’ve had no response. So, if you are the owner of Protest the Pope, or Holy Redundant, or Christians in Politics, please get in touch. For now, even if the collection cannot be anything like comprehensive, I do hope that it is at least coherent.

There are particular strengths, and some gaps. It includes many campaigning organisations, both secularist and religious, and is heavy on the conservative Christian groups about which I myself know most. It is very light on non-Christian faiths, since I know the field much less well.  It is still very much open, however, and so suggestions of sites that ought to be included are very welcome, via this blog or at the UKWA Nominate a Site page.

What can you do with it ?  For now, there is a simple browse function; and the collection can be searched on its own.  And over time, all sorts of uses will present themselves, which we can’t currently imagine. But the data is there: a growing longitudinal series of timed instances of websites, identified as thematically related; that is to say, an archive.