The Protestant experiment and technology

Most students of history probably know the significance of Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press for the Reformation. Because of it, Protestant theological materials challenging the papacy could be widely disseminated, and had a much greater impact than they would have if they had been restricted to, say, copying the Institutes of the Christian Religion or the Augsburg Confession out by hand.

I’m not the first to raise this connection, but I wonder, if history tends to repeat itself, what the effect of the internet will be. With higher literacy levels in the Western world than at the Protestant Reformation (thanks partly to the Reformation itself), and with mass access to an easily searchable virtually global repository of information (thanks to Google), and the ability now for almost anyone with minimal internet skills to be able to publish their thoughts to that global repository (thanks to blogging and social networking sites), one is led to ask: what effect will the internet have on religion, and specifically the church, in the near future? The hopeful answer would be that increased direct dialogue between people who disagree could lead to eventual consensus (the hope behind all free-speech laws in free societies). The cynical answer would be to point to the inanity of much of the internet, to the degrading of dialogue by “trolls”, and to the even-now-continuing persistence of group-think on the internet, and conclude that the internet will lead to an even greater fragmentation than the Reformation resulted in.

But somehow, in this case, I actually think the hopeful answer is probably closer to the truth. Even granting the trolls and the group-think, the very fact that groups that once could safely ignore each other and write the other into oblivion will now have to face (well, kind of) living, breathing, representatives of the other position means that something new is happening in the world. And I think that’s a good thing.