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The Internet and secularism: how social media opens our minds to other beliefs and worldviews

By in Opinions

In the past five years, the dramatic shift in social media vessels (read: the Internet) has created a new world of communication. Also drastically changed in the past five years: my own religious beliefs.

Yes people, this is the moment where I make a vague, yet compelling correlation between globalization and secularism based on my own life experience.

Having been raised by semi-religious parents on potatoes and guilt, I did not have much choice on whether I wanted to believe in a higher power.

Every Sunday, my family-minus-one-non-religious-dad would sit in glorious wooden pews. From these polished planks, which were uncomfortable in stereotypical Catholic fashion, we would listen to a 45-minute monotone lecture on how important faith was to getting into Heaven, and how most of us were probably going to Hell. All the while, I imagined endless possibilities beyond the physical and psychological walls of the church. It’s a pretty standard story and one I never tire of telling.

While I was sitting on oak benches being condemned for questioning the world around me, or “doubting” as it’s often called, a marvelous world awaited through a bubble-glass screen.

I was likely the last of my friends to board the MSN Messenger wagon — a complete noob, trying to navigate my way about the dank crevices of a 2002 World Wide Web on Windows 98. After mastering the basic concepts of online lingo and multiple conversations, I was ready for bigger and better things. At 14 years old, I created my own website on Piczo (which probably still exists today) and filled it with information, pictures and neon pink chat boxes.

I had stumbled onto a completely new dimension of interaction:  leaving comments anonymously, reading anonymous/insulting comments by others and meeting my first “boyfriend” via surfing Piczo websites (sorry, Mom). It all had a subversive effect on my worldview: people had the ability to communicate their ideas without consequence.

The world was no longer wherever my feet could take me, parents could drive me or money could fly me. The truth was out there — and I was going to find it. I now know that there were others like me, searching heedlessly for the unknown, rummaging through virtual heaps of trash to find diamonds.

Fast-forward through a few years of a vanity-ridden cesspool called Nexopia. By this time, I had graduated to Facebook: a website with that familiar narcissistic element of swaths of self portraits alongside the novelties of advertising personal beliefs, favourite music and drunken stories from the weekend.

Yet by 2009, I realized that Facebook was starting to take on multiple manifestations. It was no longer a straightforward and easy-to-navigate version of Nexopia. It had become a soapbox, a music player and, most importantly, a survey of what the public does and does not “like.”

During the 2011 federal election, partisan links posted by “friends” were often a catalyst for political debates in my news feed. It was amazing to see the outpouring of both joy and grief from different people while votes were being tallied. This whole phenomenon continues to astound me. I am fascinated by how interconnected our world has become — that ideas can be represented, argued and supported by merely clicking a link.

So, what does all of this have to do with religion, or in my case, a lack thereof? The interconnectedness the Internet has bestowed upon our generation has a great power to break down barriers — religion being one of them. Some might argue that being in university is the real catalyst in challenging deeply-held beliefs, but the Internet still plays a major role.

After all, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way in which we, as a body of students, communicate. Social networking has shattered previous barriers that once restricted so-called taboo topics like religion and politics to formal debates. Or rather, it has expanded borders to include more perspectives, faster rebuttals and a greater understanding of how diverse our world is.

In a sense, the Internet has reshaped my worldview to include multiple perspectives. It has even inspired me to pursue a major in Religion and Culture and to objectively attempt to answer the question of “why does so-and-so believe in [insert higher power, ideology or theory here]?”

I have no want or need to prove that one God is better than another, but rather a desire to understand why others believe in the first place.

Since high school, I have abandoned religion and all of the inner and outer conflicts it stirred within me. Being “non-religious” or “atheist” can be a label in itself, because as humans we need names for things, even the things that do not necessarily exist. Nonetheless, I try not to subscribe to or define myself using one word. If the Internet has taught me anything, it’s that I have a lot in common with people who do have religious beliefs.

The moral of the story here is that the Internet has played a large role in sculpting my approach to religion. Because I have been exposed to so many other perspectives, I don’t believe that I am so different from those who have faith.

For millenia, religions have erected walls between themselves and others, often distracting from our fundamental and shared humanity.

Web-based interactions, whether anonymous or not, reveal that we all go through similar emotions, while enjoying comfort and stability to some extent. I can’t help but feel that the distance between beliefs has become much smaller with the rise of this network our world increasingly relies on.

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