Orthodox America

Reflections on the Internet, computer technology, real life, and spirituality  

By Fr. Alexey Young

   In order to understand the impact of computer science on Orthodox Christian spirituality we must first remind ourselves of how radical a change has overtaken human life and society in the modern era.

       Until about 150 years ago the average man rose at dawn and went to bed at sunset, depending on the season. Life was primarily agrarian. Artificial light was expensive, so most people engaged in little evening entertainment, which was mostly confined to reading (if one could afford books and artificial light), singing hymns or folk songs, and handing down ancestral tales. Simple games taught children the values of fairness, teamwork, and so forth. The rhythm of life was set by the Church's calendar of feasts, fasts, and saints' days. Indeed, church--including not only Divine services but a "churchly" way of life--held a primary place in the lives of people everywhere.

       Just over a hundred years ago all of this began to change, as a progression of technology and industry altered man's work, family life and personal existence in dramatic ways and with astonishing speed.

    Few products of modern technology can have had a more profound effect on modern family and personal life than television and now, computers, which together have become the primary sources of entertainment and "learning" for most people. Now one does not need direct interaction and conversation with other human beings; creativity and productivity have less to do with the mind, heart, and soul, and more to do with machines. One can completely isolate oneself as reality and fantasy mingle and blur, while real life retreats into the shadows of a television screen. The arrival of "virtual reality" means that one can engage in sex, gunplay, or space travel without ever leaving one's own home or dealing with another living being. Thirty years ago we wondered if children could tell the difference between reality and fantasy in films and on television; now there's good reason to fear that many adults cannot make this distinction, either. It goes without saying that all of this has an enormous impact on spiritual life as well.

      In his important book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander explains that true knowledge and personal growth are a combination of direct observation using our own five senses and personal experience (i.e., living and direct experience, not something predigested from film or TV). (We might add that the same is also true in spiritual life; this means that while videos and cassette tapes concerning our Orthodox Faith are of value and have their place, they cannot be substituted for a prayer life, keeping the fasts, standing at vigil, etc.) To the senses and personal experience we also add our own intuitions and feelings, developed in real life; all of which taken together, according to Mander, give us "the ability to perceive and describe the way the world is organized."

      But for those who are spending more than ten hours a week (or an hour and a half a day) watching television or videos, the way in which our senses work is actually altered, and this, according to Mander, changes "the overall balance" of human experience and knowledge. "Changes in one aspect of human perception or experience affect all others." For instance, in studying the extensive research on the moral development of children, one expert realized that those who spend the most amount of time watching television are "less advanced in knowing right from wrong"! [1] There is a very simple cause/ effect relationship here, and so, from the spiritual standpoint alone, this is a critical piece of information; this applies to adults as well as children, but especially to those who have grown to adulthood by watching television and videos their whole lives. Television, videos, and movies are all passive activities that take away from time that might have been spent in social activities that emphasize quite different and more important skills (interaction with peers as well as authority figures, give and take, imaginative problem-solving, etc). Consequently, it now appears that a new generation of human beings is being created that simply does not think, perceive, or act in the ways that human beings used to. In spiritual terms we could say that their conscience has been put to sleep. This is why we have the "X generation,'' this is why whole sections of our society especially among the young--have dropped out; and this is one of the reasons why the crime rate among young people is growing.

      Those who monitor and study human behavior in our society today (psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers) warn us that we have a wildcat by the tail and it will soon turn and rend us. This is of course serious enough to warrant our attention, but the implications of all this in the spiritual realm are nothing short of catastrophic.

      Some parents have felt that it is better to cut down on television by substituting video games and computers. They have failed to realize that video games are popular simply because they have "been tailor-made for the children of television. Children gravitate to video machines if for no other reason than familiarity. Video games are simply a spin-off of television and children feel comfortable with them because they are again dealing with screens.' [2] It is now known that many emotionally disturbed children--and adults--are also addicted to television and video games. Is there a connection between the two, between some kinds of mental illness and addiction to the screen? It seems probable.

      It follows that everything that has been said here about television also applies to computers. Of course computers have now become an indispensable part of our world--both in business and information gathering. No one doubts this and it is too late to question the wisdom of it. The horse is already out of the barn: whether we like it or not, most of our children will need some basic computer skills if they are to make their way in this world when they become adults. But our educational system (public and private) emphasizes the importance of computer science far beyond the level of basic skills, which is why families are encouraged (by both schools and the advertising media) to equip themselves with personal computers.

      The fact that it is of value to have some basic computer skills does not mean, however, there should be video games, the Internet, etc., in the home. Why not? Because we now know that "in the formative years the computer...creates a dependency on machines rather than on self. Like most electronic devices, computers, in their own good time, may enhance a child's learning experience [and employability as an adult]. But the key words are 'enhance' and 'in good time.''' [3] Furthermore, one cannot help but wonder why it is better (faster, perhaps, but not better) to use a computer program to look up information for a report on Brazil rather than to go to a library (with all of the special skills that library use entails) and find the same information in encyclopedias and other books.

  Today we have gone far beyond television,  video games and basic computer skills. With the arrival of more sophisticated computer technology we are rapidly creating what many feel is a completely new culture perhaps better described as a "post-cultural era" or, from the Orthodox worldview, a post - Christian age. In this post-cultural, post-Christian age not only are all of the problems, limitations, and effects of television and video games still in place and actually forming our minds but, in addition, we  now have unparalleled opportunities for wickedness  to be brought right into the home.

  Many priests have already worked with teenage and grown men who have become addicted to pornography by means of something as seemingly harmless as the Internet. It's becoming a more and more common problem because anyone with access to the Internet also has access to pornography, and this access is a great temptation to many who otherwise would not or could not go into an "adult book store." In our sex-obsessed society, it is perhaps not surprising that "surveys done by online administrators indicate that the pornographic sites are among the most often used on the Internet [4] Consumer watchdogs that try to alert parents to these dangers to their children say that "the foolproof way to filter is to supervise the children while they are on line.'' [5] This is true; if there is otherwise a valid need to have the Internet in one's home at all, it absolutely must be personally supervised by parents. But what about the fact that adults are also discovering, watching and being harmed by this same obscene material? Many millions are now "exposed to the equivalent of entire pornographic bookstores online, where anything goes and no material is too explicit or toe violent or too degrading.'' [6]

       Nonetheless, the unbridled use of our rapidly developing and expanding computer science and cyberculture is enthusiastically defended by those who see "the potential for technology such as the Internet to advance the progress of the human race"! [emphasis added], forgetting that, far from advancing humanity, "when you connect a bunch of fallen creatures, aren't you just increasing their capacity for evil?'' [7] In this light it is perhaps not surprising that the primary defenders of the Internet are also "the intellectual vanguard for an internationalist, libertarian world-view of global, amoral, stateless" society [8] as opposed to those who are deeply concerned about defending and preserving old fashioned Christian family values. Authentic cultures--and culture itself---are breaking down at an accelerated speed. "This process began long before computers were invented, and, whether we label it modernity, cultural imperialism, the technological revolution...no culture is immune to it? [9] This means that instead of customs, habits, art, and political and religious beliefs being the main components of culture, technology itself (and in particular computer technology) is rapidly becoming our new "culture."

       The problem with this, however, is that in contrast to the culture of Orthodox Christianity, "the 'culture' of the Internet has none of the characteristics of a real culture. It is not a total way of life; it did not evolve among a distinct people; nobody inherited it or was raised in it; it makes no moral demands and produces no art…it [has] no organic relationship to a real inherited culture and no clear conception of what such a relationship would be like.” [10]

       Is there then anything at all that can be said about the "culture" of computer technology and the Internet? Yes. It represents a world in which anything goes so long as one keeps and enhances "the narcissist experience of one's own personality, strengthened by its reflection in the computer screen...[:] the only significant reality [emphasis add ed]." In other words: '.'Nothing is good or true unless it satisfies me at this moment" because I now "inhabit a world made up primarily of bytes and images. Like television itself, which exists only to reach the largest possible audience, such a world has no fixed norms; like the Internet, it welcomes virtually any content from any source. Every expression, however violent, pornographic, or merely shallow, is equivalent to all other expressions? [11]

      Another example of this is religion on the Internet. According to a recent in-depth report, "almost overnight, the electronic community of the Internet has come to resemble a high-speed spiritual bazaar, where thousands of the faithful--and equal numbers of the faithless--meet and debate and swap ideas about things ...It's an astonishing act of technological and' intellectual main strearmng that is changing the character of the Internet, and could even change our ideas about God [emphasis added[." This is because "the most basic truth about technological revolutions is that they change everything they touch. Just as the first telescopes forever altered our sense of where we sit in the cosmos, so the Internet may press and tug at our most closely held beliefs.'' [12]

       Perhaps most serious of all in the short run, according to a sociology of science professor at M.I.T., is that "'people see the Net as a new metaphor for God...' The Internet ... exists as a world of its own, distract from earthly reality, crafted by humans but now growing out of human control [emphasis added] [13] All of this is related to "a spiritual movement known as process theology, whose proponents argue that God evolves along with man.... If you believe in an eternal, unchanging God, you'll be in trouble...'

       Not surprisingly, one can find on the Internet the First Cyberchurch of the Scientific God, the First Internet Church of All, "eco-spirituality,' and something called "technosophy,' which "aims to foster a spiritual appreciation for technology.'' [14] All of this, in addition to a revival of ancient paganism, as well as contemporary voodoo, gnosticism, and witchcraft --"these and scores more are out there, accessible worldwide. So is the expanding pool of freshly coined sects.'' [15] So, there is more on the Internet than pornography to protect our children from.

       What is going on now is something "churches ignore at their peril [because] the faithful, according to a recent study by Barna Research in Glendale, California, are moving online every bit as fast as the rest of the world.'' [16] THIS INCLUDES ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS. One certainly would not object to a decent and sober presentation of Orthodox Christianity on the Internet, especially if it can be used as a missionary tool. But we must realize that not only are there already numerous Orthodox web sites -some produced by genuine Orthodox Christian voices, others put up by pseudo-Orthodox groups and individuals; there are also thousands of individual Orthodox Christians of all jurisdictions (including the Russian Church Abroad) that are involved in "chat-rooms." (One wonders how these people find time to "chat" on the Internet and still say their prayers!) While these can provide a forum for healthy discussions and interchange of information, too often they deteriorate into senseless and often heated arguments, jurisdictional bickering, and ignorant gossip about this or that personality-bishop, priest, or layman--in Orthodoxy, that hardly contributes to a positive image of Orthodox Christianity.

      Does all of this mean that one should not have a computer in one's home, much less make use of the Internet? Does this mean that we should be against any and all computer technology? Hardly. But there are some serious ground rules that should be in place for all of us. A public library contains volumes of Shakespeare and Dickens as well as the most recent racy (or pornographic) novel. This doesn't mean that we avoid libraries; it just means that we learn how to use a library properly and in an intellectual and spiritually profitable manner, avoiding that which corrupts and seeking out only that which uplifts and edifies.

      Among the "rules" to be considered: no home should have the Internet at all unless it is necessary for business purposes. Any information that can be gleaned from the library should be sought there, on the library shelves, not on the Internet, which brings too many temptations right into the privacy of our own homes. If one does, for good reason, have the Internet, one's children should be closely and personally supervised while using it. In general, computers themselves have many positive uses even in the home (for composition of text, keeping personal finance records, etc.) but computers should not become substitutes for real life and interaction between the members of the family. And if one has computer games, let these be used no more than one or two hours a week, as a special family activity, not for those who are "bored."

We are already suffering from information overload; our inner minds pulsate with images and thoughts that are very difficult to control. Spiritual life requires interior stillness. Before plugging in, we should ask ourselves: Do I really need this information? What 'real benefit will I gain from computer "chat" that will outweigh the added interference in my prayers?

      What about e-mail, which so many of us now have and which we see not only as a time-saving device but as a way to have virtually instantaneous communication with others? Yes, e-mail can be timesaving, but, besides stifling the art of letter writing, it tends to encourage impetuous, off-the-top-of-the head, emotion-driven communication. Many spiritual fathers once counseled their spiritual children to leave a newly written letter overnight in the icon corner before sending it out the next day. In this way one had an opportunity to not only ask the blessing of heaven on the missive, but one could also thoughtfully reconsider what one had written, and change it, before posting it. Except for emergencies and legitimate business, do any of us really need to have such instantaneous (and usually thoughtless) communication with others?

      Finally, many thoughtful observers believe that computer technology (especially that which will develop out of today's present state of the science) will one day be put to the service of and used by Antichrist. Perhaps this is already happening in subtle and not so subtle ways. Those who have been trained (read: brainwashed) to get all of their information from cyberspace and web sites, from television and film, and those who only know what to think after they have been told how to think by this new technology, will be the first devout followers of Antichrist when he comes. They will be the disciples, they will comprise the "church" (or synagogue) if you will, of this technological messiah, nurtured by flickering images on a screen, images which, far from being images (or icons) of that which is holy, are in fact images of The Beast.

Some other recommended books:

Unplugging the Plug-in Drug, by Marie Winn
Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion
by Anthonyh Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson
Sensational TV: Trash or Journalism
, by Nancy Day
Silicon Snake Oil
by Clifford Stoll


1. Pamela Tuchscherer, The New High Tech Threat to Children.
Joan Anderson Wilkins, Breaking the T1/ Habit.
4. The National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, “Children, Pornography and Cyberspace." On a recent trip to the public library with my 15-year-old daughter, our attention was caught by the whooping and hollering of teenage boys at a nearby computer (kindly provided by the library at tax-payer expense); they had just gleefully called up a full color pornographic picture that could be seen by anyone passing by.
Bob Jones, "The Wild, Wild Web Remains Untamed"in World, July 12/19, 1997.
The National Coalition, op. cit.
Jones, "It's the Wired Decade," World, op. cit.
Christopher Clausen, "Welcome to Post-culturalism," The Key Reporter, Autumn, 1996.
Joshua Cooper Ramo, "Finding God on the Web," Time, December 16, 1996.
Rober Wright, "Can Thor Make a Comeback?" Time, op. cit.
. Ibid.
Cooper, op. cit.

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