September 2021 Pulse
There is a growing body of literature on religion online, the phenomena which takes advantage of the digital age and all its affordances to create religious communities in cyberspace where members ‘congregate’ to take part in religious rituals or activities. Since the arrival of the internet, many such communities have been formed, including online churches such as the Online Church (OLC) where members ‘meet’ online for activities such as Bible study.
But there can also be found in cyberspace the presence of a new form of neo-paganism which some writers have dubbed the Newer Age, where the paraphernalia associated with the ‘older’ New Age are re-packaged for the netizen who is searching for meaning.
These ‘newer’ New Agers or technopagans believe in the sacralisation of cyberspace and in making it an environment where spiritual experiences can be had. For example, Mark Pesce, a self-confessed technopagan thinks that ‘computers can be as sacred as we are, because they can embody our communication with each other and with entities – the divine parts of ourselves – that we involve in that space.’
Cyberspace can also serve as a kind of portal through which one can enter the spiritual or mystical realm. According to Lisa McSherry, a.k.a. ‘Lady Ma’at’ of the Jaguar Moon cybercoven:
Cyberspace is a technological doorway to the astral plane. The entrance cannot be found in a piece of computer hardware or in a software program that sits unused on your desk. Cyberspace is what happens when you join the soft- and hard- ware together and then activate it. By the time our conscious minds view the products created by cyberspace, the process itself is already complete, and we literally stand in a place between the worlds, one with heightened potential to be as sacred as any circle cast on the ground.
The digital environment can also be a place of unbridled freedom where technopagans – especially those with a predilection for the occult – could experiment with controversial and sometimes dangerous magic rituals. Tyagi Nagasiva, who practices ‘chaos magic’, urges his followers to defy established conventions and rules (put in place by occultists) by ‘spontaneously enacting rituals that break through fixed mental categories and evoke unknown – and often terrifying – entities and experiences.’
The presence and spread of technopaganism should not be taken lightly. In his 2004 dissertation Religion on the Internet: A Sociological Inquiry into Participation and Community Online, Christopher Helland provides the following statistics on online religion.
Between 2001 and 2003, Helland reports, there has been a marked increase in online religious representation (45.5%). There are significant increases in most of the traditional religions like Buddhism (58%) and Christianity (49.2%). But the traditional religion that registered the greatest increase is Hinduism (125%).
This is significant because New Age metaphysics and spirituality (in both their ‘older’ and ‘newer’ incarnations) borrow heavily from pantheistic religions such as Hinduism. The other statistics which Helland records that is of interest in this context of this discussion are as follows: paganism (0.4%), divination (24%) and New Age (38%).
When we take into consideration the fact that these categories can be somewhat contrived and that in reality things are rather more fluid, then the increase in neo-paganism in cyberspace is quite significant. When all these categories are merged into one broad classification ‘Neo-paganism’, the increase, according to Helland, is 140.9% in the period from 2001 to 2003.
For many Christians, the numerous Scriptural warnings and prohibitions against practicing the occult speak for themselves. Christians should have no truck with these practices because they are clearly forbidden by God. This means that Christians – especially those who consider the online space to be their natural habitat – should not allow themselves to be drawn by the many seductions of technopaganism, however tantalising they may present themselves.
But what may be plain and obvious for some Christians may not be so for others. There is a dangerous perspective on New Age practices and the occult that is advanced by some popular Christian speakers and writers that has the potential to mislead some Christians.
Charismatic speakers and writers such as Bill Johnson teach that what is practiced in the occult world originally belonged to the Church. Thus, in Dreaming with God (2006) Johnson asserts that these practices are in fact the ‘tools that God has given us for success in life and ministry.’
In similar vein, Jonathan Welton, who claims to be a prophetic seer, argues that practices such as ‘spirit guide, trances, meditation, auras, power objects, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and more … actually belong to the Church.’ He adds: ‘Every time a counterfeit shows up, take it as the Lord presenting you with an opportunity to reclaim … God’s stolen property.’
For the immature Christian who is chasing after spiritual highs, these teachings can be very dangerous indeed. They can lead the new digitally savvy Christian to the enslaving occult world of technopaganism.
The strange world into which the Israelites were brought when they claimed the land that God had promised them after he delivered them from slavery in Egypt was a world steeped in occult and paganistic practices. As they were about to enter the land, God warned them not to embrace those practices, for to do so is to be subjected to a different (and more sinister) form of slavery.
In Deuteronomy 18, we read:
When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practises the Lord your God is driving them our before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations, which you are about to dispossess, give heed to soothsayers and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so (verses 9-14).
These words apply to God’s people today who are navigating the digital environment and influenced by digital culture as much as they did to the ancient Israelites who were surrounded by Canaanite culture. The practices they forbade are as much an abomination in the eyes of God now as they were in the past.
It will therefore be to their own spiritual detriment if Christians were to dismiss these clear warnings from Scripture and dabble in technopaganism.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.