It is my birthday, and I have taken an emergency house call from one of my professors. She offers to buy me lunch, and then we go into her dining room. She sits in front of her new laptop and explains the demonic forces that prevent her from using email. She has repeatedly tried casting out the spirits of the classroom projector, which refuse to bend to her will every now and again. I begin by asking the professor to take a few deep breaths before we jump in. We tackle these problems, then others that she remembers along the way. I never touch her device: since I won’t always be around, I want her to get comfortable with doing the troubleshooting herself. Every once in a while, I remind her to breathe and to read whenever a box pops up, before closing it. At each step I explain what is happening, what she is doing, what to anticipate, and that it is all invariably okay. By the end of our session, we have managed to tame her mailbox, organize her data, and give her a foothold over the machine. Though she is hard-pressed to admit it, she feels better about using her computer. We agree to make a second appointment.
Some seek God in algorithms. Others seek a kind of divinity in the pastness of the past. The former seek to model a metaphysics of calculability. The latter tend to complicate that metaphysics by questioning the very definition of presence.
This was the thought I had while falling slowly asleep in front of the eBay screen. The historian, perhaps to his detriment, has these kinds of thoughts. He senses the flittering screen of the present more acutely than most—the way the past comes in and out of focus, the way it is there and not there, the way it is not even an it save for fleeting moments catalyzed in the materiality of the archive. Wherever that may be, eBay is there.
One of the essential early texts of the open source software movement was “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” a 1999 essay by programmer Eric S. Raymond in which he juxtaposes two approaches to developing computer programs, each with an analogy to a fixture of the medieval city: from the top down, like a cathedral, and from the bottom up, like a street market. At the time, open source software development was still largely characterized by a command-and-control (top down) process; Raymond advocated a more bottom-up method. He understood the bazaar (contra Clifford Geertz) as representing a way of harnessing collective intelligence toward collective ends: share the code with the world, and the world will fix its bugs in no time. Partly as a result of Raymond’s essay, the code underlying Netscape went open source, and the community-maintained Firefox browser was born. Much of the Internet—from Linux servers to Android phones—now runs on bazaar-style software.
Until last month’s attack, Charlie Hebdo was little known beyond France. In the wake of the massacre, however, it was quickly valorized as a symbol of freedom of expression and French secularism, and the hashtag #JesuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”) spread rapidly across social media. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared a “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” On January 11, 2015, more than a million people, including 40 of the world’s political leaders—not all of whom are otherwise known for their support of free speech—marched together in Paris.
The week after the massacre, Charlie Hebdo’s “All is forgiven” issue featured a cover depicting the prophet Muhammad in tears, holding a sign that read “Je suis Charlie.”
The violence, and responses to it, have raised a slew of questions. Is it helpful, or even accurate, to characterize these killings as religiously motivated? How have the attack and responses to it helped to construct or entrench the identities said to be in conflict? Should the events be understood in the context of France’s history of satire or its history of colonialism? Can the two be separated in this case? What is the significance of the willingness of many not only to affirm free expression, but also to identify themselves with the magazine? Are there limits to the freedom of expression?
Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.
For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.
Writing about religion in the digital age means that your readers respond. They have, of course, always responded; but in an age of stamps and paper, it required some effort. Now, it requires almost none. I still have the slender file of the paper letters people sent me after my first book came out in 1989. In 2012 I posted a short piece on CNN’s Belief Blog: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.” There were more than 7000 comments. I couldn’t even read them.
Mind you, I didn’t want to. Readers can be unkind—perhaps because the swiftness of the digital writing process means that readers can blurt out the first vehement thoughts they might have edited away if they had to go to their typewriter and type out text on paper, or because the anonymity of posting means that the normal constraints on meanness disappear, or because people think they’re having a conversation just with other posters, and don’t really think of the writer as a fellow creature at all. Whatever the reason, people say horrible things in online posted comments. One gem from my Belief Blog essay: “This lady is (usually) crazy.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby raises a series of important questions for public debate. If for-profit corporations are entitled to exercise freedom of religion, then as a civil society we must consider certain questions that follow from this extension of the prerogatives traditionally granted to churches and other religious organizations, as well as to individuals acting in their private capacities. My analysis will focus on these larger questions of policy and attempt to provide some further context for the debate that should now occur.
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, whose insights are always penetrating on these issues and worth pondering carefully, has missed the mark in her earlier reaction to the decision. She uses Hobby Lobby as an example of the reductio ad absurdum of the logic of freedom of religion, and argues that we (especially liberal exponents of toleration) are unable to reasonably deny freedom of religion in cases where the substantive rights guaranteed seem intolerable to many. I respectfully disagree.