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Religious institutions, beware the scourge of the Internet

Published in The Malaysian Insider

The Malaysian Insider had to take down a story a week and a half ago on Malaysian religious authorities spreading hatred against Valentine’s Day celebrations — after a complaint was made by said department. It was no big deal, because by the time it was taken down, possibly hundreds of people would have read it.

Out of those hundreds, some would have shared it on Twitter or Facebook, some would have commented on the story, and many more will continue to talk about it off the Net for days to come.

It is the age of the Internet, and what the religious do behind closed doors no longer stays that way.

An article by Valerie Tarico, “Does the Internet Spell Doom For Organised Religion?”, describes the situation succinctly. It posits that religions are on the decline all over the world because humans nowadays possess a terrible weapon of reason: the Internet.

Tarico explained that a traditional religion, one which is built on “right” belief, requires a closed information system. The beliefs only work when the adherents believe solely in what they have been taught, with no output outside the closed system.

You can see such system at work in how Islam is practised in Malaysia: Muslims are only allowed to marry other Muslims, and their children automatically become Muslims.

Websites are blocked. Books are banned. Speakers are denied from entering the country. One needs a specific permit or licence to preach. Religious sects other than the “right one” get vilified.

Then there is that ban on the A-word, which goes along with a ban on the Alkitab, the Bible in Malay. Both having their roots in the constitutional — but anciently absurd — requirement that while Muslims can preach to others, non-Muslims just cannot do the same towards their Malay brethren.

Again, no outside information is allowed, just information which has been deemed “correct” by the holy gatekeepers. Because information will lead to questioning, and questioning will lead to a wavering faith, and a wavering faith will eventually lead to abandonment.

Malaysian Islam knows that should it allow its believers open access to everything, it might meet that one end: irrelevance. And that is as good as doom.

In Tarico’s article, two out of the six ways the Internet is contributing to the doom of organised religions are by presenting curated collections of ridiculous beliefs, and the kinky, exploitative, oppressive, opportunistic and violent sides of religion.

Perhaps the religious authorities were aware of this, for they realised that everybody with access to the Internet could now know that they were spreading hatred towards something as insignificant as the Valentine’s Day behind closed doors.

This hatred, mind you, came just two weeks after a call-of-arms towards “enemies of Islam” in the country. It was followed by another sermon a week after which seemed to backtrack by calling for interfaith tolerance instead.

With the Internet, citizens can find out that the oft-quoted article by one Ken Swieger (sic) deriding Valentine’s Day for promoting idolatry was just an online post by a pastor to his Knoxville, Tennessee congregation, the Seventh Day Christian Assembly.

The sermon claimed that the word “Valentine” was used to exalt two ancient Roman deities, Lupercus and Nimrod. Meanwhile, in his article Swiger (the correct spelling) linked the celebration to a pagan festival of intimacy dedicated to a deity called Lupercus, which might be the biblical Nimrod the great hunter, great-grandson of Noah.

He then claimed that the Latin word “valens”, meaning “the strong, powerful or mighty one”, was the root word for “Valentine”, and was in reference to Nimrod, thus making the celebration a “blatant idolatry”.

It can be noted here that the supposed research was less than stellar, and an Islamic studies student armed with Google might fare better. If a sermon itself pays this much (or less) attention to facts, what hope do we have for the rest of the teachings?

The mother of irony then — that an institution so adamant of not sharing a religious term with the Christians is using a minor church leader from infidel USA to justify a nationwide crusade.

It is the age of the Internet, of open information available at your fingertips. I will not hold my breath waiting for the religious institution to finally join the 21st century, but I will enjoy seeing them grasp at the invisible doors of the Internet as they attempt to board them up.

Published inTMI column
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