Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online

Official SXSW synopsis on Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online
Spirituality Online panel [Note: I’m reporting this in full because I was moved by the discourse and want you to get a feel of the ‘flow’ between panelists and the audience.]
I’m here because the other panel topics also at 5pm didn’t excite me. Also, how often do I see two Christians, a Mormon, a Muslim and a Jew sit at a panel together?
James McNally (moderator) notes that this is possibly the first religion-related panel at SXSW ever. I think so…

James introduced himself. He was born Catholic, had a born-again experience, had a close-knit church and strong youth group. Currently he does not attend a church, after seeing how his gay friend was treated in church after he came out. He’s been blogging since 2003. He has attended SXSW since 2001.
Kevin Lawver from AOL has been blogging since 2000. He’s born as a Mormon.
Hussein Rashid, PhD student in Islamic culture. After 9-11 he was busy explaining Islam to people. He wants people to see the difference between religion and faith.
Rachel Barenblat began blogging in 2003 when she began to engage Judaism again. Wanted to have conversations with other people on Judaism, as well as non-Jews on other religions.
Gordon Atkinson is a Baptist preacher in Texas. Started a blog to show people the life of a preacher.
Rachel’s projects include:

Hussein and Rachel have had discussions together. Hussein talks about issues such as the veil covering Muslim women’s faces – why do people find it offensive?
A member of the audience asked why there were no atheists on the panel. James explains the limitations on the number of panellists. I can tell he’s making an effort not to offend anybody.
Another member of the audience asked why the panelists’ blog posts were so long. Gordon, being a professional, takes 10 hours to write a blog post. Rachel says she’s always been wordy but those who are interested enough do read her posts.
Gordon notes that people in churches want their preachers to look perfect and not talk about real-life issues. It is difficult to be authentic. Fortunately he hasn’t been given any trouble about his blog. His daughter and mother reads his blog. Whenever he uses the ‘F’ word he knows there’s a price he’s going to pay! 🙂
Hussein talks about a blog post in 2003 saying “Kill all Muslims”. It was a reaction to bin Laden. Rachel says that she tries to reply to all comments, and as if they’re all sitting together having coffee. Hussein says he replies to all comments too.


Note that some were not quite questions but statements. I’ve rephrased them for brevity as some tended to ramble.
Q1. It’s difficult to put your thoughts online when people are slamming you. How do each of you deal with these sort of tiffs?
Kevin says certain outspoken members of faiths give the impression they’re THE only representative of their faith, when this is not the case. Just be the real you when you blog, and people will learn what your faith means to you.
Q2. There is now a Second Life Unitarian Universalist Church Community which also has its own Blogroll. It is interesting that a good proportion of our members are the jobless or disabled. This could be because they do not have to keep up real-life appearances and dress in a certain way.
I didn’t quite catch what the panelists said in response to this, but I felt it was more a statement than a question anyway.
Q3. I’m Evangelical and used to talk about my faith on my blog, but stopped because I was tired of how people would stereotype me. I talked about a rich church that made me want to ‘hurl’. I received vitriolic comments.
McNally says he doesn’t make his faith so obvious but regular readers would know what he’s about.
Q4. (Asked by a man with a top hat? What’s the proper name for this) I discovered Second Life. I spent every night with a virtual friend who then died in real life. People not in Second Life didn’t understand this. I needed some closure on this person’s death. My religious beliefs are eclectic – Judeo-Pagan. I’m probably Unitarian. If you can show emotion in a virtual world that has animation, you can have an emotionally intense experience.
What do you do when you’re in a situation where you have to be publicly critical of your own religion? Movies are being made on religion that are more artistic than realistic.
James notes that we must discern between our cultures and our faiths.
Q5. How much time do you spend online?
James – not as long as before. Don’t want to do overtime.
Kevin – I now blog as an icebreaker to my parents and colleagues. I’ve had these wonderful conversations that I’d never been able to do elsewhere.
Hussein – I do a lot of work within the Muslim community and as a counsellor. I use blogging to reflect on my experiences.
Rachel – it’s important for me to balance my online religious world with offline religious world.
Gordon – as a preacher it’s a good thing for me. I get too many emails to answer. Some people send very sad emails. It’s difficult for me. I spend half my life on this.
All in all, it ended quite amicably. I expected much harsher reactions from the audience because religion (or, ideally, faith) is such a controversial topic that it has a higher chance of spinning out of control.
The panelists asked to be notified if anyone blogged about this. I’ll notify them later. If you’re a panelist or a fellow attendee, feel free to drop me a note.
Might I take this opportunity to plug my own blog’s section on God, as well as my testimony.
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