Are you a Cybergnostic?

Cybergnosticism—this is not a term I bandy around on a daily basis, nor is it one that I think we’ll see enter our vernacular like “tweetable”[1] and “Pastafarian”[2] have recently. However, the term “cybergnosticism” is etymologically striking because it combines the pervasive modern prefix “cyber-” with a somewhat obscure, ancient religious movement from the 2nd Internet cyberspacecentury AD. In that context, remember, Gnosticism refers to a heretical movement that blended elements of Christianity, Greek philosophy, and Eastern religions into one syncretistic belief system. In general, Gnosticism prioritized the spirit over the body and claimed that the material world is evil. Contrary to Christian teachings on the goodness of creation or the human body, Gnosticism thus prompted early apologists like Irenaeus to write tracts against what he perceived to be a dangerous Christian heresy.

Given the ancient roots of Gnosticism, I was surprised when I came across the term “cybergnosticism” in a 1994 book by the social critic Os Guinness.[3] Here, Guinness warns Christians against the dangers of virtual technologies which threaten to replace the material world with a more ephemeral, less rooted cyberworld. Interestingly, Guinness thinks the Web provides a new breeding ground for this ancient belief system, and he encourages everyone to pause and consider how Gnosticism may be resurfacing in our online habits. Of course, there is an obvious irony to all this: I’m writing about the possible dangers of the Internet on the Internet. But this piece is not a wholesale condemnation of our growing cyberworld. I deeply appreciate what these new technologies offer us even as I try to understand what dangers lurk around the corner. Since the benefits are more easily recognizable, I will here write about some of its perils.

First, while blogs like Wondering Fair exist to meet the needs and curiosity of online readers, it is important to note how reading has changed when we move from textbooks to e-books. While the former encourage deep, linear reading and require sustained concentration, e-books promote lateral skimming and fragmented browsing across hyperlinks.[4] As Nicholas Carr makes clear, “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”[5]

A second concern about our increased immersion into the immaterial world of cyberspace is that the Internet affects our ability to form and sustain meaningful relationships. There are exceptions, of course, as when couples meet online and eventually get married. But we ought to recognize that perhaps one of the Internet’s most unnoticed traits is its process of disembodiment. To operate within the confines of cyberspace, we must forfeit ordinary modes of interpersonal communication like eye contact, handshakes, and hugs. Laughter, for example, is reduced to “LOL,” and close friendships are exchanged for the more tenuous cyber friends one finds on Facebook. Like Gnosticism, cyberspace tempts us to leave our bodies behind and inhabit an immaterial world.

Finally, the Internet poses obstacles to people of all religious backgrounds who are trying to live according to the narrative of their religious tradition. As Illustration: Judy Greenmedia critic and longtime educator Neil Postman explains, technology puts forth its own story, one that challenges many assumptions about the purpose and meaning of life. In his book, Technopoly, Postman elaborates:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advance. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption.”[6]

Though Postman is a bit of an alarmist, he rightly points out that no new technology is neutral or arrives in our homes or offices with purely positive consequences. With this in mind, we should all be wary of the dangers of cybergnosticism. Yes, the Web is helpful in facilitating bank transactions, academic research and so forth, but it also scatters our attention, subverts our relationships, and presents an alternative narrative that challenges religious beliefs. And if very common activities like reading and relating to friends depend on this larger question, then it clearly serves us well to ask it again: What narrative—religious or otherwise—shapes you the most?

Paul McClure

[3] Os Guinness, Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 129.

[4] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 106.

[5] Ibid., 115-116.

[6] Neil Postman., Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993), 179.


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