Date: Mon, 7 Oct 1996 06:32:05 +0100


Beyond Netiquette:

interreligious dialogue and the making of a global ethic through the Net

Ferenc Gerloczy

The first-but-still-the-best Hungarian Musical, "Egy szerelem három éjszakája" (Three Nights of a Love), contains a "Song about Etiquette". According to this unique song (sung amidst the ugliest period of the dirtiest war in Budapest's history), etiquette teaches us that we should kiss the hand of a lady and which pair of shoes to wear for which occasions, but the very same etiquette fails to tell us how to behave with ladies, people whose shops have gone under , and also fails to tell which pair of shoes you should choose when both your feet are lost. The conclusion ("moral") of the song is the following: only the dead know proper behavior.

Our Latin-based Western tradition of thinking: "Inter arma silent musae" (Among weapons muses are silent), is especially true for what we call etiquette, a codex of rules which works fairly well "within" a community, the validity of which, however, ends in a conflict between two, or more, different communities. Briefly speaking: it doesn't work in war.

Cyberworld's netiquette (with an 'n') is different, however. Its validity is based on the fact that the community of cyberspace is one and indivisible. We can find Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus in cyberspace as well as Serbs, and Croats, and Bosnians with on-line eyboards at hand. But we could hardly find such a thing as a Hindu, Muslim, Bosnian or Pakistani cyberspace. Et cetera. Cyberspace has a much greater challenge: to represent not a smaller community than the whole of humankind. This - in its entirety, not physical, but virtual - community, is the worldwide network of peace - compared with the worldwide network of arms-trade, logistics, ideologies and the like. Briefly the network of war in the so-called "real" world.

Etiquette, as we see, is something which makes things work smoothly- in peace. In war, however, there is a need for something "beyond" etiquette. This something is ethic, which tells us how to behave in conflict situations. (How to behave in crises - the Greek word Krisis means decision.) So, the moral of the story of mankind is that there is a need for morals. But the point is that the rules of moral conduct, even if they are basically similar to each other, are usually based on religious beliefs, which in themselves differ quite a bit. This is why people can wage wars against each other in the name(s) of their religious authorities. The commandment "thou shalt not kill" could well be common among Muslims and Christians and Jews in how they live their lives, but the question "Why shall I not kill?" remains unanswered and divides communities. Even such a categorically, ethical imperative is not universal, because the answers to this question run like this: "thou shalt not kill, because it is God's command." But (and here comes a strong but): even the absolute, unconditional foundations of ethical behavior seem to differ, because there is no such being as God. God is not a name, but a profession. The being who, by profession, is God, has several names: El, Elohim, Jahve, Isten, Bog, Dieu, Dios, Theos, Allah, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Rama, Vishnu and Shiva, and so forth. So even if there might be a common religious foundation of a practically common ethic, it does not work, since the partakers or enemies of a war all fight in the name of (that is to say: in the different names of ) God.

To tell the truth many, many wars are taking place in the so-called real world, and they are basically religious - conducted in the names of religious authorities. This is a paradox, since religions tend to be much more about peace, union, and the submission of our tribal or individual egos to a transcendent power in which we believe.

How could the Internet community, this one and indivisible wired-community, help the non-wired to live in peace? It is trivial, that in cyberspace a real war cannot exist with kalasnyikovs, plastic and/or atomic bombs, bayonettes, swords, knives, and so on - since every action in cyberspace takes place in the world-wide communication, as a "res cogitans" and not as a "res extensa" - to borrow Descartes' distinction. Soldiers on the front, or tanks on the battlefield have a physical definition, so if they collide, they may destroy each other. But through the Internet, even enemies cannot destroy each other, they only can battle one another's thoughts.

I don't mean to say that there are no religious wars on the net. There are. The religious activity is surprising, gigantic even, and the proselytizing is very active. But who cares? "Flaming" in a newsgroup or on a mailing list is not like flaming cities. Netiqeuette, as far as it seems, is enough to keep the partakers peaceful in their dialogues. I have no reason, however, to deny that there are huge cultural differences, even in cyberspace, which divide netizens. It may be known to some of you, that Umberto Eco, the semiotics professor and bestseller writer of the university of Bologna wrote in his back-page column, "La Bustina di Minerva," in the Italian news weekly "Espresso," September 30, 1994...

"Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It's an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

"The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the 'ratio studiorum' of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach--if not the Kingdom of Heaven--the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

"DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

"You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions; when it comes down to it, you can decide to allow women and gays to be ministers if you want to.

"And machine code, which lies beneath both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that is to do with the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic..."

I quoted Eco to avoid accusations of ignoring what's going on. Yes, I see, how many spiritual wars are going on, that even the Matrix itself is not devoid of "religious wars" . Just type "religious war" in a search engine, and you will find several servers netwide with Eco's above quoted text, as well as other traces of "software wars". One of the main battlefields now (1996) is the one between 3.0s of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer respectively. Yes: even the Matrix is a religious battlefield. (No: to oppose another web browser is still not killing people on the killing fields.)

Internet doesn't mean peace automatically. It is just not war. In this non-war position the net built a special kind of etiquette: protocol. The "handshakes" of different programs and environments work exactly like the etiquette and protocol of diplomacy. But netiquette and protocols only provide formats for communication. Without something to say, i. e. without important content, communicating, even through the best protocols, is for nothing.

Who says what? It is not less important than how they do it.

The spiritual developments on the Internet seem to tend to three + one different directions.

1.) Proselytizing, or simply presence, or "being there". There are Hindu and Muslim, Jewish and Christian, Feminist and Satanist, Mormon and Watchtower, Wicca, and Orthodox, Hare Krishna and Shamanist and many other communities on the net. Not to exclude those in the Elvis Church, who believe that the rock star will descend from the Heavens in a pink Cadillac, the anti-pope reform-Catholics, and say, the so called, not-at-all religionless, "pagans". They all use the net as a tool to spread their teachings. Small and large communities do the same: more and more, they are present on the net, like the artists, scientists, librarians, and others who also use this tool.

2.)Trying out the ways of building a common spiritual community, in other words, making on-line cyberreligions. "Cyberchurches" exist, which one can enter with a simple click of the mouse (and the rite of passage, one can say, may be realized with a double click, and, perhaps, providing a password). Many netizens believe in a world which transcends the so-called "real" world. Some even think that a Being is being created in front of our eyes, or rather: our brains. This is neither a god, nor a human being, nor just the multitude of cyborgs, but THE WHOLE INTERNET as a being, with such an enormous knowledge that we cannot wholly percieve it. And, facing this Golem, we can only say something like "credo quia absurdum est" I believe in it because I don't understand it. Or, to be more optimistic, we can say "credo ut intelligam": I believe in it in order to understand it. Many of those who think religions and cyberspace have much in common, believe in cyberspace as not just a virtual, but also, in a sense, as an ultimate reality.

3.) The third characteristic sort of religious activity on the net is the smallest but most important one: the interreligious dialogue. This "ecumenismus ad extra", the dialogue of - virtually - all the religions and confessions of the world (a much wider dialogue, than the basically Inter-Christian diplomacy called "ecumenism") was represented by the signers of the Parliament of the Religions of the World in Chicago, 1993 (which has continued on the net), as well as it is represented by the Californian Episcopal Bishop William E. Swing's United Religions Initiative. These attempts are based on what Hans Kueng, the German ecumenical theologian described as the "golden rule" of a global ethic, the trace of which one may find in several religious traditions from the teachings of the Buddha through the Jewish thinker Hillel to Confucius and Jesus: "don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you."

4.) Last, there is a fourth kind of religious activity on the net, or, at least the demand for it. It may be more radical in dialogue than Kueng's ecumenismus ad extra, more dialogic than any "golden rule". Not having a better word for it, I call it "interreligiology." The common commandment for the participants of this possible future forum should go beyond the common global ethic inherent in the different religions, well beyond the ten and other numbers of commandments acceptable by anyone, and has to express, analogously to what Socrates said concerning philosophy (I only know that I know nothing) , something like this: "I only believe one thing: that I don't have faith; so I submit myself to Thy Faith."