Comments on Tim Berners-Lee's essay

The World Wide Web and the "Web of Life"

Tim Berners-Lee, the main figure in the creation of the World Wide Web, wrote this short essay on the intersection of religion and the spirit of the Web.

In the essay, he notes:

Where I'm coming from

Like many people, I had a religious upbringing which I rejected as a teenager: in my case it was a protestant Christian (Church of England) upbringing. I rejected it just after being "confirmed" and told how essential it was to believe in all kinds of unbelievable things. Since then I have discovered that many of the people around me who were "Christians" in fact used a sort of loose interpretation of some of that stuff, but it relieved a great tension just to say no. In fact, confirmation is when you say "yes", and well, we all make mistakes. In fact the need for the basis for Christian philosophy but without the dogma was a vacuum for many years.

As a member of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Church of England, I can certainly relate to that.  My confirmation-age children are asked "to believe in all kinds of unbelievable things," which adds some difficulty to our discussions about church and religion.

Further on in the essay Sir Tim asks us to...

Imagine a Virtue and Veracity church growing up independently, with the same UU [Unitarian Universalist] principles but none of the same history of vocabulary. What would happen when one of the VV members strolled by accident into a UU church? An enlightened smile of recognition, the same warm feeling which someone who has really unknowingly been a UU all their life feels when walking into a congregation of UUs.

It's not the same when the followers of divine prophet1 meet the followers of divine prophet2. Divine prophets(often!) know who they are and know they are the only ones. The One True Churches worships the One True Gods and in many cases convince others of their Oneness and Trueness with swords and fire and destruction. The philosophies fail the test of Independent Invention. The result of this interoperability failure is not an error code or an unreadable Web page but hatred and jealousy, war and persecution.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that much of the philosophy of life associated with many religions is much more sound than the dogma which comes along with it. So I do respect them, and you if you belong to one. UUism has looks for its philosophy to contributions and writings from many religions, western and eastern.

The essay echoes the thoughts of countless thinking people. What sensible human being has not been bemused or appalled by religious dogma?

Often, a religion's dogma contradicts the very teachings of its founders. It happens right in my own church. This member of the Anglican Communion is totally turned off every Sunday as a community of educated human beings drones through the mindless recitation of the combined Nicene Creed and Apostle's Creed, whose verses start with "I believe..."

I mean, is this standing and reciting a creed in unison not the very thing that defines a cult? If we wore robes instead of suits and ties, concerned relatives would send in the deprogrammers to rescue us.

The worst part of the creed is the line that line that starts

"For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate..."

...which of course is nothing less than a perpetration of juicy sins by those few who actually believe what they're saying. In this case the principal sin consists of pinning the blame for our own transgressions on a convenient victim.

Isn't the main lesson of the New Testament, the very focal point of Christianity, the notion that we must admit our flaws and trespasses so that they may be forgiven through the very sacrifice that is the subject of the verse?

Pilate?! He was the one who tried to convince the mob that Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. Pilate tried to save Jesus from a mob's demand that he be crucified! If there was anyone at the scene whose behavior was closest to what might be called Christian, it was Pontius Pilate. 

Now apparently the practice of blaming Pilate for the crucifixion is politically motivated: since the crowd was Jewish, blaming Pilate allows us to avoid blaming the Jews.

So there again is the same stupidity. The point is not that the crowd consisted of Jews. The point is that the crowd consisted of human beings. Human beings of all sorts can get vicious when some iconoclast challenges their basic notions of who they are and what they should consider important. Typically they're egged on by the leaders of the establishment. Nothing new here.

The question is not what individual or individuals were to blame on that day for that event. The question we purported Christians should each ask ourselves is: if the rabid masses around me are fervently shouting "Crucify him!" what are the chances I would be yelling "Shut up, you idiots!"?

Worse, who among us can say for sure that we wouldn't join the chorus?

If it happened this afternoon, how would we behave? Remember, Pilate at least risked the wrath of the crowd - and his nice job - by trying to defend Jesus. Would you have done that?

we shouldn't be too smug about the fact that we happened not to be there. Maybe we need repentence after all.

So I'll let you in on a little secret. Some of us Anglicans go silent after the word "crucified."  "For our sake he was crucified." Period.

Perhaps some day we can get a majority of Anglicans around the world to drop the "under Pontius Pilate," letting the resulting silence provide for a little moment of repentence.

We're not talking about wallowing in guilt, just an understanding that we may not be the perfect bundle of wonderfulness that the empowerment culture tries to convince us we are. Perhaps we've been cut some slack in this life. Perhaps we ought to show some appreciation for that.

Unitarian Univeralism is a wonderful old religion, or rather a philosophy that puts on the trappings of a religion. It really strikes a chord with empiricists like myself, asking us to believe only that which makes sense.

But here's the problem I have with some UUs: they convince themselves that they're good. And good people can be trusted to do the right thing. And that a deity is an abstract concept with no real impact on the everyday life of people who are just plain good on their own, without any help from said deity.

The slippery slope starts right there. Sure we're good. We're also bad. And our egos, left to themselves, are jealous of the notion of another ego that is
superior. We want to be top dog, our ego wants to occupy the moral high ground. There's a part of each of us that wants to be God. (For a tremendously entertaining portrayal of how that works see Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate (1997)).

All the unbelievable stories, the chants, the worship centeredness of mainstream religions serve to reinforce the faith of non-empiricists, because faith in a supreme deity is what keeps most people from coming to a belief that they are God. Those practices serve a very important purpose.

Empiricists can see all this, and they can rely upon their powers of observation and reason to understand that they're not God. That is, until it becomes more fun to be God. Then we look for a way to rationalize our promotion to the office of main deity. Perhaps we start with the notion from string theory that universes are being created all the time, so hey, why not make myself the head honcho of this particular universe? Or more likely we just adopt some seemingly benign psychopathology that tells us that all this acceptance and inclusion of others is just a kind of play acting, this universe is really our own. Money and power help this process along. We're really in charge.

And down we go, slip sliding away...

So let's hope the Virtue and Veracity church, or our own Church of What's Happenin' Now, are built with an understanding of this human frailty, the tendency of people to become God. It's important not just for our souls, but for very practical reasons related to that concept of veracity.

Here's why.