Utilizing emerging technology is key to promoting and defending religious freedom worldwide, according to tech leaders speaking at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit 2023.
Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, was a premiere partner of the summit, which brought together a large gathering of diverse religious leaders to Washington D.C. for the cause of religious freedom around the world. Patheos, the world’s homepage for all religions, is a summit partner.
On Wednesday morning Joshua Althouse, Meta Public Policy Manager, and Nathan Learner, Chief Executive Director of the Digital First Project, hosted a breakfast meeting on “How Technology and the Metaverse Can Impact IRF.”
“I bet a bunch of you are wondering, ‘why is Meta here and what do they have to do with this conversation?’” said Althouse.
Althouse talked about his own religious background and how technology was a tool that could be used in both positive and negative ways in promoting religious freedom.
Learner, who authored a chapter in the just released Christian tech book The Digital Public Square, said leaders looking to advance religious freedom need to embrace technology or fall behind.
“If we aren’t leveraging this technology now… other people will set the rules for us and they won’t be kind,” Learner said.
He cited positive examples including using blockchain technology to transfer money anonymously and instantly to groups in “places where regimes are not so kind.”
Learner also spoke about house churches in China using encryption to communicate safely and securely in the face of crackdowns on Christian worship.
Althouse noted that Meta recently released a feature that will allow WhatsApp users to use its proxy servers in order to access the messaging service in countries where the app has been blocked. Countries that have banned WhatsApp encryption services include China, Qatar, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Cuba and the United Arab Emirates.
Learner and Althouse also spoke about the potential of AI (artificial intelligence) and the metaverse for religious purposes including translation services and virtual religious gatherings. Althouse noted that during the height of the Covid pandemic one of the largest drivers to Facebook was online religious services.
The metaverse is defined as a “virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users,” according to Oxford Languages.
Althouse said the metaverse can allow people to put on a headset and walk the same steps Jesus walked or attend a church or missionary meeting from anywhere. He stressed that he believed human connection was important, but that the metaverse augmented it.
“This is a revolutionary tool that will allow us to connect with each other without the barriers we have now,” Althouse said.