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Hang Ups

According to a Sunday Times report, members of the Christian sect the Exclusive Brethren are withdrawing their children from schools "They fear they may be corrupted by computers". In the past, children were given alternative work to do while their classmates crowded round the screen. But now that computers are being used far more frequently in lessons, this is no longer a viable option. And it's no good teachers trying to explain to the Brethren that IT is a national curriculum requirement. They have set their sights on attainment targets quite outside even Sir Ron Dearing's sphere of influence.

It's easy to make fun of a sect that refuses to accept new technology and almost as easy to recognise that perhaps the Brethren have a point. Computers, of course, are not the work of the devil they have 386 and 486 stamped on them, not 666. If we treated them like answer machines or cash dispensers, as necessary evils, there would be no cause for concern. Instead we choose to venerate them. The computer is the new household god; its worshippers endow it with "miraculous" powers. It has its own priesthood of pundits, prophets and determined evangelists who won't cease from mental strife until everyone's head is bowed, not in prayer, but over the keyboard.

You only have to visit PC World on a Sunday morning and look at the awe-struck faces of the faithful who crowd there to recognise that they're not merely shopping for another consumer durable but for something akin to salvation.

It didn't matter so much in the old days when computer enthusiasts were themselves an exclusive brethren of harmless nerds, dorks and propeller heads. Nobody really minded what they believed, or ever listened to the preposterous claims they made for IT. Little did we realise, then, that there would be chips with everything; that IT would permeate every facet of life and that the geek would inherit the earth.

Soon computers will be doing all the work that we once did. By then, cable will be installed in all our homes (except for those of the Brethren). We'll fill our days surfing idly through a thousand channels, too indolent to notice that there's nothing on we really want to watch. The much vaunted digital superhighway is going to seem more like a primrose path leading, if not to damnation, at least to something that's going to feel a lot like it.

While the Brethren might be prepared to fight the good fight, the other denominations are embracing the new technology with open arms. The Pope, for instance, is eagerly proving that Madonna isn't the only Catholic who can produce best-selling CDs, and American fundamentalists are putting their faith and other people's money into state-of-the-art satellite technology. Religious folk also know that it's easier to spread the word if it has been duly processed and neatly packaged in electronic form. There are half a dozen or more digital Bibles available on CD-Rom as well as a pocket-sized computer that already has the complete text of the King James version crammed into it. An electronic rosary it looks a bit Gameboy is selling well in Italy and the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been adapted "for Windows" not of the stained-glass variety.

The Internet has more places of religious interest than the Vatican City. As well as on-line Bibles; believers can subscribe to The Promised Land bulletin board, download a weekly sermon direct from St Mary's Church in Cheadle and have their sins absolved by making use of an on-line Confessional. It has a handy menu of popular venial sins with hypertext routes to the appropriate penance.

With so much available, rather than waste time hanging around in old-fashioned churches, believers will spend their Sundays in the hallowed aisles of PC World. It's enough to tempt anyone to enrol with the Exclusive Brethren.

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