Places of Worship: The New Religious Environment

Fewer and fewer aspects of analog life remain without a digital referent. As cyber-technology flourishes, much of humankind seems enthusiastic to adopt new media for purposes both mundane and extraordinary—from grocery shopping to discovering love. The internet has become a channel for fulfilling (or, at least, discussing) nearly every human need, and, among them, religion stands as one of particular controversy. Digital, social, and theological scholars, to name only the most salient disciplines, are overseeing a vigorous debate of the authenticity of online spirituality as it continues to grow. There is no univocal discourse of internet religion. Theories of space and context, community and individuality, and disembodiment and situatedness are in a state of flux as dynamic as the exploding media itself. These theories are larger in scope and encompass internet religion. It is therefore important to acknowledge that the following discussion exists within a much broader and still malleable framework. Nevertheless, approaching it through dialogues on embodiment in cyberspace, cultural trends in a global-digital age, and increasingly networked societies, it is fair to say that internet religion offers abundant means to those seeking to supplement their terrestrial spiritual practices. If in all the past and current research there is a nexus of agreement, it is that internet religion is not soon likely to dissolve.

The popularity of cyber-religion has its roots, to some degree, in the Protestant evangelicals’ ambitious media campaigns of the 1950’s. Billy Graham’s magazine, Christianity Today, followed by radio and television programs, evidences the evangelical “passion to bend every possible communications medium toward [their] ‘statement of hope’” (Mercer Schuchardt 1). With the aim of gaining churchgoers, Christian evangelicals set precedent in embracing technological progress as they saw it working for them, filling stadiums and putting preachers on screens in millions of living rooms. Today, however, technologically mediated religion seems bent toward different purposes. The preponderance of online religion (whether for religious practice or merely to sate curiosity) suggests that new media use has shifted to the laity—from religious authorities to their congregants. Social scientist Deirdre Meintel notes that more Americans search the internet for religious information than for any other reason, surpassing online dating, gambling, and even banking (21). While impressive, this fact is rather anecdotal given that many Americans are likely not practicing online religion per se. A variety of substantive differences lie between searching the internet for a religious term and listening weekly to a local church sermon via podcast. Indeed, symptomatic of the entire subject, the term “internet religion” is itself too nebulous to be useful without pinning down a working definition.

Because of the extreme breadth of what could be deemed internet religion, it is important for my purpose to focus only on the practice of religion online, and then primarily on those aspects of the practice that are not exclusive to the internet (i.e. things possible in terrestrial practice). Meintel observes in her study three very general and common purposes for religious use of the net: building and maintaining communities, which may include bulletin boards, church websites, social media, and even text-messaging; “governance of religious groups,” by which is meant congregational oversight and organization; and to exchange religious resources, including sermons, homilies, event schedules, and ritual information (Meintel 2012). These functions are neither steadfast nor exclusive. For instance, Justin Bailey, in the Christian Scholar’s Review, discusses the value of bible apps, virtual reality programs, and other experiential cyber technologies. Likewise, Connie Hill-Smith writes of religious cyber-pilgrimage. These rather specialized usages, I will touch on; but, as an overarching solution to the ambiguity of the term “internet religion,” Meintel’s definition is suitable. My own review of the online presence of local religious organizations (mostly of the major denominations: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu) shows community building, congregational organization, and ritual and liturgical information to be the predominant aims. While the depth and complexity of some sites—particularly those of Christian churches—over others betrays the internet’s varying degree of importance and influence, the fact that nearly every local religious group is represented online attests to the ubiquity of internet religion. The question then is not whether religion has a place in cyberspace but what that place does for those who visit it.

Discourse on internet religion may be seen as a distillation of the larger dialogue concerning the human experience in cyberspace. Where are we, exactly, when we are immersed in digital technologies? Are we fully in real space and time, just observing data on a screen? Are users somehow extended into cyberspace and therefore absent from reality? Is there a third space? Further still, we can ask: do our interactions on the web create spaces wherein we might actually exist, or are they merely placeless streams of data with no real human experience to moor them? Questions such as these all converge on the issue of embodiment—the notion that internet technology either does or does not capacitate actual sensory experience.

Religion, with its especially sensual qualities, seems a perfectly suited point of entry for exploration of embodiment in cyberspace. Bailey, for instance, posits that our technologies “embody and encourage particular ways of imagining and inhabiting the world.” He suggests that Christian theology is embedded with “corporeality,” and therefore, even in cyberspace, the body and all its senses remains the creator and interpreter of substance (213). Bailey’s theory here arises from the idea that cyber-technologies become extensions of the human body—particularly, the eyes and ears. Much in the same way that those of us who wear corrective lenses often absorb that “technology” into our bodies as a symptom of daily use, internet technologies and media, too, become continuations of our sensory experience. This notion is closely related to aspects of gestalt theory: tools we use to correct, enhance, or embellish our bodies in time become a part of the body. Depending on the sensory intensity, or physical/intellectual load, of the cyber-experience, bodily assimilation can occur very rapidly. Embodiment theorist and professor of semiotics Kathleen Coessens illustrates this capacity by way of something many of us have experienced and taken for granted: video gaming. She noticed her eight-year-old son, playing Tony Hawk Four, would move his body in space as if “himself the skater,” despite the fact that only his hands controlled the action (Coessens 65). Certainly, I remember this from my own childhood, swaying in place to avoid obstacles or conquer enemies on the screen. Mentally, the subject becomes engrossed in the media to the extent that the body follows suit. Alone, the concept of virtual reality—a technology which Bailey promises will be a turning point for bible study as well as church attendance—suggests that on a tangible level human experience is indeed extended into cyberspace (Bailey 2016). A body that can find meaning in even the most intellectually barren video game, it stands to reason, can thus find experiential spiritual engagement on some level through the internet. These secular experiences notwithstanding, there remains both opposition to and wariness of human embodiment in cyber-religion.

Returning to the evangelicals’ use of multi-media, one may observe more than a modicum of backlash against the distance which technology seems to effect between the message and its subject. “Consider the microphone,” suggests Mercer Schuchardt. “Doesn’t its trick of making preachers sound closer really just let them move further and further away” (44)? That same sense of separation—perhaps an even greater sense—might grow between a congregant and their church when they practice religion online. Referring to the attempted replication of terrestrial environments online, professor Douglas Cowan claims that “shopping online is not a visit to a virtual store,” but instead is more akin to thumbing through “a catalogue one accesses electronically” (258). He also points, importantly, to the distinction between cyber-reality and virtual-reality. Virtual reality can be construed as an attempt to represent holistically and realistically a certain real-world environment (in our case a religious practice). Cyber-reality, on the other hand, simply offers a new platform through which to practice religion (or any terrestrial activity), without the focus on recreating fully immersive spaces. Mostly, religious presence online falls within the latter category. Cowan’s approach to cyber-religion is not so simple, though. While in general he finds the internet an insufficient medium for bodily experience, he does acknowledge circumstances wherein true spaces are created. Discourse is one example. When humans join in conversation over the web, that interaction creates a place, a real environment for discussion (Cowan 261). Because this space is occupied by people, even if only their ideas, it is likely in Cowan’s view that embodiment occurs, at least to some extent. Others admit to the internet facilitating much greater depths of embodiment, licensing it with the capability for near total absorption of bodily experience. In such a view the internet competes with reality for attention, threatening to subvert the body completely.

What for some is a useful supplement to real life practice may become for others an addictive replacement. Professional blogger, and writer for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan recalls the down-spiraling submersion into the web he experienced as an early proponent of the medium: “an audience of up to 100,000 people a day…a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation… that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego” (Sullivan 2016). Sullivan depicts an utter abandonment of corporeal life—replacement of the body in real-space with embodiment in cyber-space. Moreover, Sullivan experienced real cognitive maladies as a result of this emigration: a waning attention span, dispassion or chagrin for others, and an inability to process information not conducted electronically. And he is not alone. Sullivan cites Pew surveys saying that 85 percent of Americans own smartphones and 46 percent admit they could not live without one (Sullivan 2016). Sullivan’s existential crisis required total digital disconnection; a complete reversal of trajectory. One thing his experience tells us is that, like many other things in life, moderation is paramount. Yet another insight, perhaps incidental to Sullivan’s thesis, but critical to mine, is that the internet is, indeed, a space into which we can extend our bodies.

Continuing with the theory that embodied religion subsists in cyberspace, two interesting and revealing practices are useful to mention: cyber-pilgrimage and cyber-networking. The extent to which cyber-pilgrimage has been researched is diminutive, but typical reactions to the term itself are indicative of the prevailing thought that “[religious] experience should be physically grounded to be considered authentic” (Hill-Smith 2). Pilgrimage in particular draws the larger argument over online religion to a finer point. The tactile experiences of pilgrimage—the arduous journey, the discovery and entry of sacred space, the revelation of holy meaning—seem utterly imperative to its legitimate worth. However, Hill-Smith argues that these aspects of pilgrimage can be preserved on the web through artful design and in the meaning gleaned by those who partake in cyber-pilgrimage. Furthermore, the liturgical and proselytizing traditions of pilgrimage are not only conserved but extended to audiences with limiting physical circumstances. Beyond this, and pivotal to discussion of online religion in general, is the fact that pilgrimage itself—terrestrial or otherwise—stands as a metaphor for the life-long religious journey. In this respect, cyber-pilgrimage carries the same symbolic significance to participants only through a different medium (Hill-Smith 2009). With respect to religious tradition, it is both conservative and accessible, and, taken together, these qualities seem to uphold the legitimacy and usefulness of online religion more generally.

Typically, conservatism and evangelism are crucial tenets of religious traditions, so it is fair to touch briefly on the networking role of online religion. Heidi Campbell, an oft-cited scholar of digital culture and sociology, remarks that, “through sharing ideas and reinterpretation of [religious] symbols [online]…an experiential environment is created,” which allows disparate groups and individuals to worship “together yet separately live out their spiritualities” (Campbell 78). This sort of networked religion is quite visible when touring through local religious organizations’ websites and social media. Nearly every site I explored offers links to either transcripts or (more commonly) video or audio recordings of homilies and sermons. This increases accessibility, to be sure; however, more than just access, congregants have the ability to revisit liturgical and ritual materials online and dwell on them in ways that, because of time and location constraints, are not possible offline. Therefore, more involved and different meanings can be construed, which are then shared through various means—social media links, bulletin and message boards, and comment sections—usually offered by religious sites. What then becomes clear is that online religious involvement is folded into terrestrial practices rather than abstracted from them (Campbell 2012). In addition, as opposed to strictly offline religious networks, individuals more often contribute to the meaning harvested by the entire congregation through online worship. A “genuinely public” space is created wherein a multi-directional dialogue takes place between individuals and the groups to which they belong (Burnett 210). In line with Hill-Smith’s assertion that online religion is inextricably connected with offline worship, Burnett argues that by first removing “geographical boundaries,” online religious networks allow participants to circumvent access limitations. This leads to more rapid and open community involvement and, eventually, invigorates the desire to “meet within a physical space” (Burnett 212). Underpinning both of these assertions are the realizations that online religion supplements, rather than supersedes, traditional religious involvement and that, through its instantiation, cyber-religion creates real spaces into which the body is extended and engaged.

Questions of embodiment in online habitats are not likely to be resolved in the near future. Rapid advancements in virtual reality capabilities are stirring the already turbid environments into which we go when we go online—if we go anywhere at all. However, digital experiences and theories of embodiment suggest that our actions on the net do create real spaces. In the case of online religion, those spaces are occupied often by social dialogue and meditation of meaning. There is also an important distinction to be made between cyber- and virtual-religion. Currently, the principal aim of the greatest share of online religious media is concerned with networking, education, and the promotion of liturgical practices carried out offline; few, if any, religious organizations profess to offer complete replacements for terrestrial worship. Scholarship and research of existing media, therefore, suggest that internet religion works to compliment terrestrial practice. The great divergence of viewpoints indeed calls for further research, especially as technology advances. Nonetheless, its capabilities as a networking tool, its tendency to preserve and disseminate ritual and tradition, and its ability to hold fields of experience together explain how internet religion becomes a useful and ultimately legitimate vehicle for supporting and enhancing real, human spirituality.

 

Works Cited

Bailey, Justin. “The Body in Cyberspace: Lanier, Merleau-Ponty, and the Norms of Embodiment.” Christian Scholar’s Review 45.3 (2016): 211-28. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. This article is an in-depth survey of past as well as recent scholarship regarding embodiment and new media’s interaction with human psychology from the perspective of a theologian and in light of online religion’s increasing prevalence. The dialogue herein supports my argument for new media spirituality by interrogating and defending an embodied spiritual experience afforded by use of digital technologies.

Burnett, Ron. “Communities In Cyberspace: Towards A New Research Agenda.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 13.2 (1999): 205. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Nov. 2016. Ron Burnett is a leading authority on New Media. This article speaks of the benefits of cyber-networking and also of the ways in which cyber-networking is causing societal change. This is helpful to my argument because cyber-religion is by and large focused on networking as well as creating communal forums, or storehouses, of knowledge which users can interpret, reinterpret, and share.

Campbell, Heidi A. “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80.1 (2012): 64-93. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. Campbell’s comprehensive discussion compares online religious phenomena—both social and psychological—to similar offline developments in both religion and society at large to argue that online religion simply reflects already occurring trends in the offline “realm.” This source will strengthen my assertion that online religion is in actuality an extension of or “supplement” to spirituality of the here and now.

Coessens, Kathleen. “Where Am I?: Body And Mind Reviewed In The Context Of Situatedness And Virtuality.” International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 5.11 (2011): 65-74. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Nov. 2016. Coessens’ work here does not pertain to religion exactly, but focuses on the ways in which the body asserts its presence in “virtual” space. The example she gives in the introduction (of her boy playing video games and moving his body) is an illustration of “cyber-embodiment” that many readers may have come across in their own lives, and thus an excellent reference for my discussion on embodiment in cyber-religion.

Cowan, Douglas E. “Online U-Topia: Cyberspace and the Mythology of Placelessness.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44.3 (2005): 257-63. ProQuest. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. Cowan’s piece is written to illustrate the vastly different points of view taken in the discussion on embodied cyberspace: he offers detailed summaries of both critical and apologetic viewpoints. Not only will Cowen’s article help balance my own argument by way of airing opposition, it also offers a more approachable, less abstract instance of “place” in cyberspace: discussions.

Hill-Smith, Connie. “Cyberpilgrimage: A Study of Authenticity, Presence and Meaning in Online Pilgrimage Experiences.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21.2 (2009): 1-16. ProQuest. Web. 18 Nov. 2016. Cyberpilgrimage is and an interesting and fairly new point of discussion in online embodiment, which Connie Hill-Smith, in this article, takes a relatively favorable argument for. Her discussion of bodily experience in cyberpilgrimage helps support my thesis that bodies can exist—and have religion—in cyberspace, and her remarks on the metaphorical qualities of terrestrial pilgrimage offer a strong analogy for cyber religion in general.

Meintel, Deirdre. “Seeking the Sacred Online: Internet and the Individualization of Religious Life in Quebec.” Anthropologica 54.1 (2012): 19-32. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. An extension of a larger anthropological survey of marginal religions based in North America by a team of Montreal researchers, this article discusses in depth a parenthetical observation made by the authors that internet use for various reasons related to religion is extremely common among the groups and subjects observed. Not only will this study offer much in the ways of practical examples of religious internet usage, it also supports my argument that spirituality among communities and individuals can be strengthened by internet use.

Mercer Mercer Schuchardt, Read. “Analog Church.” Christianity Today 60.8 (2016): 40-44. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. This interesting, if anecdotal, article from Christianity Today speaks with nostalgia for the old days of collection baskets and un-mic’ed sermons while warning against the disembodied, indifferent, and sometimes outrageous nature of an increasingly technologized religious world. While not a scholarly piece, per se, this article nevertheless voices an important argument for the oft-insensitive qualities of a tech-driven existence—an un-experiential spirituality that, Mercer says, is essentially vapid.

Sullivan, Andrew. “I Used to Be a Human Being.” New York Magazine, 19 Sep. 2016, web. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html. Accessed 12 Nov. 2016. Sullivan’s piece is a personal narrative detailing his addictive submersion into new media by way of his career as a professional blogger—the avalanche trajectory of his divorce from corporeal life and the unplugged spiritual intervention that ultimately redeemed him. A beautiful piece by itself, Sullivan’s article serves me here in two ways: first, his story displays viscerally the dangers of becoming addicted to the pace and prolificacy of new media, helping to bring a rounded perspective to my argument for a digital spirituality by way of calling for moderation; second, by illustrating the intense sensatory reaction he had while absorbed in his online existence, Sullivan actually supports my argument that new media and digital technology indeed offer embodied experiences (real extensions of bodily perception) to those who use the internet to inform their spirituality.

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