Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Media - Religion on the Internet

Take a look at (there is some information about it here). Beliefnet has sections dedicated to many different religious movements, and articles such as Charles Colson's “Spinning Yarns That Deceive: Harry Potter books are not as dangerous as ones that directly undermine Christianity,” (an article against Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass), and Anthony DeCurtis' “Bono: The Beliefnet Interview” (DeCurtis is a Rolling Stone interviewer).

Casey’s article is here.

The article opens with a dichotomy:
- the idea of a physical experience of the sacred (eg. walking into a Hindu temple in southwest India)
- the idea of visiting a webpage which attempts to recreate that experience through the mediation of a computer screen.
She cites a book by Brasher, Give me that Online Religion (2001): “in the transition from temple to screen, a radical alteration of the sense stimulation has taken place, consequently altering the religious experience itself.” Nearly 80% say the medium plays a major role in their spiritual lives (note that these statistics date back to 1999, and so the numbers have probably changed drastically), and 53% solicit prayers through email.

A good question: “Why are millions of electronic pages dedicated to sharing the ineffable, that which can’t be expressed in words? Is cyberspace becoming a new--or the new--sacred space?” (32)

More good questions: What implications does the Internet hold for our spiritual identities, our practices of worship, and our sense of religious community? What limits or constraints are defeated by Internet technologies? What is lost?

The Internet alters the religious environment as we have otherwise come to define it. What is this religious environment, either the one that presently exists or the one that is created by the Internet? What has changed? The primary answer is access, since the Internet transcends spacial and temporal boundaries (space and time). Also, the concept of belief has replaced the concept of belonging. Presently, religion cannot be separated from other areas of life (in case we might have been able to do this is the past). Casey argues that religion cannot “exercise its integrating functions” (that is, its place in our lives) through the traditional avenue of the Church.

The term "cyberspace" was first coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, about 10 years before the World Wide Web. Lance Strate (1999) defines cyberspace as “diverse experiences of space associated with computing and relation technologies”: “cyberspace is frequently taken for granted as a profane space, but it is indeed a sacred space as well, as can be noted not only in specific sites, but in the non-physical--and therefore potentially spiritual--properties of cyberspace.” (34)

As for God, Sherry Turkle (1996) writes, “God created a set of conditions from which life would emerge. Like it or not, the Internet is one of the most dramatic examples of something that is self-organized. That’s the point. God is the distributed, decentralized system.” Jennifer Cobb (1998) writes, “as technical systems become more complex, something elegant, inspired, and absolutely unpredictable simply and suddenly ‘emerges.’ What many observers see emerging is the ‘hand of God.’” (34)

Furthermore, “religions themselves can be viewed as systems of communication, designed to facilitate and control the exchange of information between the mundane world and the realm of the sacred.” (35) Computers don’t only do things for us, they do things to us; technology plays a significant role in the creation of new social and cultural sensibilities (how we respond to and interact with various factors in our society).

Back to beliefnet, consider these random thoughts:
- the motto of Beliefnet: “We all believe in something.”
- “Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.” - suggests a kind of sequence of commitment, perhaps.
- “a veritable marketplace of religion.” (37)
- “For virtual communities of believers, the Internet is a high-tech, high-touch way of saying, ‘You matter.’ Many who participate in cyber-rituals say they feel part of an authentic religious community.” (37)

What online religion offers:
- freedom from church dogma and hierarchy
- open discussions on matters of faith
- stereotypes can be ignored and people might more easily come together to speak about issues and disagreements
- reduced barriers between faith communities

More quotes from Casey:
- “Signing onto the Internet is a transformative act, one which takes participants into the vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas about God and religion can resonate, and where faith relies not on great external forces to change the world, but on what ordinary people can create on the World Wide Web.” (38)
- “skeptics are concerned that the pathways to techgnosis (spiritual insight via the Web) may lead away from traditional structures of worship and the living communities that suport them.” (38)

Some "final" questions: Are places to be technological really places where we can also be spiritual? Could the Internet sufficiently deliver the emotional side of religion and belief that many feel is integral to the very definition of spirituality itself? Can we really conceive of a faith community of people plugged into their individual computer terminals?

1 comment:

Phil Wiebe said...

The article asked some good questions, but I found that it was the questions it didn't ask that made the whole thing problematic. I think viewing cyberspace as a competitor to 'realspace' is in error since at this point cyberspace may be a supplement or detractor to life in realspace but can not fully replace it.

The millions of pages for the ineffable? These are resources - primary descriptory in nature - some are personal, some are general, but these pages of information can never duplicate what they seek to understand: religious experience. Cyberspace isn't becoming a/the new sacred space insofar as it is not properly a space that a person can be fully located in at all - at most, sacred space is expanding its auspices to encompass cyber realms.

As someone who views religion primarily in contemplative or incarnational terms, I am dubious of cyberspace's ability to usurp religious experience. As someone who recognizes both the claims of existentialism and the claims of subconscious desire, the primary implications the internet holds for religion are the ones we give it.

The views of Turkle and Cobb are too 'dramatic' for my liking; there is a reason "Deus Ex Machina" refers to something contrived (because it usually doesn't exist). Likewise, I don't think religion is reducible to a system of communication, especially not on Stanley Fish's view of communication.

Final questions: Behaving spiritually is an act of will, so I don't think this excludes it occurring in a technological context. However, religion is grounded in the real, and I don't think cyberspace can fully replicate the experiential side of religion. The Eucharist, the Hajj, the Avatarana, the creation of Sand Mandalas, etc. - these rituals can't be duplicated in virtual realms in a meaningful way. A faith community linked only by terminals is a poor semblance of faith and community.