Cyberspace and Religion in America
Cyberspace and Religion in America
- Douglas E. CowanDouglas E. CowanRenison University College, at the University of Waterloo
Invented in 1989 and popularly accessible since the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web has always hosted a wide variety of religious content, ranging from early text-based discussion forums to live-stream video, and from rudimentary online communities to cross-platform social media activism. Known colloquially as “religion in cyberspace,” these computer-mediated, faith-based environments raise important questions in terms of how religious discourse is enacted and religious ritual performed. More than that, they challenge whether the notion of physical place will remain paramount in religious life, or if it can be displaced as believers and adherents shift aspects of their activity to electronically mediated communication space. Although initial enthusiasm for the Internet and its presumed potential led some scholars to predict large-scale uploading of religious life, there are a number of reasons to conclude that offline religious practice will continue to be important in the lives of believers despite any online activity they may pursue. That said, there are also significant ways in which online religious activity has encouraged adherents to reimagine the nature of sacred space, to envision new ways of understanding religious practice, and to enact new forms of religious community.
- Religion in America
Coined by science fiction writer William Gibson in the early 1980s, “cyberspace” serves as a metaphor to describe broadly conceived notions of online interaction—whatever that activity may entail and however it is mediated technologically. As they did with technologies ranging from the printing press to broadcast television, religious adherents were quick to take advantage of the Internet. The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 and the introduction of text-based electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) allowed for increased communication among believers who would almost certainly never meet in real life—and who might otherwise never have known of each other’s existence. Confronted with an expanded pool of conversation partners and potential debate opponents, many of these users formed “virtual communities,” with personal ties, in-group dedication, and social durability as persistent as many offline groups. Since then, rapid and dramatic advances in computer technology, broadband capability, and Internet penetration have led, for example, to live-streamed worship services and religious rituals that bring adherents together in ways scarcely imaginable just a few decades ago. In some cases, these efforts mirror the televangelism of the 1970s and 1980s: they afford believers the opportunity to be part of—if not necessarily participate in—a communal religious life from which they are physically separate. In other instances, live-stream video has challenged the very notion of a central religious plant and enabled the creation of subcongregations that are connected to the parent church only through the shared experience of a simulcast live-stream. A megachurch in southern Ontario, for instance, live-streams its weekly services from a central campus to an extended network of satellite congregations—complete with interactive elements made available through social media and videoconferencing. Some of these satellites are small, meeting in family homes and numbering no more than a dozen members, while others are much larger, taking place in movie theaters and attracting hundreds of worshippers to each location. No matter where they happen to be, though, every person experiences the same aspects of the service in real time. It is important to remember, however, that although this phenomenon is mediated technologically, adherents still gather in a physical location, and the basic aspect of broadcasting the worship service differs little from the televangelism experience. Communication between the parent and offspring congregations may be facilitated through Internet technology, but this is not “religion on the Internet.”
Seeking to parse “religion in cyberspace,” scholars must not only consider content and activity that are mediated electronically, but those that occur in the context of the digital environment itself. In the language of cyberspace, the virtual is believed in some way to replace or to augment the physical. The possibility of a virtual pilgrimage, for example, where from the comfort of their own homes “people can simulate a sacred journey,” offers the potential for a religious experience different from simply watching a video of someone else’s trip.1 Many participants in modern Pagan social media groups insist that their online activity is equivalent—or even superior—to that experienced in offline covens and ritual working groups.2 Soon after the World Wide Web’s appearance, religious practitioners began experimenting with forms of practice and ritual online: Christians lit “virtual candles” on rudimentary graphical interfaces; Hindu puja were performed online according to fee structures only slightly different from those in the physical world. For some traditions such practices raised theological questions of ritual efficacy—that is, whether a ritual performed online carries the same meaning as one performed offline.
To begin, it is important to distinguish between “place” and “space” as they define differences between religion in the physical world and in online environments. Although these terms have often been used synonymously, simply raising the question of whether a virtual experience is “real” renders the notion of space more fluid and place more problematic. In To Take Place, his theory of religious ritual, historian Jonathan Z. Smith contends that “place directs attention,” that is, “there are no substantive categories, but rather situational ones. Sacrality is, above all, a category of emplacement.”3 For millennia, we have marked off certain places as “sacred”: roadside shrines and sacred wells; cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds; cathedrals, mosques, temples, and ritual environs of all types have been set apart as places that are, in some way, ontologically different from the ordinary landscape of everyday life. Conversely, computer-mediated environments become chiefly domains of communication and imagination, information spaces to which believers often grant a less well-defined status of “sacred.” When “place becomes space” the discussion must be parsed in more precise fashion. In terms of computer-mediated environments, place becomes primarily a marker of physical location, while space denotes the venues of online interaction. If, as Smith says, physical “place directs attention,” then virtual “space enables communication.”
The emergence of cyberspace and the expanded religious imaginings it encouraged force scholars to ask new questions about the relationship between religious belief and these categories of emplacement/displacement. One such question is where attention is directed in cyberspace, when the “place” itself has been displaced to a computer screen. Taking a virtual tour of Montréal’s Notre Dame Cathedral, for example, is not the same as walking into its magnificent sanctuary. Another key question is how attention is directed when these displacements are rendered either in text-only or as rudimentary two-dimensional images. Mousing over the icon of an aarti lamp and moving it around the photograph of an altar is not the same experience as a Hindu puja within a physical temple. Understanding religion in its relation to cyberspace, then, requires asking what distinguishes religious behaviors and practices in one domain from those in the other. Imagining oneself into a modern Pagan ritual based on a text-only discussion thread is a different experience than meeting with one’s coven under a gibbous moon in the woods outside of town.
Offline Place versus Virtual Space
Two early attempts to theorize computer-mediated religious behavior were sociologist Brenda Brasher’s Give Me That Online Religion and communications consultant Jennifer Cobb’s Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. “Online religion is the most portentous development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century,” Brasher begins, continuing that “using a computer for online religious activity could become the dominant form of religion and religious experience in the next century.”4 Indeed, she declares, as more and more aspects of religious practice move from the physical world to what sociologist Alphia Possamai-Inesedy calls “the digital social,” cyberspace participation “widens the social foundation of religious life” and “erodes the basis from which religion contributes to the destructive dynamics of xenophobia.”5 Echoing Brasher’s enthusiasm, Cobb declared that “the reality of cyberspace transcends the dualism represented by the objectified mind and matter,” concluding that the World Wide Web “has the potential for opening us to a new way of experiencing the world.”6 From a practitioner’s perspective, meanwhile, modern Pagan Lisa McSherry contends that, by “going online, we immerse ourselves in a nonlinear environment, one that places us in a reality where we control our movements, while being transported to places unseen and unimagined.”7
Despite the lack of conceptual clarity in each of these examples, such comments suggest that any discussion of “religion in cyberspace” must consider nuanced and expanded notions of “space” as an environment where communication takes place and the potential for community exists. They implicitly ask whether the reality of place—a physical location in which religious activity is enacted—will continue to be salient in the lives of believers, or will it be gradually displaced by online activity. Put simply, as a function of religious belief and behavior in a world increasingly connected through digital networks, the crucial question is whether place still matters or religion will eventually become about space. The answer, put simply, is “both,” though in the early 21st century it still appears far more the former than the latter.
The Continuing Salience of Offline Place
The hyperbole that marks Brasher, Cobb, and McSherry’s observations was not unusual among early attempts both to understand and to propagate religious behavior online. However, a number of sociological and psychological reasons suggest that, for the foreseeable future at least, material location and physical co-presence will continue to be not only the most important but the predominant mode of religious participation and experience. Some of these reasons arise from the circumscribed nature of computer-mediated communication itself, while others are functions of religious consciousness, the evolution of spiritual practice, and the role of religion in social life. They include: (a) the lack of accessibility to digital technology in many regions of the world; (b) the problem of distraction and virtual overload; (c) emergent social reaction against computer-mediated communication; (d) the inescapable reality of embodiment; (e) the durability and historical significance of physical religious structures; (f) the human need for face-to-face social contact and interaction; and (g) theological resistance grounded in religious tradition and ritual efficacy. It is important to note that these are not discrete categories but mutually interpenetrating pressures that help shape—and limit—the nature of religion in cyberspace. Many of these aspects of the relationship between online and offline activity pivot on the simple fact that “cyberspace” is not a physical, three-dimensional space—the environment in which human cultures and religions have developed over millennia. Indeed, the advent of “religion in cyberspace” has served to underscore the taken-for-granted importance of physical emplacement in religious practice, and, perhaps, helped to intensify scholarly attention to it.
First is the issue of the social penetration of Internet technology and the ongoing reality of what is commonly called the “digital divide.” Internet Live Stats defines user as “an individual who has access to the Internet at home.”8 At the turn of the millennium such users accounted for less than half-a-million people, or less than 1 percent of the world population. Since then, although that number has grown to about 3½ billion, or roughly 40 percent of the world’s population, the upward trend has flattened slightly, and the majority of humankind still live behind some manner of “digital divide.” This means a fundamental lack of access to technology that billions of others take for granted. Not surprisingly, most of those without, or with only limited and unreliable Internet access are located in the developing world, and often in countries with high rates of religious devotion and participation. In 2015, for example, Malaysia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, had an Internet penetration rate below 30 percent, about the same as India and Bangladesh. In Pakistan it is below 20 percent. In many such places, the question of whether religion online will ever replace or even challenge the dominance of religion “in real life” is all but moot. The opportunity simply does not exist. Even in countries with more significant Internet penetration, online access is not always consistent or reliable. Rural areas, for example, often experience less stable coverage and slower connectivity than urban communities. Regardless of location, users of all types are affected by service interruption caused by factors ranging from abnormally high-volume Web traffic to extended severe weather to Internet provider problems.
Second, in countries with substantial Internet penetration and large-scale mobile broadband coverage, the psychological problem of distraction and virtual overload militates against the abandonment of the physical for the virtual. Whether it is embodied in a gothic cathedral set on top of a hill or a small shrine dedicated to a local deity, one of the most important aspects of physical emplacement as a function of religious practice is that it is set apart. Sacred places are made so by virtue of their separation from the more mundane aspects of daily life. The fact of this separateness is what allows “place to direct attention.” Implicit in the concept of emplacement is the reality of movement and preparation as functions of ritual attention. When a young Muslim prepares for salat at a local mosque, her attention becomes refocused through the transition to a distinct physical space: she removes her shoes and washes in ritual ablution before entering the prayer area. Once inside, she lays out her prayer rug, carefully aligning it toward Mecca. As she kneels and the prayer begins, all that is behind her falls away, and Allah is all that lays before her. Together, these actions ground the attention toward which the physical place of worship directs her. It is difficult to imagine this same concentrated focus or spatial transition in computer-mediated communication. A “prayer app” on one’s smartphone or tablet, for instance, might be able to indicate the appropriate direction (i.e., toward Mecca), but it must compete for both screen space and user attention with everything else contained on the device: email, newsfeeds, social media alerts, and calendar reminders. There is no place online that can be “set apart” in the same way as a physical location dedicated to religious practice.
Third, in response to increasing Internet penetration and the perceived lack of personal interaction it encourages, a variety of reactions have emerged against what many see as the negative social consequences of increased Internet communication. These occur in two broad ways: a bottom-up approach that highlights user-directed attempts to limit online activity, and a top-down tactic that sees various levels of government intervention in Internet access. Where significant Internet penetration and widely available fixed and mobile broadband services exist, reaction against the “wired society” expresses concern about the impersonality of computer-mediated communication, the emergence of various addictive behaviors related to online activity, and to fears about the rise of a computer-mediated surveillance state.9 In areas where computer technology is all but ubiquitous, grassroots movements encourage users to limit or otherwise control their online activity. Drawing on the tradition of Sabbath observance, for example, the Jewish organization, Reboot, promotes a National Day of Unplugging. Users around the world sign a pledge to refrain from any electronically mediated communication for a twenty-four-hour period. The intention is that by withdrawing focus from the computer-mediated domain of WiFi access and app upgrades, more attention can be devoted to the real world of family and friends. Instead of simply communicating, the Unplugging movement encourages participants to connect with each other and with those around them. Although this is not a large movement, in the broader context of worldwide Internet usage, it demonstrates some of the measures taken to limit online activity in favor of face-to-face communication. Many developing countries, on the other hand—those where Internet penetration is low, but religious participation is high—experience a top-down approach to online control. Here, users are faced with varying degrees of state-sponsored surveillance and censorship of Internet activity. In these areas, even if believers might want to shift some of their religious activity online, religious and political circumstances often render that difficult, if not impossible.
A fourth limitation on electronically mediated religion is the inescapable fact of our embodiment. For millennia, religious experience has been mediated through the body. Only relatively recently in hominin history has it been abstracted to the intellectual level that many adherents take for granted today. For billions of believers around the world, however, religious experience remains an embodied experience. Short of full virtual reality—technology that so perfectly mimics the physical world that the brain can no longer distinguish between them—it is simply impossible to feel the heat of a Native American sweat lodge, to experience the crush of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, or to sink into the depth of stillness at a Buddhist sesshin. Assuming that it would be permitted, watching high mass live-streamed from Notre Dame can in no way replicate the full sensory experience of being in the sanctuary. Computer-mediated communication can transmit only pale imitations of sight and sound, and nothing of the smell of incense, the feel of sharing of a hymnal with a fellow communicant, the physical ebb and flow of the service as the congregation rises for the gospel or kneels in prayer, the taste of the Host on one’s tongue at the culmination of the service. Few Roman Catholics would mistake one experience for the other, and fewer still would take seriously the suggestion that one had “just been to mass at Notre Dame” on the basis of watching it on their desktop computer, laptop, or mobile device.
Fifth, and following from this, it is difficult to overstate the social, psychological, historical, and theological importance of “brick-and-mortar” religious structures. These provide a physical place for adherents to gather in ritual practice, community mourning, and public celebration—i.e., the physical location for the “collective effervescence” that Emile Durkheim considered essential to the religious experience—and they serve as a pre-eminent site of cultural memory and the touchstone of generational religious socialization.10 Even discounting the reality of the digital divide, consider the ekstasis of a Pentecostal worship service or the possession experience of Vodoun practitioners or followers of Candomblé. Each of these occurs explicitly within the context of the physically gathered community and cannot be replicated in the online environment. As well, around the world and in a number of different traditions, rites of passage are regularly celebrated in religious sanctuaries that hold significant meaning either within the faith itself or to a particular family. To one day be sealed (i.e., married) in a Mormon Temple is the dream of many young Latter-day Saints. Celebrating an infant daughter’s baptism or a son’s bris will often bring new parents to the sacred places where their families have worshipped for generations. Even for those with limited institutional affiliation, bidding farewell to a loved one often takes them back to the church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara they remember from their youth.
Sixth, there is the enduring human need for face-to-face social contact and interaction, demands that simply cannot be met in entirely digital ways. While an electronic mailing list, a Twitter feed, Facebook post, or a message sent on some other social media platform could inform congregants of a special event—a wedding or a funeral, for example—none of those could provide the venue for the proceedings. Recall that even for a megachurch that live-streams its services to a number of satellite sites, these groups still gather together in physical co-presence—a reality that remains paramount for congregational life. It is difficult to imagine any rite of passage, perennial ritual, or religious activity around which the believing community regularly meets supplanted by its virtual doppelgänger. As Durkheim wrote, “The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant,” the fact of participating with other believers makes the experience more vibrant, more real. Indeed, it is the sine qua non of the experience.11 Commemorating the Last Supper on Maunday Thursday, stripping the sanctuary on Good Friday, then gathering together in celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday are religious practices that are deeply and indelibly rooted in Christian group behavior and cohesion. These practices reinforce one’s place within the denominational group; they solidify faith-bonds with others who have taken the journey; they help transmit the doctrine and teachings of the faith from one generation to the next; they underpin and strengthen theological and doctrinal convictions about the efficacy and sacrality of the ritual itself.
Finally, doctrinal concerns reinforce the importance of physical emplacement and co-presence. Specifically, theological considerations of—and objections to—religion in cyberspace question the institutional validity and spiritual efficacy of online ritual and devotional practice. These practices range from actions which are prima facie impossible to those that blend “virtuality” and “reality,” combining notions of space and place. Traditions that require some manner of sacrifice, for example, would be unable to execute the ritual in a digital environment. Even if attempts were made, significant theological discussion would emerge over whether the ritual had been performed “properly,” which is to say, efficaciously. Although an Orthodox Jewish family may live the majority of their lives as digitally connected as anyone they know, computer-mediated Shabbos observance would not only be impossible, it would directly contradict both the theological underpinning and the practical precepts of the ritual. Hoping to provide a modicum of spiritual respite in the daily life of believers, a Roman Catholic monastery may live-stream images of the Host from its sanctuary, but church authorities are clear that viewing the image on one’s computer screen should not be considered the same as sitting before the monstrance in adoration. The digital images are not meant to “replace visiting Jesus in Church,” wrote Brother John of the Monks of Adoration in 2005, a short-lived monastic order based in Venice, Florida, that was among the first to experiment with live-streaming the Adoration of the Host. “It is for those times when you cannot visit him in church.” Brother Craig added, “Seeing our Tabernacle or the Holy Eucharist is not the same as praying before the Tabernacle at church. There is a certain power that emanates from the Holy Eucharist.”12 Indeed, this example highlights another aspect of the “brick-and-mortar” problem for online environments: the ephemerality of digital presence. Just a few years after Brother John made those comments, the Monks of Adoration website was shut down.
The Emerging Significance of Cyberspace
Since some religious communities in the United States—the Amish, for example, and Old Order Mennonites—eschew as a matter of theological principle much of the technology used by the outside world, for them the issue of religion in cyberspace is all but moot. These relatively few groups notwithstanding, though, and bearing in mind the ongoing reality of the digital divide, it is safe to say that most religious traditions have embraced some form of computer-mediated communication or online presence. This can be as simple as an institutional website or social media page conveying basic information about the tradition, practices, and congregational worship schedules. It can be a more elaborate digital presence that provides detailed and comprehensive information for adherents and tries to connect believers in ways they might never have imagined. Finally, attempts have been made to create religious traditions that exist either in whole, or in significant part, in the online environment. This is the search for a true “religion in cyberspace.” While, for the reasons discussed above, it is unlikely that any of these efforts will supplant the emplacement of religion in the physical world, all of them point to the emerging significance of electronically mediated religious spaces, instances in which physical place does give way to cyberspace. These we can consider an increasingly complex set of displacements, and include: (a) the basic shifting of religious information and organizational activity from the physical world to the digital; (b) the emergence of religious ritual and practice in the online environment; (c) the creation of virtual communities and the possibility of a cyberspatial religion; (d) the dislocation of conversation through multi-platform social media; and (e) the advent of augmented reality and the possibility of virtual emplacement.
In terms of “religion and cyberspace,” one of the initial theoretical distinctions was made by sociologist Christopher Helland between what he called religion-online and online-religion. “Rather than use the Internet as a medium to more freely explore their faith,” Helland wrote of religion-online, “many established religions continue their institutional structure on-line.”13 That is, information about particular churches, temples, or mosques, denominational directories and demographics, and secondary databases containing information about a range of traditions began to populate the nascent cyberworld. Rather than consulting the telephone book, Internet users began looking for service times and contact information on an organization’s website. On business cards, below the religious leader’s telephone number, a new symbol appeared: @, as in, RevSoandSo@BigReligion.com. Rather than going to the library to learn about this religion or that, users could browse the entries on such sites as Religious Tolerance.org and the Religious Movements Homepage.14
More important than these basic data, however, especially for smaller, easily marginalized religious groups, was the simple fact of presence in digital space. Their technological disconnection from physical place provided visibility in the religious marketplace they would not otherwise enjoy, while occluding their small size and limited influence in that marketplace. “An important function of publishing material on the Internet,” wrote sociologist Sara Horsfall in her survey of religious use of the Internet prior to 2000, “is legitimization. Small groups can easily be dismissed by others as inconsequential because of the few number of people in any one place.”15 Religious groups that could not afford traditional “brick-and-mortar” physical sites, or whose lifestyle made such sites impossible or undesirable, could establish a presence in cyberspace with relative ease. The important point, as Horsfall notes, is that “their presence on the Internet is unrelated to the number of people associated with them.”16 In cyberspace, nobody would know that a religion has only a few dozen members scattered across a handful of states. “If the Web site is sophisticated, extensive, and interesting, the group’s existence can be legitimated in virtual space in a way that it never would be otherwise.”17 But for the World Wide Web, for example, few people would have heard of Heaven’s Gate prior to their 1997 group suicide.18 This is not to say that all “cyperspaces” are equal, however, or that the disconnection from physical location places all religious voices on a level playing field. Poorly constructed or inadequately maintained websites may see a flurry of initial visitors, but will fail to draw more frequent and reliable traffic. Controversial religious movements may see search engine results that privilege dedicated countermovement webpages, rather than the organization’s own websites.
Far more interesting for researchers than simply the information groups choose to share in religion-online is Helland’s other category: online-religion. By this he meant people actually using the Web to explore, expand, and, most importantly, practice their faith life. “Individuals are interacting with the religious belief systems presented on the Internet,” he wrote. “They are contributing personal beliefs and receiving personal feedback. It is a dialectical process; the beliefs are developing and altering, adapting and fluctuating in the direction the participants wish to take them.”19 That is, believers began to pray online and to share their experiences of prayer. They experimented with rudimentary rituals in cyberspace, considering some successful, others not. They engaged in evangelism and apologetics, and they began to form communities dedicated to the kind of conversation sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann consider central to the social construction of reality.20 In the last few years of its existence, for example, while Heaven’s Gate supported itself in part through professional Web design, group members created their own cyberspace presence, posted their religious manifesto online, and participated in numerous electronic discussion forums in an effort to acquire new recruits. While their poor “netizenship” and fringe message ultimately made these efforts unsuccessful, they did provoke a new form of “cult panic” over use of the Internet as a proselytization space.21
Researchers soon realized, though, that while Helland’s binary offered a useful beginning, it posited theoretical endpoints on a range of computer-mediated communication. Bounded at one end by simple email or the act of ordering a religious book online—the electronic version of a mail-order catalogue—this continuum is marked at the other by the practice of one’s faith entirely and exclusively via the Internet—the search for an authentic “cyber-religion.” The reality, however, is that a significant portion of religion in cyberspace occurs somewhere between those endpoints, shifting back-and-forth between the ideal types of religion-online and online-religion. Adherents did begin moving aspects of their religious activity online, inevitably reflecting in the computer-mediated environment devotional acts and ritual practice occurring in the physical world. With the click of a mouse, Hindu devotees could move a small aarti lamp around a graphical altar on their desktop. Pointing at the image of a bell sounded a chime at an online Buddhist temple. Typing onto a small scroll, then dragging-and-dropping the icon to a tiny brazier, Christians and Jews alike could watch their prayers “rise like incense” as digital flames created digital smoke. Modern Pagan desktops quickly became crowded with icons of gods and goddesses, candles, cauldrons, and clipart bric-a-brac. For many believers, although these online devotional acts were a novel bit of religious practice, they were meaningful only because of their clear connection to offline referents.
Other believers, however, began to reconceptualize the very nature of that interaction. Indeed, this sense of dimensionlessness, immateriality, and the seemingly limitless expanse of cyberspace led some modern Pagans to imagine less an analogical relationship between the physical and the virtual than a real one. “Cyberspace is a technological doorway to the astral plane,” wrote Lisa McSherry, and “once we enter Cyberspace, we are no longer in the physical plane; we literally stand in a place between the worlds, one with heightened potential to be as sacred as any circle cast on the ground.”22 Connecting the physical fact of their computers with the virtual disposition of digital space, other modern Pagans argue that online activity reproduces in the technology itself the very magical energy they believe animates the universe. Writing for fellow Pagans looking to practice their craft in online spaces, Wiccan priestesses Patricia Telesco and Sirona Knight proclaimed that “computers are like demigods in a box. They run on energy, store vast amounts of knowledge, and seem to have persnickety tendencies all their own. This demigod has a quintessential servant: the Internet.”23 Declaring the Internet “one of the most far-reaching innovations affecting our culture today both spiritually and substantially,” modern Pagans became one of the first family of spiritual traditions to experiment with online religious communities, designed not only to replicate, but in many cases to replace their offline counterparts.24 Because so few modern Pagan groups had physical locations set apart in the same way as more conventional faith organizations, it was easier for these groups to conceptualize and explore cyberspace presence as a viable religious option. This was particularly significant for believers who were isolated by physical location, by lack of local group support, or who practiced their craft in solitude. Wiccans and Witches who were either fearful of “coming out of the broom closet” or had no local coven available began to form online working groups shortly after the popular advent of the World Wide Web.
Whether a cyberspatial community takes the form of an online Bible chatroom or a Wiccan ritual working group, the salient reality is that place becomes less relevant than time. Although communities based on common values and interests, and maintained through shared communication, have existed for centuries, the time between those communications often rendered the sense of fellowship tenuous at best. Letters simply took a long time to get from one place to another, and even longer to circulate among a group. With the advent of the World Wide Web, and for the first time in history, any number of religious believers anywhere in the world could communicate with each other in all but real time. As long as one could get online, physical place no longer mattered; it is “collapsed” into the reality of cyberspace. Moreover, it quickly became clear that, in many cases, these discussion groups began to consider themselves online “communities,” participation in which was at least as important to members as their religious interactions offline.25 In other words, online interactions explicitly facilitated the formation of translocal religious communities.
While this represented an exciting sociological development, researchers were quick to question whether online communication, even that which occurred sequentially, in near real time, and which maintained substantial demographic durability, constituted anything like a “real community,” which is to say, one that exists in physical proximity. A problem for any form of translocal community, the emergence of dedicated cyberspatial religious groups encouraged scholars to reconsider the boundaries, and, by implication, the definition, of what it means to be “in community.” Importing what we might call an “offline bias”—our penchant for interpreting online behavior only in terms of its offline counterpart—many asked whether “the substitution of computer-mediated communication for the face-to-face variety [was] symptomatic more of the triumph of modern alienation than of its circumvention.”26 As sociologist Douglas Cowan points out, though, “it is important to remember that ‘community’ is hardly a point in conceptual space. It is not the case that something called community either exists or it doesn’t, blinking into being when a sufficient number of characteristics are present and disappearing the moment it falls below some theoretical threshold of viability.”27 Put differently, and this would be an issue for any form of translocalism, even if they are physically displaced and never meet in real life, a group of online discussion participants that develop a sufficiently durable and meaningful relationship that they self-identify as a “community” forces scholars—sociologists and psychologists in particular—to reconsider the nature of what we call “community.”28
Prior to the mid-1990s, religious activity online was limited to electronic bulletin boards and discussion forums that were available to relatively few users. Equipment was expensive and often difficult to operate; Internet penetration was low and service unreliable. Web 1.0, which is commonly understood as the earliest stage of the World Wide Web, introduced user-friendly graphical interfaces and hyperlinked Web pages. While this increased the ease with which users could browse the Web, they could contribute to it only in the most rudimentary ways. Web 2.0 increased the possibility of user-generated content, resulting in innovative strategies for delivering religious material and encouraging expanded interaction of believer-consumers. This phase, though, was still tied largely either to static platforms (desktop computers) and to those with limited mobility (laptops and notebooks). The emergence of social media, epitomized by such services and applications as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as the development of compact mobile devices and widely available broadband networks, constitutes the fourth displacement. Here, we see the shift away from website-based activity to a more fluid online environment that users access across multiple platforms and devices, to which they contribute much more frequently and freely, and with little or no regard for physical place. In this stage of digital evolution, it is as common to see a believer responding to a YouTube video she has just watched while riding the subway as it is to see someone interacting with any number of social media groups while eating his lunch in an upscale restaurant. As long as the device has sufficient connectivity, physical place has come to matter even less than it did in the years of Web 1.0 and 2.0. This enhanced accessibility of cyberspace has resulted in the displacement of conversation from the physical world to the digital.
“Conversation,” write Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their classic text, The Social Construction of Reality, “is the most important vehicle of reality-maintenance.”29 In the rush to describe beliefs, doctrines, and ritual practice, though, conversation as a reality-maintaining device for religious believers often goes unnoticed or understudied, if for no other reason than our inability to access face-to-face interactions once the moment has passed. While ephemerality may be one of the hallmarks of information in the digital age—online information can change and disappear very quickly—new sites of conversation, and the ability to study them, have emerged. Blog posts or YouTube videos can tell scholars something about believer-consumers online, but comment feeds, especially when they are reactive and interactive, reveal these voices in far less guarded ways. For decades, sociologists have pointed to these everyday conversations, these unplanned and, therefore, unscripted interactions, as an important data pool for understanding the “lived religion” aspect of believers’ lives. Two points are worth noting here. First, the technology that allows users to comment on events or posts in real time via social media, and interact with the comments of others, also maintains a record of these conversations through digital archiving. Second, because these conversational moments often occur outside of established faith locations—a seat on the bus instead of a church pew, on the street rather than in a worship service—they are often far more open than we might expect in more conventional religious environments. Social media displacement from both the structured discourse of the sacred place and the physical limitation of Web 1.0 and 2.0 technology has enabled more expanded and spontaneous participation in the religious conversation ongoing in cyberspace.
Finally, scholars of religion in cyberspace must consider the issue of augmented reality and the possibility of virtual emplacement. Here we broach a topic dominated far more by questions than by answers. Given the speed and the nature of technological changes since the 1990s, and therefore the improbability of accurate prediction or prognosis, we can do little more in this part of the discussion than indicate ongoing topics for investigation.
Without necessarily considering the transhumanist vision of “uploading”—the wholesale transferal of human consciousness to a spatially amorphous and infinitely rebootable computer environment—think of wearable computer technology. The ill-fated Apple glasses may be among the most rudimentary examples of this, but the notion of virtual reality is now far from metaphorical. What happens when we no longer simply put on VR goggles and earphones—per the Oculus Rift or the Vive—but enter a computer-generated world by virtue of a reality-augmenting version of a motion-capture suit? And at what point does what we might call a “haptic suit”—a technological second skin that transmits all the stimuli our brains have evolved to associate with the “real world”—cease to be reality-augmenting and become reality-creating? When users “skin-in,” to coin a phrase, they no longer look around and seem to be in a church or a temple. Because sensations are simply the product of signals interpreted by the brain, every one of their senses tells them that they are there. They feel the hardness of the wooden pew; they smell the cologne of the man next to them; their eyes water and their noses prickle at the incense. With this level of displacement, the question of “religion and cyberspace” will demand even further conceptualization.
Issues such as these will also continue to present problems and questions for religious communities about the validity of virtual practice, especially when the technology exists for a truly shared virtuality—groups of believers “skinning-in” to the same electronically mediated environment. This becomes particularly salient when we consider, for example, believers who, for a variety of reasons, cannot complete mandated religious observance. If a Muslim family “skins-in” to a Hajj, religious authorities may find it increasingly problematic to deny the acceptability of ritual fulfillment. Or consider the case of a paraplegic, unable to move from her wheelchair. A haptic suit and a shared virtual world might allow her to experience the ecstatic nature of Sufi worship or the colorful riot of Holi so completely and realistically that she could not easily be convinced that she had not actually experienced them. Ongoing developments in computing power and AI-generated environments make it risky indeed for scholars of religion and cyberspace to state with confidence that “that could never happen.”
As virtual reality comes to appear less virtual and more real—that is, as the distinction between representation and metarepresentation shrinks—it may become increasingly difficult to distinguish when we are virtually present somewhere from when we are not. This development in turn could problematize the very concept of “virtual reality.” Even now the terms “religion online” and “religion and/in cyberspace” seem almost quaint, outdated in the face of unforeseeably rapid technological advance. In the 1990s, use of the Internet to practice one’s faith was limited by the fact of our embodiment, our emplacement in the physical world, and the rudimentary nature of computer-mediated communication. However much participants might have pretended they are in a grove during a winter solstice festival or in a sanctuary adoring the Host, they remained computer users sitting at a keyboard. The screen may afford an expanded range of experience, but it is still limited in terms of sensation and location. The question, though, is whether this is still true. For now, it probably is, but ongoing advances in cybertechnology could considerably change the meaning of embodiment and emplacement.
Review of the Literature
Early scholarly treatments on religion and cyberspace often took a descriptive approach to the problem. Essays included in Hadden and Cowan’s Religion on the Internet, Dawson and Cowan’s Religion Online, and Højsgaard and Warburg’s Religion and Cyberspace all include valuable initial surveys of the ways in which adherents were using computer-mediated environments.30 Of particular importance in these collections are essays on Islam, Buddhism, modern Paganism, and the Internet as a site of religious conflict, especially in terms of new religious movements.31 Later studies took more in-depth approaches to the problem, seeking not only to survey but to theorize religious activity in cyberspace. Some, such as Bunt’s Islam in the Digital Era, Campbell’s Exploring Religious Community Online, and Cowan’s Cyberhenge, considered more traditional online environments, while others have begun to assay religious participation in online gaming and immersion environments.32 Finally, looking ahead to the future of virtual reality, scholars have begun to theorize implications for the interface between religion, humankind, and artificial intelligence.33
- Bainbridge, William Sims. eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Brasher, Brenda E. Give Me That Online Religion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
- Bunt, Gary. Islam in the Digital Era: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments. London: Pluto Press, 2003.
- Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
- Campbell, Heidi A., ed. Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Oxford: Routledge, 2013.
- Cowan, Douglas E. Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Dawson, Lorne L., and Douglas E. Cowan, eds. Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Hadden, Jeffrey K., and Douglas E. Cowan, eds. Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises. Amsterdam: JAI, 2000.
- Højsgaard, Morten T., and Margit Warburg, eds. Religion and Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 2005.
- Karaflogka, Anastasia. E-Religion: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Discourse on the World Wide Web. London: Equinox, 2006.
1. Mark W. MacWilliams, “Virtual Pilgrimage to Ireland’s Croagh Patrick,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (London: Routledge, 2005), 223.
2. Douglas E. Cowan, Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet (London: Routledge, 2005).
3. Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 103; Smith, To Take Place, 104.
4. Brenda E. Brasher, Give Me That Online Religion (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 17, 19.
5. See Brasher, Give Me That Online Religion, 6–7.
6. Jennifer Cobb, Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World (New York: Crowne, 1998), 10.
7. Lisa McSherry, The Virtual Pagan: Exploring Wicca and Paganism Through the Internet (Boston: Weiser, 2002), 4.
9. See, for example, Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); and Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Philadephia: Perseus, 2011).
10. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995), 217–220.
11. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 217.
12. “The Webcam and Adoration in Church,” Monks of the Adoration, 2005. The Monks of the Adoration was established in the Diocese of Venice ad experimentum, but its canonical status was not renewed and the community has ceased to exist.
13. Christopher Helland, “Online-Religion/Religion-Online and Virtual Communitas,” in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, eds. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000), 219.
14. See “Evolution of a Religious Web Site Devoted to Tolerance,” in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, ed. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000), 309–324; and Jeffrey K. Hadden, “Confessions of a Recovering Technophobe: A Brief History of the Religious Movements Homepage Project,” in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, eds. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000), 345–361.
15. Sara Horsfall, “How Religious Organizations Use the Internet: A Preliminary Inquiry,” in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, eds. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000), 175.
16. Horsfall, “How Religious Organizations Use the Internet,” 175.
17. Horsfall, “How Religious Organizations Use the Internet,” 175.
18. See Douglas E. Cowan, “‘A Sometimes Mysterious Place’: Heaven’s Gate and the Manufactured Crisis of the Internet,” in Heaven’s Gate, eds. George D. Chryssides and James R. Lewis (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2011), 139–154; and Benjamin E. Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2014).
19. Helland, “Online-Religion/Religion-Online and Virtual Communitas,” 214.
20. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1966), 172.
21. See Lorne L. Dawson and Jenna Hennebry, “New Religions and the Internet: Recruiting in a New Public Space,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 151–174.
22. McSherry, Virtual Pagan, 5.
23. Patricia Telesco and Sirona Knight, The Wiccan Web: Surfing the Magic on the Internet (New York: Citadel Press, 2001).
24. Telesco and Knight, Wiccan Web, xiii.
25. See Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000); and Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock, eds., Communities in Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 1999).
26. Lorne L. Dawson, “Religion and the Quest for Virtual Community,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 77.
27. Cowan, Cyberhenge, 56–57.
28. See Cowan, Cyberhenge, 54–62; see also Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).
29. Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality, 172.
30. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan, eds., Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000); Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan, eds., Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Morten T. Højsgaard and Margit Warburg, eds., Religion and Cyberspace (London: Routledge, 2005).
31. On Islam, see Gary R. Bunt, “Rip.Burn.Pray: Islamic Expression Online,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 123–134; Gary R. Bunt, “Surfing Islam: Ayatollahs, Shayks and Hajjis on the Superhighway,” in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, eds. Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam: JAI, 2000), 127–152; on Buddhism, see Mun-Cho Kim, “Online Buddhist Community: An Alternative Religious Organization in the Information Age,” in Religion and Cyberspace, eds. Morten T. Højsgaard and Margit Warburg (London: Routledge, 2005), 138–148; Charles S. Prebish, “The Cybersangha: Buddhism on the Internet,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 135–147; on modern Paganism, see Wendy Griffin, “The Goddess Net,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 189–203; Marilyn C. Krogh and Ashley Pillifant, “The House of Netjer: A New Religious Community Online,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 205–219; on the Internet, see Douglas E. Cowan, “Contested Spaces: Movement, Countermovement, and E-Space Propaganda,” in Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, eds. Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 255–271; and Massimo Introvigne, “A Symbolic Universe: Information Terrorism and New Religions in Cyberspace,” in Religion and Cyberspace, eds. Morten T. Højsgaard and Margit Warburg (London: Routledge, 2005), 102–117.
32. Gary Bunt, Islam in the Digital Era: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments (London: Pluto Press, 2003); Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network (New York: Peter Lang, 2005); Douglas E. Cowan, Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2005); see also William Sims Bainbridge, eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Rabia Gregory, “Citing the Medieval: Using Religion as World-Building Infrastructure in Fantasy MMORPGs,” in Playing with Religion in Digital Games, eds. Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory Price Grieve (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 134–153.
33. See Robert M. Geraci, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Noreen L. Herzfeld, In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).