E-religion: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Discourse on the World Wide Web by Anastasia Karaflogka (Equinox Publishing) Religion in cyberspace has only recently begun to be examined in a systematic way. One of the main aims of this book is to help those studying religion in Information Communication Technologies to develop a basic understanding of the field's ontology, by incorporating web epistemology and theory. By focusing attention on the Web site as the main object of study and by presenting the hidden socio-economic and political aspects that govern the Web's structure and operation, it offers a methodological apparatus for investigating cyberreligious discourse.
“By changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating… For we do not change place, we change our nature”. --Gaston Bachelard
Most people have a favorite place, a place that evokes powerful and distinct feelings. For some, such a place may be one that feels timeless; that has a special significance; that is exciting, adventurous and peaceful all at once; a place in which, and most importantly, one can experience a sense of belonging and a sense of connection. Places have an identity which is subject both to their natural and distinct characteristics and to the discursive practices of their inhabitants/visitors.
Information Communications Technologies (ICT) in general, and the Web in particular, have become the favorite place of many people; they have been seen as the ultimate place for the manifestation of true democracy; the empowerment of all; the inclusion of all; for citizens from any corner of the world to exercise their right of free speech; humanity to be freed from the constraints and the control of time and distance; the world’s inhabitants freely to communicate with each other creating a “global village”. Do these claims reflect the reality of ICTs?
Although there was no central question that this study had to answer, there were some preconceived ideas and assumptions that my involvement with ICTs, prior to this work, had generated. This study and the snapshot of websites, as of 2003/4, confirm some of my assumptions, dispute others, and reveal several avenues for further investigation.
Karaflogka started this research assuming that:
(a) the number of cybernauts was by far larger than what it actually was
(b) having a website was a matter of choice of a religious body; therefore all religious bodies could/would exist on the Web;
(c) a deeper understanding of my research field was essential for the construction of a methodological approach;
(d) techno-religious theories, in particular, the utopian perceptions and promotions of ICTs, were generated by the novelty of the technology;
(e) a methodological set of tools would enable multiple ways of exploration, investigation and study of e-religion in its different forms;
(f) no predetermined research question would offer more freedom and flexibility to recognize and explore emerging concepts and issues.
a) the number of cybernauts was by far larger
The first three assumptions were contested and proved invalid by the epistemological examination of the Web. For instance, contrary to my estimation regarding the number of netizens, and despite the practical difficulties arising from the Web’s size and fluidity for accurate measures, the fact is that, today (May 2004), only 10 per cent of humanity is actually connected. The statements that dominate the utopian discourse surrounding the Web’s development and mass adoption imply that the technological infrastructure that supports the Web and secures its universality is neutral. Technology, however, can be considered as neutral only when it is available universally without any restrictions.
When it is conditioned and its applicability depends on a number of contingencies which can restrict its accessibility and/or usage, then its universality becomes partiality, carrying the biases of its creators, designers, developers and initial users. Although the issue of accessibility is in the agendas of international political and financial bodies and although at national levels every effort is made to minimize or eliminate the hurdles, netizenship is still far from being universal. Thus, it appears that Castells’ (1996, 341) statement “[w]e are not living in a global village, but in customized cottages globally produced and locally distributed” (original emphasis) is still applicable.
b) having a website was a matter of choice of a religious body
As has been discussed in the chapter on epistemology, the provision of hardware and Internet connection do not resolve the issue of “global access”. Cultural, educational and economic differences play a key role in the processes of people’s effective use of ICTs. To date, the evidence suggests that Castells’ (1996, 371) prediction that the “multimedia world would be populated by two essentially distinct populations: the interacting and the interacted”,2 seems to be almost a certainty, at least for the foreseeable future.
ICTs still carry the biases of an elit3 since their availability depends on specific contingencies found at both national and international levels. Therefore it is plausible to suggest that e-religion represents the religious expressions and activities of this elite. Notwithstanding the millions of sites devoted to religion, they still account for the religious, spiritual and philosophical Weltanschuung of a minority within a minority of the human population. On that account, the creation and publication of an e-religious discourse, although it appears to be a matter of choice, is also a matter of capability which is closely related to affordability and, in particular cases, to freedom of speech.
c) a deeper understanding of my research field was essential for the construction of a methodological approach
Knowing how the Web is structured and how it operates, especially regarding storage and dissemination of information, highlighted close interconnections between infrastructure and Web presence, thus enlarging my list of issues-to-be-considered. The multidimensionality of the issue of access and its repercussions on the Web’s subjectivity played a crucial role in the process of constructing and developing the methodology.
For instance, updated information regarding the status of ICTs in different geographical locations and the issue of restricted, or censored, or no access, introduced another aspect of e-religion. In particular, it indicated that the absence of site(s) of a religious discourse as opposed to sites about is closely related to the issue of accessibility. For example, the cases of Huhan Pai (also known as “shouters”), Mentu Hui (Disciples association), Lingling Jiao (Spirit church), the Quanfanmian Jiao (the Holistic church), and the Zhongguo Fangcheng Jiaohui (China Fangcheng Church) could be characterized as typical examples of sites about religious expressions. Searching Google, via keyword query for each of these groups, produced a number of hits leading to the sites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Apologetics Index among others, that present these groups in the context of religious freedom in China. Taking into account the issues raised in epistemology, it could be plausible to suggest that the control of the Internet by the Chinese government is one definite factor behind the absence of sites of these Chinese Christian expressions. Another example could be the Amish. Some may argue that the Amish sites are about Amish and not of Amish. However, Google returns 1,050,000 hits, one of which is the Amish Country that advertises Amish products, Amish farms, Amish lodging and links to other Amish sites. It would be very interesting to find out how many, if any, of these sites are indeed of Amish and how many are about the Amish; thus informant ethnography over the Web, focusing on the Amish and their interaction with cyberspace, may prove illuminating.
Knowledge of the operational properties of the Web and the ways in which information is processed, stored and searched indicated that my Web research had to include multiple search techniques. As a result, the search for e-religious discourses was broad and took advantage of hypertextuality of sites, search engines enquiries, directories’ entries, Web rings, blogs, BBs, discussion forums and personal contacts.
d) techno-religious theories, in particular, utopian perceptions and promotions of ICTs, were generated by ICTs’ novelty
The examination of the theoretical approaches to technology in general and to ICTs in particular and the different conceptions of communication provided a broad and comprehensive understanding of the influential role of technology and ICTs in shaping social development and the notion of communication. The exploration of the relationship between religion and technology revealed a historical continuation of the religious and spiritual rhetoric that has circumscribed technological innovations for almost one thousand years. Contemporary “technological mysticism” (Stahl 1999)—religionization and spiritualization of ICTs—therefore does not derive from the novelty of an unknown technological advancement, but rather follows a historical Western tradition, based on scriptural interpretations (Newman 1997; Noble 1997). Past and present techno-metaphysical discourses, on the one hand, highlighted the issue of interaction between the employed technology—i.e. the Web—and the publisher—i.e. the creator/owner of a site and, on the other hand, offered a valuable insight into the process of identifying the diverse ways in which different religions perceive ICTs and how these perceptions are materialized through their websites.
e) a methodological set of tools that would enable multiple ways of exploration, investigation and study of e-religion in its different forms
The versatility of the medium and the innovative ways in which it is used by its netizens confirmed that the methodological model had to meet these needs. The division of methodology into spatial and temporal categories provides a basis from which a wide variety of concepts and issues can be addressed and analysed. The spatial categories, apart from providing a typology of e-religious discourses, also offers a plurality of contexts each of which could be the starting point of in-depth investigations of a number of questions, such as implementation of multimedia, hypertextuality, aesthetics, ideological associations and collaborations. The temporal categories, by incorporating the notion of time, allow the investigation of different aspects of e-religious discourses such as evolution, development, schisms, disappearances and appearances.
For instance, when the Vatican silenced French Bishop Jacques Gaillot for his liberal views, the Bishop found a global voice and now preaches his progressive Gospel from Partenia—a virtual diocese in cyberspace. In 1999 in the USA, Greek Orthodox dissidents carried on an acrimonious challenge to the authority of their appointed Archbishop Spyridon, challenging his authority in a movement that has made an impact around the world and which led to the Archbishop’s resignation. Utilization of ICTs by Falun Gong resulted in an impressive demonstration on April 1999. Similarly, Jediism or Jedi, following a massive campaign in 2001, was included as a religion in the 2001 England and Wales census.
f) no predetermined research question would offer more freedom and flexibility to recognize and explore emerging concepts and issues
Understanding my field—the Web—and realizing its fundamental features, its peculiarities and its interdependency with the physical world, allowed the development of a holistic comprehension which in turn confirmed the value of having no-predetermined question/argument. The point made here is that having no particular focus to follow, develop, study and analyse, I had the ability, on the one hand, to build my methodological model progressively and, on the other hand, to recognize and consequently to include ideas and issues as they were emerging.
Despite the fact that the Web volume is the product of only 10 per cent of the human population, its sites present a plurality of understandings, interpretations and usages, including some unique discursive formations that have been explored, investigated and monitored.
This examination, albeit concise, raises a number of questions such as:
(a) Has cyberspace evoked totally new and original religious/spiritual/philosophical discourses?
(b) What, if any, fundamentally new religious activities has cyberspace generated?
(c) How may technology, in this case, the Web, have altered the conditions of religious life?
(a) has cyberspace evoked totally new and original religious/spiritual/philosophical discourses?
The cases of Cosmosophy, Digitalism, Technosophy, and the Church of Virus, among others, show that there is an emerging phenomenon of techno-religious, techno-spiritual, techno-metaphysical or techno-philosophical constructions. Do these emerging phenomena qualify to be termed New Cyberreligious Movements (NCRMs)? Some of these utterances, such as Digitalism, that have become a static presence defined by inactivity and changelessness, may be thought of as not being a NCRM. Others, such as the Church of Virus that, to date, demonstrate a dynamic existence, characterized by evolution, constant development and activity whether constructive/positive (new design and new interactive features in the site) or negative/destructive (schism) may be seen as a typical NCRM. Perhaps the best course of action would be to monitor these phenomena, thus giving time for scholars to reflect on their further development or disappearance.
(b) what, if any, fundamentally new religious activities has cyberspace generated?
Cyberspace has provided the platform for a number of virtual religious practices and rituals among individuals and groups belonging to both traditional religions and New Age/neo-pagan ones. They range from textual descriptions and analyses of rituals, their significance and symbolism, to active performances of various rituals from either individuals or groups. The most widely spread cyberpractices and cyberrituals are those of cyberprayer, cybermemorials8 and grieving support, meditation, cyberpilgrimages and rituals of the Pagan and Wiccan communities, such as Samhain and “healing rituals”.
(c) how may technology, in this case, the Web, have altered the conditions of religious life?
In the section “Mainstream E-religious Manifestations” (MEMs), a number of cyberspatial expressions of established religions demonstrate that traditional religions have started to perceive the Web as an advantageous environment that offers almost unlimited opportunities for religious devotion, practice, teaching and interaction. The Church of Fools, the first 3D church to perform Sunday service, accompanied by the Zen Online Meditation, the Buddhanet and the Alpha Church, may be seen as exhibiting Levy’s notion of “points of irreversibility”. In other words, these sites show that their owners realized that the Web provides them with opportunities for constructing activities which fully capitalize on the potentialities and actualities the Web carries. The extent to which such activities will progress and be widely adopted could be the subject of future research.
ICTs have changed preexisting norms in all areas of human communication and interaction, whether social, professional, educational, political or commercial. The area of religion could not remain unaffected. From the concepts, points and issues raised, and from the examples presented in this study, it appears that ICTs, especially the Web, have transformed religious norms and created new ones as a result of the following factors: (a) the transcendence of time and space. When connected, people leave their physical time-space singularities and enter into cyberspace and cybertime, where the notions of where (locality) and when (past/present/future) become altered, thus constituting new planes of existence. When in these planes, the users, liberated from the constraints of the physical, become and act as netizens. As such they are faced with (b) an unprecedented freedom to express themselves and to communicate this expression to the entire world. Netizens, as both individuals and groups, are enabled (c) to create and/or participate in new forms of communities, to form affiliations and collaborations, which in the offline world would not have been possible.
As with the printing press in the past, so (d) the Internet has nowadays changed the prevailing notion of traditional religious authority. Before the wide expansion of ICTs, religious authority was solidly anchored in the leadership of the scriptures and of the “clergy-people” of the different religious traditions. The definition of what was accurate and in accordance with the norms, in both beliefs and practices, and what constituted unacceptable behaviour and/or heretical belief was decided by these religious authorities.
Accessibility to ICTs enables people (e) to raise their voices in protests, which may be provoked by a political body against a religion or by the actions of a religious regime, or by the perceptions, views and attitudes held by some religions toward particular issues. Examples of such protests include the cases of Falun Gong; the Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan; the Diocese of Partenia; and the cases of human sexuality, celibacy of priests and anti-cult movements.
ICTs have contributed to humanity (f) a unique location for public gatherings on a worldwide scale. The global character of the medium gives the opportunity to millions of people to express themselves in one vehicle all at once. A community struck by disaster had never before had the opportunity to express grief, anger and support, and to be able to mourn collectively on such a scale as happened in the case of American society after September 11th. Along with prayers for the victims and their families posted on online bulletin boards, memorial sites, in photographic journals, relief funds and all kinds of different political and religious analyses of the events, there are “Light a Candle” sites from other countries demonstrating their support.
Cyberspace, a blessed space, is perceived as a socio-cultural, a political, a sacred and a spiritual space. As such, it not only carries institutionalized religions, new religious movements, alternative spiritualities and every voice within all these, but also (g) generates original and innovative religious phenomena, in both theoretical and practical terms. Moreover, cyberspace, as well as ICTs as a whole for that matter, may be seen as deconstructing the notion of globalization from a signifier of socio-political and economic changes to a signifier of socio-political, economic and spiritual connectedness. As technological advancements progress and new interfaces become available to the public, so the “points of irreversibility” will progress. The extent of the progress and its direction remain to be seen.
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