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Internet Religion

Online Religion Expert Offers Glimpse of Faith's Future

Give Me That Online Religion by Brenda E. Brasher (Jossey‑Bass, A Wiley Company) With more than one million websites and countless cyber-seekers, online religion is a virtual phenomenon. Spiritual cyborgs, virtual monks and others who practice their beliefs on the Internet are shaping the future of religion, says Dr. Brenda Brasher. In her new book, Give Me That Online Religion, she explores the far reaches of cyberspirituality and its impact on participants and the culture.

New religious movements appear most at home online, Dr. Brasher says. Pure cyber‑religions are emerging, like"Transhumanists," who believe in eternal life through "uploading" their brains onto the Internet. Electronically­inspired religious practices are flourishing, such as global prayer‑chains, e‑prayer wheels, and "MOOs," neo‑pagan cyber‑rituals that blend elements of the real and virtual.

Dr. Brasher, an expert in millennialism, examines how apocalyptic groups use the Internet to spread their messages and recruit members‑like Heaven's Gate, a self‑destructive religious group which relied on the Web to communicate its story. "Netcasting" apocalyptic messages is standard practice for other end‑times prophets such as evangelist Jack Van Impe and Marian devotee Veronica Lueken, whose "Mary in America" site announces "The Apocalypse is Now!”, "Apocalypticism in cyberspace must be handled with care," Dr. Brasher writes. "Dreams of world judgment contain tremendous energy. When tapped, they can inspire revolts, promote social justice, or convince thirty‑nine people to kill themselves."

The prevalence of fan‑culture on the web has given rise to a new popular religion: celebrity‑worship. More than 800,000 web "shrines" are dedicated to Lady Diana, and online fans of TV programs and movies like Star Trek and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure exhibit a religious devotion. "Scanning fan sites, it is easy to believe that the spiritual discipline of imitato Christus has been replaced by imitato Keanu Reeves," Dr. Brasher writes.

Mainstream world religions from Catholicism to Hinduism are also vigorous participants in cyberspace, with websites offering information about their beliefs and congregations. (The Vatican is even considering naming St. Isidore of Seville patron saint of the Internet.) "Online traditional religion gives cyberspace a much‑needed link to the past," Dr. Brasher says. However, religious institutions must be prepared to respond to the Internet's impact. "Their very presence online is likely to reconfigure sacred texts, hierarchies, and worship patterns," she says.

Give Me That Online Religion not only documents and analyzes the phenomenon, but calls for the protection and support of online religion as a public space. Religious expression in cyberspace is crucial to the future of religion: "It is a vital cultural vehicle for the emergence of religious experience and expression," Dr. Brasher says. She cautions against leaving cyberspace open to exploitation by those who wish to harness its potential for private gain.

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