Digital Religion Studies as Forum for Studying the Intersection Between Religion and the Digital

heidic's picture

For over two decades, I have studied the intersection between computer-mediated technologies, digital spaces, and religion. I began in the mid-1990s studying the rise of online religious communities that were forming through email and other discussion forums. This led me to explore issues of religious identity and authority online in cyberchurches, Islamogaming, the kosher cell phone, religious mobile apps, and most recently investigation how Internet memes about religion provide insights into how religion is represented within digital culture. My research has emerged alongside the work of other scholars in the fields of Communication, Religious Studies, Sociology of Religion, and Theology, and in the last few years, this given rise to a new subfield of inquiry known as Digital Religion Studies.

I define "digital religion" in the introduction of the edited collection Digital Religion: Explorations in New Media Worlds (Routledge 2013) as the technological and cultural space that is evoked when we discuss how online and offline religious spheres have increasingly become blended and/or integrated in our network society (Campbell 2013). Those who study digital religion see online religious practice and beliefs as integrated into offline religious communication and communities and vice versa. As the Internet has become an integral part of the everyday lives of many religious practitioners, scholars have observed the variety of ways digital technologies help bridge, connect, and/or extend online religious practices and spaces into offline religious contexts. From online worship and prayer in virtual temples and churches to building new forms of religious community with fellow believers around the world through social media such as Facebook and Instagram, spiritual seekers continue to find creative ways to use digital platforms to reimagine religious rituals and express their sacred beliefs. Digital Religion Studies has primarily theorized about how religion and the digital intersect by focusing on how religious communities respond to digital technologies and/or how digital cultures are shaping religious individuals’ behaviors and practices.

Drawing on theories from Sociology and Media studies — such as Mediatization, Mediation of Meaning, and the Social-Shaping of Technology — has provided useful frameworks for explaining the different perceptions of how religious believers and leaders negotiate and relate to new media technologies and environments. More recently work begun by scholars seeks to unearth and identify born-digital theories of digital religion. In other words, scholars have begun to consider how the unique social nature and cultural context of our digital, network society informs perceptions of what we consider religious, and how spiritual meaning and process become understood and conceptualized within technologically-infused space and culture. Digital Religion Studies is now situated within an interesting intellectual moment. It is one where scholars are exploring alternative frames —such as those found within Posthuman and Post-secular discourses — to explain not only how the digital and religion intersect, but how they become entwined and increasingly interdependent on one another.

I suggest Digital Religion Studies offers a unique and vibrant area to explore how the digital becomes integrated into different cultures, and not just religions ones. This work highlights the factors that shape individual and group negotiation processes with technology, and how these inform the ways we view humanity and reality in a digital age.