The Data of Worship and the Worship of Data

nschradle's picture

Long-standing questions about the relationship between humans and the technologies they create, the relationship between the real and the virtual, the biological and the synthetic, even the physical and the spiritual are given new urgency by the fervor and frequency with which contemporary individuals adopt digital technologies and take up the new conventions of “Digital Religion,” as Heidi Campbell has already described in this thread. In one especially fascinating iteration of this efflorescence, the boundaries between these binary poles dissolve and biological and digital entities become hybrid, entwined, even coterminous.

A redoubled appreciation for the capacities of information- and data-processing undergirds this movement. The concept of “Information” popularized in post-war communications technology circles has been granted such epistemological (nigh on metaphysical) privilege that one cannot help but invoke its specter when discussing the contours of belief in and outside the Academy. Information is granted an almost spiritual status. Perhaps ironically, this specter looms largest in the scientific attempts to wrangle and contain the content of “religion” as scientists and scholars alike imagine it. Artificial Intelligence augurs such as Ray Kurzweil prophesy a transhumanist future in which secular salvation is achieved through faith in the preservative powers of information, the biological barriers of human existence overcome by the perfect redoubling of consciousness in digital form, our souls given shape in silicon (as Kurzweil himself is fond of saying). In such endeavors, we are asked to place our faith not in the Creator but in our very own digitized creations, their spiritual potency vouchsafed by the informational perfection of their design and their sheer ubiquity.

Even if we were to consign Kurzweil's brand of transhumanism to the fringes of the scientific community (in spite, it must be said, of his role as a Director of Engineering at Google), the same brand of faith in the truth-value of digital information can be seen specifically in popular contemporary social scientific approaches to the study of religion. Both the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) and Sociobiological approaches often purport to have explained (away) religious practices as culturally-informed methods of information relay in and amongst members of social groups, especially in the face of uncertainty or anxiety. This “faith-in-and-as-information” reaches its apotheosis in ongoing endeavors like the Modelling Religion Project, a Templeton Foundation-funded attempt to build virtual worlds in which the complexities of religious practice as conceived of in the cognitive sciences can be represented algorithmically and thus simulated as often as necessary. This ostensibly allows for various religious practices to be examined from a God's eye view free from the limitations of typical human observation and memorization. The specific moments that make up religious experience, so fleeting in real life, are purportedly rendered repeatable, perhaps infinitely so, in digital environments. Thus, even if the potential of digital technologies to fulfill promises once thought to be the proper purview of religion remains an open question, there is an increasing faith in the capacity of the digital to simulate and stimulate the real without omission or remainder. This approach will certainly produce a vast sea of data. Such “data of worship” could have real ramifications for the academic study of religion; the ease with which such data is produced, collected, collated, and transmitted is undeniable. What such data actually tells us about religion, or human social life more broadly, is a fraught question, one which scholars of religion will need to attend to with increasing focus as digital forms of knowledge-making and -sharing become more and more the norm.