How does the digital intersect with spirituality/religion? How have digital/virtual technologies broadened approaches to the study of spirituality/religion?

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

    Heidi A Campbell's picture
    by Heidi A Campbell — Texas A&M University view

    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.

  • The Quest for a New Digital Humanism

    Gregory Grieve's picture
    by Gregory Grieve — UNCG view

    The Quest for a New Digital Humanism is a twenty-three-minute video that explores spirituality in the digital age. It was created by the American scholar of digital religion, Gregory Price Grieve, and voiced by the talented young actor Melat Ayalew. The Quest disrupts how the field of Religious Studies publishes its scholarship and opens new media channels by which researchers can disseminate their work.

    The Quest is a machinima-fan-fiction-critique of the Romanian Historian of Religions Mircea Eliade.  Machinima refers to animated films that employ real-time computer-generated graphics, often from video games. The Quest employs screen shots from Fallout 4, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game released by Bethesda Game Studies in 2015. Fan Fiction refers to characters, settings, and narratives that are poached from mass-produced commercial works. It often operates as a moral critique that rewrites mass-produced texts to include the moral imaginings of marginalized groups.  

    Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian Historian of Religion, who played a pioneering role in the creation of the American academic discipline of Religious Studies. Eliade theorizes that “hierophanies,” breakthroughs of the sacred into the world, form the basis of all religion. He argues that religious practice does not merely represent hierophanies, but that practitioners actually participate in the original sacred event. To understand religion, Eliade pursued the method of comparative mythology, in which he sifted through all the world’s traditions to locate and document the various forms that hierophanies took.

    Stylistically, The Quest is an experimental assemblage that pays homage to Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) and the genre of Let’s Play videos. Existing in that murky space betwixt and between documentary and visual poetry, experimental films rigorously re-evaluate cinematic conventions by exploring non-narrative alternative forms. Mothlight is a collage film that Brakhage created, without a camera, by pressing moth wings, flower petals, and blades of grass between two strips of 16mm splicing tape. Let’s Play videos document video game playthroughs, and differ from simple walkthroughs because they focus on the emotional, subjective experience of the gamer. 

  • Informing Digital Designs with Jewish Practice

    Jessica Hammer's picture
    by Jessica Hammer — Carnegie Mellon University view

    Recently, I spent three days showing my work at the game festival IndieCade. As a scholar who strives to unify game research and design, having one of my pieces selected for exhibition was an honor, and reminded me that bridging two worlds can enrich both. As a player and colleague, the festival was less successful. More than a hundred designers, both in academia and outside it, brought their best work. There were virtual reality games, controllers made from inflatable toys, and photographic experiences. Every single game pushed forward the field of game design – and I could play very few.

    What most of the games at the festival had in common was digital technology: laptops, phones, microcontrollers, and more. Even the non-digital games often incorporated writing or drawing. What these elements have in common is that they are forbidden on Shabbat and the major Jewish holidays. I am an observant Jew, guiding my life by the ancient laws of halacha. I spent the first two days of Sukkot, and the Shabbat immediately following, as an isolated island in a sea of play. I could look, but I could not touch. Every time I heard a laugh or a shout of triumph from players, I was reminded that I did not truly belong.

    While it is rare for me to attend a game event over a major holiday, the tension between my Jewish and scholarly lives is omnipresent. Every week, I observe the Sabbath. Although I am a professor of computer science, I spend twenty-five hours without technology. Every year, as the fall semester starts, I prepare three Thanksgiving-level celebrations in the course of three weeks; this period typically falls either during the early stages of teaching or against the largest professional deadline of my year. While my collaborators and students are generally understanding of this conflict, I’ve had to turn down opportunities ranging from leading a conference committee to speaking at the White House. I hate to say no, and I accommodate where I can, but if I can’t do it all then living as a Jew comes first.

    Part of why I make this choice is because I refuse to compromise my heritage for the convenience of a Christian-dominated society. But it is also because my engagement with Jewish observance makes me a better scholar in the long run.

    First, halacha reminds me that digital is not everything. On Shabbat, and more often during the holidays, I put my devices down. But Shabbat is not a time of deprivation; it is a time of celebration. During the twenty-five hours I am away from the digital world, I am commanded to rejoice. I eat leisurely meals with my family, I nap, I read, I sing – and I play. I can’t play Call of Duty or Candy Crush, but physical play, card games, board games, role-playing games are all, so to speak, on the table. I bring those experiences back to my professional life, in which the digital can easily take center stage. These games help me see that there is a continuity between games using different platforms, and that the principles of game design apply whether the rules are being processed by the human brain or a computer. As a result, my research values and includes non-digital games. Sometimes that means exploring how to augment non-digital games with at-the-table apps or other technology, but sometimes it means studying other aspects of non-digital games, like how non-digital game pieces can shape the way players use their bodies.

    Second, halacha helps me critically analyze the values and ideals of my field. Game designers often talk about “elegance” in game design, where a small number of rules produce a range of interesting outcomes and play experiences, or about games as the fruitful elaboration of a small number of core play experiences. While randomness and other types of uncertainty are central to game design, ambiguity, conflicting perspectives, and unpredictability are not. Halacha is also a system of rules, but it violates every one of these assumptions. The Talmud alone contains millions of words, not to mention the complexity of commentaries, legal compilations, and responsa. The goal is not to create a clean, comprehensible system, but to embrace messy complexity, to capture and appreciate diverging opinions, to find and often exploit legal loopholes. The saying “Two Jews, three opinions” reflects not cantankerousness, but rather Jewish respect for this system, in which fastidious attention to detail (what, exactly, makes food count as a meal rather than a snack?) is paired with respect for ambiguity and for the range of opinions that can be derived from a halachic process. As a result, I feel a particular scholarly affinity with role-playing games, particularly those that provide a sprawling body of text for players to engage with, and in which players are asked to apply the game rules in complex and unpredictable ways. Games like Ars Magica and 7th Sea feel familiar to me, and so I am able to take them on their own terms rather than trying to fit them into an ideal of what games “ought” to be like.

    Finally, halacha keeps me centered on the power of community. Multi-player games are typically more complex, both to make and to study, than single-player games. When I struggle with networking libraries, multi-party game balance, recruiting playtesters, or conversational analysis, it is tempting to make experiences for just one person at a time. But long years of observance have taught me that if doing things is powerful, doing things together is better. On Passover, for example, I gather friends around the Seder table to study together, sing together, eat together, and bare our hearts together. It is an experience we share at the time it happens, but we also reference it often throughout the year. The Seder ritual doesn’t stay at the Seder table. It lives in the relationships it has transformed, and this relational transformation is a design aspiration for my own work. What conversations will continue long beyond the game’s end? How will people know one another better afterwards? And how can I make the space of play a holy space?

    At IndieCade, I watched people play Magia Transformo, in which players dress up as witches and follow the instructions on screen-enabled “spellbooks” to perform a magical dance. The designer pointed out something fascinating. As the first step of the dance, players are asked to circle to the left – and in every single game he’d seen, at least one player circled with their finger on their spellbook rather than moving their body. The world we live in is being shaped, both for better and for worse, by the ubiquity of screens and by our absorption in devices. Games can disrupt the easy defaults of our lives. They can shake us back into our bodies, help us embrace ambiguity and conflict, or make us connected to people we might not otherwise know. These experiences in turn can shape our religious and spiritual lives, helping us better understand the practice of religion through play.

  • Human Simulation: Putting the Human at the center of computer simulation

    Saikou Diallo's picture
    by Saikou Diallo — VMASC view

    The question here is how have technologies broadened the study of spirituality/religion. Rather than answer that question directly, I want to share an experience of how the study of religion and spirituality has broadened my approach to modeling and simulation engineering. As an engineer and scientist, the study of religion is quite unsettling and foreign. Usually, we are trained to systematically decompose problems until we attain a solvable unit, then work our way up to the next unit until the problem is solved. Religion and spirituality represent a collection of experiences that cannot be decomposed using my traditional training. 

    As a result, when I first started working on the Modeling Religion Project, I had to rely on my experience as a human being to think and assess how to implement complex theories about culture, religion and spirituality into a computing device. After working with researchers from the Humanities, including topologists, religious scholars, bible scholars, psychologists, and social scientists, I realized that I, as an engineer, am too narrowly focused on data and process. My colleagues from the Humanities, on the other hand, are always trying to look beyond data. They want to create narratives and tell a story. In other words, they want engineers to build simulations that tell compelling stories with a reasonable narrative. They did not want to see graphs and pie charts; they want the meaning behind it.

    Because of that experience, I realized that in order to have meaningful conversations across disciplines that are seemingly far apart and produce simulations that are useful, we have to change the way we conceive of computer simulations. Simulations are perceived as “dumb” artifacts that mechanically produce outputs based on some input. However, there is a story between the time the input is entered and an ouput is produced. The story of the simulation is what every researcher in every field is interested in. This observation led to the concept of "Human Simulation” where we put the human at the center of the model in order to capture the nature of humans as spiritual actors.

    Human Simulation means studying and understanding things that are important and relevant to human beings besides their natural surroundings. It also means designing and building simulations that can be easily understood by every human and not just engineers and analyst. Fundamentally, working with humanist has also broadened my view on how to accurately model spirituality and religion by making me realize how meaningless any theory that relates to those topics is once implemented in a computer simulation. The beauty and insight that only humans are capable of is immediately lost, which means that an actual human being should always be part of a human simulation in order to gain a level of understanding that goes beyond reducible causal inferencing.

    The implication of human simulation is potentially game-changing for simulation engineering. From an educational standpoint, simulation engineers need to be trained in science methodologies such as those used in anthropology and counseling; from a technical standpoint, simulation interfaces should be able to capture a narrative as input and provide a story an output instead of variables, charts and graphs; from a scientific standpoint, it means that we have to reassess what it to say something is and perhaps consider a spectrum from plausible to likely to unlikely. From an engineering standpoint, we need to rethink the idea of data. After all, models are only purposeful abstractions of perceptions of reality. They are stories.

  • Quantifying Religion: Messy Data and Scholarly Input in the Database of Religious History

    M. Willis Monroe's picture
    by M. Willis Monroe — University of British Columbia view

    There is a certain amount of privilege in posting near the end of the month, because I get to build on the fascinating and lengthy discussion which has already occurred. My response will be based on my current role as managing editor for the Database of Religious History (hereafter DRH), based at the University of British Columbia.

    I would like to start by juxtaposing two visions of the digital study of religion offered earlier by Nathan Schradle and Saikou Diallo. Nathan remarks that scientists have been attempting to “wrangle and contain” the nature of religion (perhaps to limited success), and Saikou agrees that for scientists and engineers religion can be “quite unsettling and foreign.” It is precisely this conflict between the messiness of religious practice and belief and the rigid tools of digital analytics that inspired the DRH to try and collect and analyze the historical dimension to religion. Returning to the two perspectives, Nathan correctly notes that while the volume of data might be large and the speed of creation rapid, the valuable products of interpretation are the real measure of success. Saikou similarly brings up the rather fundamental issue of mapping basic digital data as a spectrum rather than a zero or one.

    The DRH attempts to address these concerns by basing our knowledge creation and consumption on existing scholarly practice. We meet the scholars in the medium that they are most comfortable with and represent their knowledge and data in familiar and accessible ways. Our project records data about the practices, beliefs, traditions, and social contexts of religious groups throughout history. Experts answer extensive questionaries that are created through an inclusive process, using our editorial staff to stretch and expand the scope of our questions until we have a document that reflects the current specialization of the project. Finished entries can then be consumed by a diverse audience as web-sites, PDF articles, or discreet data-points depending on the level of specificity or interest. Furthermore, the entire dataset can be visualized and queried in a variety of ways. Scholarly agreement and disagreement is encoded throughout the site by not treating any answer as infallible but rather the answer of a single scholar for a single point in time and space, and duplication and overlap is encouraged. This results in a dataset that is both deep and fluid, since an entry for a single scholar can overlap in small or large ways with another and the overlap of data points can also function as data.

    The end goal is to answer questions like the one posed by Christopher Cantwell about religion acting as a social media company which uses the data generated by its believers to be “monetized for the [religion]'s wellbeing.” With a wealth of historical data, at least hints to this type of question are within our reach. In fact some of the founding members of the DRH are interested in precisely this question about religion's role in cultural evolution and the way in which religions can borrow from each other and change over time in response to their ability to support the wellbeing of adherents, attract new members, and compete with other religions. This approach is only one vantage point into the data of the DRH. There are of course numerous other avenues of research in a large dataset created by scholars for both scholars and the wider public. One potential derives from our lack of a definition for “religion” in the project itself; we leave the designation up to our experts as they enter their data. Further down the line we may discover that within the messiness of our digital approach, the data begins to offer a pattern which contains within it the concept of religion.

  • Digital Religion and What Comes After

    Tim Hutchings's picture
    by Tim Hutchings — CODEC Research Centre, Durham University view


    In her contribution to this series, Heidi Campbell defined digital religion 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.” In this post, I will explore and question that definition, highlighting three words: “blended”, “increasingly”, and “religious”. By questioning some of the assumptions of “digital religion”, we can draw attention to wider possibilities that could strengthen our scholarship in the future.  


    Campbell argues that online and offline religion are “blended and/or integrated”, and this is a significant observation for all forms of digital media. Early science-fictional visions of a separate “cyberspace” now seem quaint and old-fashioned, and the idea of a “real/virtual binary” has been challenged by researchers for decades (see for example Wellman and Haythornthwaite’s edited volume “The Internet in Everyday Life”, 2002).

    At the same time, it’s worth keeping sight of what we are blending together. The statement that online and offline are “integrated” is an empirical claim, demanding empirical investigation. In my own research, I have found that media users maintain strong boundaries around at least some of their online and offline activity. A user can look up information, engage in conversations and explore new identities online without sharing that activity with their family, neighbourhood or local religious community. If we over-emphasise “integration”, we may lose sight of what people are actually doing with media.


    The word “increasingly” plays a crucial role in Campbell’s definition, because it introduces time. Scholarship on digital religion has not paid much attention to longitudinal case studies, preferring to focus on the new, but a change of approach is long overdue. Digital religion is not what it used to be, and tomorrow it will be something different again.

    Many religious communities, websites, software packages and other digital objects of study have been in existence for decades, evolving as technologies and tastes have changed. Others have not survived: products vanish, websites are abandoned and communities collapse. By returning to old case studies and interviewing long-term participants, including both success stories and failures, we can tell the history of contemporary religion and of the internet itself.


    Christopher D. Cantwell’s post draws our attention to a third key term in Campbell’s definition: “religious”. Cantwell discovered a hidden world of automated religion, in which bots follow one another to build up the reputations and audiences of rival media empires. As Cantwell demonstrates, we can use this kind of discovery to question our theoretical understanding of what “religion” really is.

    Cantwell’s post reminds of the embeddedness of “religion” in other industries and contexts. Evangelical Christians and other religious entrepreneurs are learning from digital marketers and influencers in many sectors, and pioneering some digital techniques of their own – just as they did in previous ages of print, radio and television ministry.

    It is true that online and offline religious spheres are integrated, as Campbell argues, but the extent and impact of this integration is not evenly distributed: some religious figures are gaining influence, while others are losing it. We cannot understand this rebalancing of the landscape of religious influence and engagement just by examining “religious spheres”, online or offline: we have to study the whole “network society”, including its digital infrastructure.  

    Conclusion: After “Digital Religion”?

    In these three very short comments, I have tried to pinpoint some aspects of the intersection of digital and spiritual which need more exploration. To understand the form and experience of religion in digitally-networked societies, we need empirical attention to what people are doing; historical study of how media practices have changed over time; and appreciation of how practices are shaped and supported by an often-unseen digital infrastructure.

    If we follow these three provocations, we can begin to leave behind the spatial idea of a field or subfield of “digital religion” altogether. In future, the intersections between digital media and religion should be located much deeper within the fields of religious studies (and media studies!), because the digital is an integral part of religious practice, experience and influence today. “Digital religion” is not a field but a node, connecting the fields of religious studies and media studies to enable an ever-changing academic conversation.   

  • Culture, context, contemplation

    Mary E,. Hess's picture
    by Mary E,. Hess — Luther Seminary view
    A basic definition of spirituality would be that it is “the unique and personal response of individuals to all that calls them to integrity and transcendence”(264). Further, theologian Sheila Greeve Davaney notes that “culture is the process by which meaning is produced, contended for, and continually renegotiated and the context in which individual and communal identities are mediated and brought into being”(5). Therefore to understand how digital technologies intersect with spirituality requires an exploration of dynamic definitions of culture. Scholarship which emphasizes digital media as environments in which meaning is made, as contrasted to more instrumental ways of perceiving digital technology, is most immediately relevant and evocative for my work.

    Human practices of meaning-making are going through rapid shifts, and there is as yet little consensus about the appropriateness of suffusing digital media into religious practices. I find Cathy Davidson’s argument compelling, that is: digital technologies have so disrupted our taken-for-granted practices that we can now perceive changes which have been in train for long stretches of time but heretofore were invisible. Mainline Christian communities are losing members, for instance, but is digital tech the cause? Or is it perhaps merely a lens through which to perceive the longer term impact of networked individualism? Questions of embodiment which have been roiling the margins of theological speculation for several decades become concretely tangible in the question of whether or not true communion can take place in Second Life. Similarly, questions such as whether it is appropriate for people to tweet during a church service, or to offer pastoral care online, become vividly palpable rather than abstractly theoretical. Jim Gilliam’s argument that “the internet is a religion” comes alive for everyday engagement, rather than as mere scholarly speculation. We do not yet have answers to these questions, but the questions themselves are important and offer many new avenues of inquiry.

    Scholars of religious practices have also emphasized the crucial significance of context in understanding meaning-making, particularly as implicated in spirituality. How we understand place, social location, and situated perspective becomes a key to exploring various dimensions of spirituality. Yet as Michael Wesch observes we are living in an era of context collapse, a collapse which occurs in and through digital media. Amidst this collapse religion scholars are finding ways to attend to the widely varying communication shifts materializing throughout our spaces. Seeing meaning-making as an essential element of religious practice helps us to observe how shifts in authority, authenticity, and agency which have been catalyzed by digital media are reshaping experiences of spirituality.

    Finally, in addition to explorations of culture and context, scholars of religion and spirituality are attending to how contemplative practices are impacted by digital media. It is in this search for relationship with transcendence that some of the most challenging – but also promising – dynamics are emerging. The speed of communication, the firehose of available information on the web, and dominant forms of scientific rationality combine with new research in neurosciences and widespread sharing of experiential data to suggest that contemplative practices are gaining new relevance even as the communities which originated and tend them are losing ground. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan contemplative and theologian in the Christian context uses a daily e-blast to describe how ancient contemplative practices are newly relevant. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur suggests ways to use digital tech to create new patterns of contemplative action. Both are mindful of the necessity for cultivating an epistemological stance of humility, of “not knowing” amidst the instrumentalism which is rampant in technological circles. From what might be perceived as opposite ends of a continuum – a religious friar immersed in monastic practice and an entrepreneur at the cutting edge of digital tech —  these two writers are vibrant examples of how spiritual practices of inquiry into relationality that extends beyond the rational and immediately corporeal are being newly vivified within and through digital media.

    Thus my immediate response to the questions of “How does the digital intersect with spirituality/religion? How have digital/virtual technologies and environments broadened approaches to the study of spirituality/religion?” is that we are newly aware of, and attentive to, issues of culture, of context, and of contemplative practice.

  • Praise the Lord and Pass the Algorithms

    Christopher D. Cantwell's picture
    by Christopher D. Ca... — University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee view

    One of the most persistent themes in the academic study of religion has been the portrayal of America as a religious marketplace. With the unprecedented disestablishment of tax-supported churches during the early republic, the argument goes, America became one grand spiritual bazaar. Ecclesiastical innovators, religious entrepreneurs, and other prophetic disrupters all competed with each other for a share of America’s faith-based market. From their efforts would emerge the nation’s many denominations. And at the center of this market stood the believer—a rational, fully-informed individual who was free to choose from the nation’s devotional abundance. The “winners” of American religious history, the argument inevitably suggests, have been those traditions that have most successfully marketed their worldviews to a discerning religious public. The “losers,” by contrast, are those who lacked an appealing brand.

    Recent interest in the study of what fellow contributor to this series Heidi Campbell concisely identifies as “digital religion” continues to be framed by this metaphor of the market. The web, many argue, is the greatest of all emporiums, a place where preachers and believers alike are placed on something of a level playing field. Through the power of social media, even the most obscure religious figure can disrupt established religious traditions and quickly amass a following with nothing but a tweet and a prayer.

    But in many respects, our contemporary digital moment is also the most cogent critique of the notion that American religion follows the dictates of a market. How can a model premised upon the free exchange of information interpret a world increasingly governed by algorithms? What good is the focus upon autonomous religious consumers in an age of automation? Because while most everyone might have access to the web—in the same way most everyone has access to a religious market—digital media’s modes of production also significantly shape and constrain the exchange of information and the formation of identities. Social networks reinforce, rather than expand, our presuppositions while search engines tailor their results to manipulate our browsing. Indeed, at a time when it appears that even presidential elections can be swayed by targeted Facebook advertisements and an army of Twitter bots, it is worth wondering just how free the American religious marketplace really is.

    I encountered the limits of this market-based metaphor firsthand recently. In 2015, I built a Twitter bot called @Preacher_Bot that took the tweets of the five most-followed evangelical preachers and remixed them. The goal of this digital religion project was to poke at a problem in the study of evangelicalism. Where some scholars argue that evangelicalism is, at its core, discursive, I wanted to highlight just how difficult it would be for an evangelical simply to speak themselves into being. The gibberish @Preacher_Bot frequently generates—a recent tweet, for example, proclaimed that “The tombstone will be confident in a more secure group but evidently not secure enough”—mischievously performed the importance of individual creativity and lived experiences in fashioning an evangelical identity. It was, in short, the automation of a scholarly argument.



    But something funny happened while developing the account. As the creator of a profile that was ostensibly that of a preacher, I suddenly became privy to the automated, inner workings of the evangelical twittersphere. Within moments of launching @Preacher_Bot, the account suddenly garnered a handful of unsolicited followers. All of these accounts were bots themselves, built by companies that offered a variety of pastoral support services, from relevant worship music to church-friendly budgeting programs. As the bot began to generate content, this kind of promotional interaction continued. Twitter itself got in on the act, “suggesting” I follow a number of other evangelical entrepreneurs based on those who interacted with me. But the project soon took an interesting turn when other, seemingly “regular” people began interacting with the account. Seemingly ordinary Twitter users, these accounts voiced their appreciation for the Bible verses @Preacher_Bot shared or even asked the account for prayer. I found the latter in particular to be troubling and wondered if I should notify these users of my account’s experimental purpose. But upon closer inspection it became clear that even these “real” accounts were bots who interacted with other users in the hopes that they would see the product they were pushing in their profiles.

    I found the experience profoundly disorienting. While I had set out to build a machine that could help me algorithmically explore the contours of American religious life, I instead ended up inside the matrix of an automated religious world. Prayers, praise, and promotional material were all being exchange by computer programs, in the absence of any living person save those who created them. Whatever product evangelicalism might be in the American religious marketplace, its promotion, as I experienced it, was an automated process driven by programs who were saturating the market to the point of monopolizing it.

    This is not to say that people are absent from this world, for the bots who found @Preacher_Bot are also finding countless of other accounts and shaping their religious world. But my encounter with this automated religious discourse does suggest that the digital turn might offer new interpretative paradigms in the academic study of religion. Indeed, the prevalence of digital culture to the religious worlds people make and the scholars who study them might necessitate it. Because the digital economy that companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google trade in is not about the buying and selling of products. It is about the generation of users whose data can be harvested and monetized for the company’s wellbeing. Perhaps religion works the same way; perhaps it has always worked the same way. Perhaps, as Rosemary Avance also suggests in her piece for this series, religion is a kind of technology, an algorithm whose human designers aim not to sell a product but to produce believers through a variety of automated means—from rituals to writings to the promotion of church-friendly budgeting software.

  • Continuity in the Digital Age: Religion as Digital Technology

    Rosemary Avance's picture
    by Rosemary Avance — Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication view

    When media scholars list the social practices constructed around and through digital and virtual  technologies, spirituality and religion don’t tend to top the list. In fact, media theory and the field of communication more broadly generally overlook religio-spiritual social systems, media practices, and ways of being entirely (the history and reasons for this are a worthy topic for another day).

    When I considered the ways I might approach the question of how the digital intersects with religion and spirituality, my impulse was to discuss my research on online communities, the breakdown of religious authority in the modern moment, the reframing of institutional religious messaging using defensive communication strategies, and other implications of the culture of the digital age on religious life. My dissertation addressed questions of access, surveillance, and perceived anonymity online, considering how the polyphony of internet voices results in a renegotiation of structure and agency in modern Mormon identities.

    But what if we move beyond questions of modernity to a broader media history as an approach to questions about the intersection digital technologies and religion? We often think of media epochs—the period of oral language, the introduction and proliferation of written language, the print era, the emergence of audio-visual media technologies, and now the digital and virtual age—as a simplistic way to understand the evolution of media technologies and their social implications.

    But the digital age is a misnomer. The term digital media is casually tossed around to refer to computer networks and, particularly, the internet—but digital technologies have origins in ancient times. Digits (another word for fingers, after all) mark a way of indexing the real using the symbolic. As Peters (2016) points out, digital technologies that predate the computer include coins, typewriters, filing systems, and the telegraph: all communication technologies that inexactly index aspects of the social world.

    Thinking of digital technologies and their intersection with the spiritual, then, provides an interesting challenge: Could we theorize religion as a digital technology, an indexing system for the spiritual? Like all digital technologies, religions each propose a “this not that” system of discrete data that together creates a continuous information system. Each religion is a digital media system encoded in its sacred texts, rituals and other human machine-readable formats. It nearly always provides binary answers to all of life’s major questions, providing a complete system of belief and practice to explain the cosmos and our place in it. It does so in formalized language, which though it experiences analog-like errors in copying over time, creates a narrative of tradition and timelessness. The immense data coded in a religious systems’ media is compressed and reduced for use by the average believer or practitioner, but can be decompressed for study among the religious elite.

    The metaphor is imperfect. But the point remains: If we concede that religio-spirituality and the digital is a not a new pairing but instead a continuation of our digital history as a species, we can begin to understand and perhaps escape digital media panics around religion—and reconsider the nature of these technologies that extend our voices, hands, and eyes around the world.

  • The Data of Worship and the Worship of Data

    Nathan Schradle's picture
    by Nathan Schradle — University of North Carolina view

    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.

  • The Digital Question and the Corporeal Turn

    Karen O'Donnell's picture
    by Karen O'Donnell — CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology, Durham University view

    The realm of the digital has crept into almost every area of human existence. It is no surprise, therefore, to find it intersecting with issues, questions, and experiences of spirituality and religion in the 21st Century. Thinking about the digital in the context of religion means that theologians have to think again about the body and the embodied experience of faith and spirituality. When much of our engagement with the digital takes place in a space that is created by humans, and this engagement appears to be purely cerebral, what is the relationship between the person and their human body? When the digital is so closely linked to the human body that it is integrated within it, what does it mean for Christians to claim that humans are made in the image of God?

    Considering the digital in this context raises the question of whether we are disembodied when we engage with the digital. The vicious presence of trolls in cyberspace would seem to indicate that our embodied humanity is easily forgotten in such contexts. Indeed, some Christians have raised concerns about the lack of embodiment in digital spaces; for example, David Kelsey argued that theological education for ministry shouldn’t take place online because such education did not treat the person as a whole spiritual being. The intersection of the digital with religion reminds Christians that the biblical texts do not support a Cartesian dualistic view of the person. Rather, these texts point theologians towards a much more embodied, holistic perspective on the person who is body and soul, but self-perceives as a whole being. Of course, we are embodied in digital spaces; perhaps the problem is that this embodiment looks different in the digital?

    If we resist a virtual/real binary, acknowledging that humans do not tend to perceive of living their lives moving between two realms, then it makes more sense to think of the digital as something that augments reality. This is particularly interesting in the context of spirituality and religion, which are in themselves augmenters of reality. The Catholic, for example, looks up at the altar during the celebration of mass and sees a man holding up a small white wafer. But faith augments this reality so that they also see the priest holding aloft the Body of Christ. Similarly, Donna Harraway’s work on cyborgs as hybrid beings that muddle the boundaries between nature and culture, between machine and body, challenges ideas of the ‘normal’ human body. So theologians have returned to the issue of the incarnation where Jesus takes the form of a thoroughly human and entirely divine being, one that also challenged boundaries and concepts of normality. Digital and virtual technologies have offered new languages and metaphors for thinking about spirituality and religion.

    CODEC, the research centre for Digital Theology at Durham University, has just launched a Master’s degree in Digital Theology giving students the opportunity to engage with these kinds of questions, and many others. Considering these questions is an exciting and open task in the field of contextual and constructive theology. It is, to some extent, unchartered territory—no one quite knows what theological answers look like when they are focused on digital spaces. Digital Theologians, at the moment, are mapping the landscape for the first time. 

  • Approaching Digital Religion through Pedagogy and Posthumanism

    John W. Borchert's picture
    by John W. Borchert — Syracuse University view

    When my students arrived in my “Digital Religion” course, one sentiment crystalized: they were not convinced the internet was “real life”. This response was surprising. Shouldn’t these students, having not known a world without the internet, have no problem seeing the digital as part of that world? Over and over, as we discussed authenticity, identity, and authority (resilient keywords in the study of digital religion) students dismissed claims that digital space and practice should be theorized with as much sobriety or rigor as non-digital practices. Thinking about the gambit of the entire semester, this was quite worrying. What was I to do if my students did not agree that digital religion is worth taking seriously unto itself? My task for the semester shifted to answering this question with my students.  

    Allowing digital religion to broaden methodologies requires that we as teachers listen to our students. Reading through foundational texts in the study of digital religion, I tuned into what about my prescribed approaches my students either didn’t find congruent with or useful for explaining their own experiences. For them, real religious experience required brick and mortar space and place, with a necessity for tradition raised in its defense. Paradoxically, while my students made claims for the sole authenticity of real world experience, they admitted  digital mediations are central to their own senses of being — with their devices, interfaces, and networks primary to their social, political, embodied selves. This signaled that concern for digital authenticity as articulated in the literature failed to account for quotidian, embodied, social performances of digital practice. My prescribed registers for understanding the digitally religious were beyond experience, set apart from the everyday digital my students easily accounted for. Missing from our classroom was an effective dissolution between a digital/non-digital binary, ways of understanding networked ways of being and relation.

    Digital technology broadens the study of religion by broadening human experiences of the human. By extending ontologies across digital networks, technologies expand what can be human space and human being. By the end of the semester, I adapted a posthuman theoretical approach to human-technological relationships. Beginning with feminist scholars of technology and embodiment like Donna Haraway, Kathryn Hayles, and Rosi Braidotti, posthumanist methodologies assume no stable human subject, rather an ontology of extended nodal relation which is always materially embedded and in flux. Attention to these networks, their nodal points, and the material connections that bind the human and the digital into an assemblage of practice helped our class understand digital religion as human practice.  Understanding digital religious practice as occurring across material networked connections between human and non-human helped my students dissolve boundaries between the digital and the human. By thinking technology as extending human being rather than appending it, they perceived digital religion not as they initially did – a poor imitation of an imagined authentic religious practice — but as a response, partner, parallel, or continuum of that experience.

    My student’s problems with digital religion as a concept revolved around a perceived separation between the real and unreal of digital practice. It is too simple to say the paradoxes between my student’s analysis and behavior arose from their impatience, ignorance, or lack of self-examination. Instead, their resistance and insistence demanded that my methodology re-calibrate. By attuning to my student’s discomfort, my orientation to the digital needed to change course. In other words, the very thing that makes digital religion interesting, the digital, had to be divested of its value as a technology set apart in order to appreciate its embeddedness in practices of human beings — like religion.

  • Technically Teaching Torah: Educational Technologies in the Jewish Classroom

    Jayme Dale Mallindine's picture
    by Jayme Dale Mallin... — view

    Judaism is often said to be a religion of deed rather than of intention, an understanding encapsulated by the words of the Israelites upon accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai: “na-aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear/understand.” The order is important: first comes the doing, followed by an understanding of the content. Life has changed substantially since the times of Mt. Sinai, and what it means to “do Jewishly” is continuously evolving. When it comes to new technologies, how are Jewish institutions teaching students what to do with these new digital objects? How are they teaching what counts as “Jewish doing” when it comes to creating new things in a digital world?

    While recent tech innovations have great potential for project-based learning in classrooms, technology is instead used primarily as a way to more efficiently deliver content, test and manage students, or communicate. Jewish education is not alone in this, and education in the United States has followed a similar path when it comes to the use of new computer and internet technologies. Namely, education tech has become more instructivist than constructionist, more Thorndike than Dewey. While Jewish education has recently started seeing shifts towards more experiential educational programming, the use of technology in Jewish classrooms hasn’t necessarily followed suit. Much like primary schools, new technologies such as computers, smart phones, and the internet are often used as avenues for more efficient ways of delivering content, rather than as tools for creating content.

    ShalomLearning, for instance, is a company that offers online and blended learning programs for supplementary Jewish education programs. Using an online web portal, educators and students can access PowerPoints and resources to teach and learn Jewish studies and the Hebrew language. This often takes the form of YouTube videos, discussion activities, and in the case of the Hebrew curriculum, online quizzes and memorization games geared towards learning the prayers necessary for the b’nai mitzvah process. While undoubtedly an innovation, especially for Jewish families who live long distances from other Jews, it uses tech as a way to deliver information rather than using tech as a tool for students to critically engage and create with. Tech for ShalomLearning is a way to consume media in new ways, not a way to construct media in new ways.

    Some Jewish organizations are starting to experiment with technology projects. My own synagogue, for instance, piloted a Girls Who Code club this past year, an afterschool club for 6th-12th grade girls to explore computer programming in a fun, friendly and, in our unique case, Jewish environment. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a Summer Camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism, has campers explore how Judaism complements and informs technological innovations and science. The range of available STEM activities at Sci-Tech Academy is vast, from robotics and video game design to environmental science and digital media.

    Digital technologies are one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Many, if not most, young Jews will grow up to live, work, and love in a world where “the internet of things” is taken for granted as a foundational aspect of their existence. While limited by resources like time and money, especially for students who get most of their Jewish education from supplementary schools that meet only a few hours a week, the Jewish classroom holds great potential as an educational playground for students to experiment with tech and Jewish identity. Finding ways to better understand the intersections of Judaism and technology by having students critically (and ethically) create with these new technologies will be an important next step for Jewish learning institutions.

  • A View from the Pew

    Teresa's picture
    by Teresa — Yale Divinity School & Yale Institute of Sacred Music 1 Comment view

    Given that the digital intersects with almost everything in daily life now – at least for the 4.5 billion people around the world who own one or more mobile devices — it would be nonsensical to assume that religion is one area of life untouched by the advent of the digital age.  In fact, religion and spirituality play significant roles in digital cultures.  Online religion sites, for example, emerging at a time marked by the “implosion of the secular” (Graham Ward), have been among the fastest-growing sites in digital social space.  To cite just one example, the Bible app YouVersion is equal in terms of users, to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  And a host of religious practices — both very old and entirely new — are flourishing online.  To stay within Christianity alone, these practices range from broadcasts of worship services over the internet to virtual altars, online chapels, cyber rosaries, prayer apps with streaming video and image galleries, memorial sites, online pilgrimages, and digital Advent calendars.  There are also communities of faith that exist online alone, for example in web-based interactive virtual reality environments.  And these digitally-mediated religious sites are ceaselessly expanding.  The internet by now even has its own patron saint, St. Isidore of Seville (+ 636), known for his encyclopedic gathering of knowledge and information.  Various prayers invoking St. Isidore’s intercession float around in cyberspace.  The same is true for memes that invoke St. Anthony of Padua to help with finding lost websites.  Last not least, there is a substantial industry surrounding digitally-mediated religious practices, offering, for example, inspirational screensavers, memes, and, yes: Pope emoji. 

    This vast new world of digitally-mediated religious practices calls for new ways of inquiring into religious practices.  In particular, it calls for new scholarly tools.  Religious studies and theological inquiry are not alone in confronting this shifting terrain.  The digital turn is not only transforming established scholarly disciplines but also creating new fields of inquiry.  One key reason for this transformation is the emergence of novel materials and sites generated by digital communication technologies.  Scholars who in the past studied texts are now confronted with digital materials that fuse text, images, audio, video, and other non-textual formats.  Moreover, these materials are not stored in brick-and-mortar libraries and archives but located in cyberspace, in digitally-mediated repositories.  The new transdisciplinary field of digital media studies, and more specifically of digital humanities, has arisen in response to this shift.  Scholars from a host of disciplines are now engaging these new media, from history, literary criticism, and anthropology to sociology, gender studies and ritual studies, to name just a few disciplines that religious studies and theology have drawn on in the recent past.

    Digitally-mediated religious practices put pressure on established scholarly categories, tools, and interpretive lenses, and thereby offer an incredible opportunity to re-think cherished convictions and longstanding assumptions in a field.  If for nothing else than that, digitally-mediated religious practices deserve scholarly attention.   If you want to see what that might look like for the field of liturgical studies, check out my recent book @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (Routledge 2017).