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God’s Facebook Page: New Media and Religious Communications

posted Dec 21, 2013, 3:11 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

God’s Facebook Page:

New Media and Religious Communications

 

By Peter Joseph Moons

The role of new media aids in the diffusion of beliefs and in the dissemination of information. One must remember that the new media, mainly meaning any electronic technology, is merely part of the evolutionary process of communication between humans.  Only now, the information about a religion, the sharing of religious experiences, and social encounters happen nearly instantaneously, with very little cost, and from anywhere with web connectivity. In sum, the communication styles that existed pre-Internet circa 1991 are the same today, only now the happen faster, anywhere, and with reduced cost;[1] these three factors of new media change the dissemination of religious information for all types of online religious activity.

 

            The emergence of online religious activity is such a new concept that understanding the genre, as well as looking at this issue as an academic subject, is still in its nascent stages.  One thing is clear, though, “the concept of cyber-religion provide[s] a way to explore and call into questions traditional assumptions and understanding of religion as it engaged with new cultural and technological contexts.”[2]  Of course, this “understanding” of cyber-religion is far from complete.  Moreover, comprehending the aspect of religion in the virtual realm may indeed give insight into traditional, physical, brick-and-mortar-only religions.  So there are at least two benefits to this new emergence of cyber-religion: first, understanding the contrast between cyber and traditional religions, and second, the adoption of new media communications methods by traditional religions.

 

In the first benefit, there is a significant contrast between online-religions and religions-online: the purely virtual presence of the vast majority of the former.  This is the most obvious departure for religion, but should not be surprising given the advent of online personae, avatars, icons, etc., especially in online communities and role-playing games.  This idea goes further than just choosing a symbol for one’s online presence, but adopting a whole back-story of existence.[3]  This imagined identity could naturally evolve into other aspects of life: marriage, children, jobs, and, of course, religious preferences.  Thus, “imagined religions” are not a far leap from an imagined life.[4]  Also, with online religious activities, the limitations of distance to travel to attend the religious service of choice no longer exist; likewise, the believer can form their own “individual autobiography.”[5]  The connectivity afforded here by cyber-presence leads to the three factors mentioned above: speed, ubiquity, and cost.

 

            Now with information traveling at the ‘speed of the internet,’ the dissemination of ideas, religious or otherwise, changes the dynamic of religions, doctrine, and perhaps even beliefs.  The “shared beliefs” that traditional religions had were disseminated by interlocutors of many different stripes; there does not appear to be any traditional world-religion that did not have some person who acted as an interpreter, visionary, prophet, or intermediary between the believer and God or the gods.  Clearly, one of the most fascinating changes with online-religions is the introduction of “user-generated content.”[6]  This idea of the universality of input into an online-religion diverges from, for example, the Roman Catholic Curia making for its devotees doctrinal decisions that could change the course of history, such as decrees on issues of divorce or even more theological issues.

 

However, even for some of the more extreme online-religions,[7] there has to be a body of theology upon which believers base their faith. The G.K. Chesterton comment that ‘once someone stops believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything’ even applies to self-generated, spontaneous online-religions.  Some parameters, or boundaries, have to exist and someone or some group of persons have to be held accountable for them,[8] whether the believers want to admit this constraint or not.[9]  This body of theology/accountable party concept is a similarity to traditional religions but the communication between the two types of religions shows that the online ones diffuse beliefs more rapidly than the traditional type.

 

The role of new media in communicating religious ideas is cross-spectrum for online religious activity, as both online-religions and religions-online have similar characteristics.  The new media allows for linking like-minded believers into communities and matching people’s identities,[10] for “social networking,”[11] and for encouraging a “personal and community experience."[12]  There are differences in use of new media by online-religions and traditional ones.  For example, those of the “cyber-church” type are “aiming to reproduce in cyberspace some aspects of conventional church life,”[13] which already exist in traditional churches.  Conversely, the ‘save the world’ aspect of some traditional religions does not translate into cyber-religions.[14]  There is an overall appearance difference, too.  For example, the Church of Moo’s website[15] does not look much different than a dark, fantasy comic book, while the Latter Day Saints main page appears much more bright.[16]

 

Assessing the effectiveness of these forms of religious dissemination via new media intuitively points to the cyber-religion’s advantage.  Because of the seemingly unrestrictive nature, in fact, the inclusivity and acceptance of new members or members with only slightly complete beliefs in the religion, the online-religions can grow.  This concept is akin to ‘an initial cost of entry:’ with low entry costs, believers can commit to a religion, stay as long as they like, believe as fervently or superficially as they prefer, and drop out any time with little or no financial price, but perhaps some emotional cost.  The old saying that ‘no one is as zealous as a convert’ may drive online believers to become emotionally committed to their new beliefs and further disseminate information such as chat-room or online religious activity participation.[17]  A topic for further research would be to look at ‘joining’ and ‘drop-out’ rates of cyber-religions and compare those figures to information dissemination activities within the religion.

 

Another positive aspect of the communication by online-religions is their intrinsic nature.  Because they form and exists in a cyber environment, their believers are apt to communicate via online media, which include the aforementioned chat-rooms, web cam teleconferences, ‘joining in’ by watching a spiritual activity, or ‘liking’ posts, or even joining the ubiquitous Facebook pages that religions and their sub-branches have.  Thus, net denizens are already ‘online’ so their religious or spiritual activity is merely an extension of their cyber life.  Indeed, this linkage explains why there are so many religion-related websites; for example, a Google search of “god's Facebook page” returns 28,500,000 hits.[18]  Ipso facto, any internet user can generate content in this manner.

 

Further, being comfortable online enables the social community[19] aspect of online religious activity; this is perhaps the greatest shift prompted by new media.  The ability to, firstly, seek out and then join people of like-minded religious or spiritual inclinations in the cyber arena makes online communication a natural activity for these believers.  Contrast this development with traditional churches and their believers who are, perhaps, older;[20] if they have a cellular phone, they likely have a ‘flip-phone’ designed 15 years ago, with little or no web connectivity on the device.  Meanwhile the cyber believer lives online.  There is, though, one sign that this paradigm is changing: Pope Francis’s Twitter account.

 

An example of the new media's impact is found in the Roman Catholic Church’s use of social media, especially the Pope’s Twitter feed and the Vatican's website.  These tools represent a dramatic shift from methods of communication employed less than two decades ago. Anyone can follow Pope Francis's twitter account, @Pontifex, and receive timely inspiration.[21]  A believer can now receive their 'daily dose' of the Pontiff's pious prayers. The Vatican's website is also sui generis among well-established religions with an online presence. The site holds vast amounts of historical documents, provides doctrinal materials, and explains Church teachings.  At the website, a visitor can experience a virtual tour of the Church's history, reaching back millennia.

 

Contrast this development with how Church documents were spread just several hundred years ago: A Cardinal or a courier transported precious scrolls with pontifical declarations embossed with thick wax seals hundreds or thousands of miles by carriage or sailing ship, risking their life to spread papal communications.[22]  Now, of course, the Pope can write, and vatican.va can publish, a document…and overnight, the document may go viral globally.  A timely example of this is Pope Francis's exhortation on justice in capitalist markets published in late November 2013 and available for anyone to read for virtually free, from anywhere.[23]  Overnight, believers, naysayers, and pundits commented on the Pope's treatise, from around the globe, via video, online postings, and TV.  This is a perfect example of the impact of new media and the diffusion of information.

 

            With the advent of the internet era, communications for all types of online religious activity occur faster, from any location, and often with minimal cost, if any.  With the breakdowns of what were once barriers to communication between the religious hierarchy and the believers, the latter have become ‘content creators’ -- in other words ‘self-generators’ of religious content. In the arena of online-religions, the content creators are free to explore and create without limitations.  With search engine optimization, meaning the use of key words in their content, online-religions can attract interested persons and new members, and thus grow exponentially fast.  There are some areas where both online-religions and religions-online use new media for communication with their members: in promotion of their beliefs and activities, as a means of apologetics, and even for proselytization.  Finally, of these two types of religions, the online-religions will maintain a slight advantage in the use of web-based communications for perhaps a decade to come; however, as younger, more tech-savvy adherents of religions with online components assume leadership roles, this disparity is likely to become more balanced.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Campbell, Heidi. Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media
     Worlds
. Ed. London: Routledge, 2013.

 

_____. When Religion Meets New Media. Routledge, 2010.

 

Church of Moo, www.churchofmoo.com

 

Cole-Turner, Robert. Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of
     Technological Enhancement
. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011.

 

Davis, Erik. “Imagining Technologies” in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the
     Age of Information
. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

 

Foerst, Anne “Recreating Ourselves” in God in the Machine: What Robots Teach Us
     About Humanity and God
New York: Dutton, 2004.

 

Herzfield, Noreen. “Cyberspace on Our Minds” in Technology and Religion: Remaining
     Human in a Co-created World
. Templeton Press, PA, 2009.

 

Latter Day Saints, www.lds.org

 

Partridge, Christopher. “Cyberspirituality” in The Re-enchantment of the West, Volume
     2
. London: T & T Clark International, 2005.

 

Possamai, Adam. “Yoda Goes to Glastonbury: An Introduction to Hyper-Real Religions”
     in Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions. Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2012.

 

Vatican, www.vatican.va

 



[1] Erik Davis. Techgnosis. New York: Three Rivers Prese, 1998, 31-32.  Davis recounts Christians’ use of the codex, “a storage device” for transporting the Word of God and other sacred writings “from town to town.”  Compare this technology to the modern portable telephone and the technological leap is astounding.

[2] Heidi Campbell. Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Ed. London: Routledge, 2013, 2.

[3] Mia Lovheim, “Identity,” Campbell, 48-52 passim.

[4] Adam Possamai, “Yoda Goes to Glastonbury: An Introduction To Hyper-Real Religions,” Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2012, 18-19. Possamai uses the terms “fake religion” and “invented religion.”

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Knut Lundby, “Theoretical frameworks for approaching religion and new media,” Campbell, 226.

[7] Christopher Partridge. “Cyberspirituality.” The Re-Enchantment of the West. 159-160.  Partridge’s describes a few extreme online-religions as engaging in as much techno-speak as religious activity.

[8] Stephen Garner, “What is Theology?” Campbell, 256.

[9] The boundaries will occur because people or groups eventually, de facto, define themselves by what they are not.

[10] Ibid., 260.

[11] Ibid., 258.  The “networked structure of the internet,” of course, is the prime facilitator of social networking.  The religious sites’ use of social networking mirrors that done for business professional, such as Linkedin, or for social engagement, like Facebook, or for snark, for example, Twitter.

[12] Ibid., 252.

[13] Ibid., 256.

[14] Ibid., 253.  Garner notes that “humans are called by God to responsibly transform the natural world through the application of their freedom and ingenuity,” though there is the appearance that cyber-religions are not necessarily interested in relieving world hunger, feeding the hungry, or sheltering the homeless.  In sum, the Christian Beatitudes do not have a cyber-homologue.

[15] http://www.churchofmoo.com/

[16] http://www.lds.org/?lang=eng  The LDS site is airy and filled with smiling people.  The Moo site has no photos and is only black background and colored text, filling the viewer with a foreboding sense of doom.  Of course, these feelings by the author are culturally biased, as will be all webpage viewers.

[17] Sean O’Callaghan, “Cyberspirituality and the Sacralization of Information,” unpublished essay, 6-7.  There is a ‘search for information’ that online-religious websites satisfy for people; This is likely why there seems to be such intensity in explaining beliefs on their websites.  Intuitively, a knowledgeable person knows what a Hindu believes, or the basic tenets of Islam, but very few know what the Church of Kopimism is. (8)

[18] https://www.google.com/#q=god's+facebook+page

[19] Heidi Campbell. “Studying the religious shaping of new media.” When Religion Meets New Media. (New York: Routledge, 2010) 171.

[20] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch_attender_report.htm

[21] https://twitter.com/Pontifex.  The inspirational messages fit Twitter’s 140 character limit, are crafted on a theme, like forgiveness or love, and sometimes for a specific audience, such as for youth in general, or for World Youth Day.

[22] Davis, 31-32.

[23] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of The Holy Father Francis, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html

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