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Tweets from God: Religious Activity in The Online Environment

posted Dec 21, 2013, 3:09 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

Tweets from God:

Religious Activity in The Online Environment


By Peter Joseph Moons 

            Religion and spirituality has been a human activity since hominids developed sentience.  Whether animist, monotheist, or polytheist, the tendency for man is to believe in something.  Indeed, to not be spiritual, in some manner, even in the contemporary setting is to be in the minority.  There is a line of reasoning that views man as hard-wired to believe in God or at least in the presence of an otherworldly power.  This supposition about humanity may exist because life for man for millennia has been so unpredictable and out of the realm of his control. Thus, man's brain theorized reasons for what the natural world around him was doing: nature often behaves irrationally, pace man's desire for order and control of his surroundings, which is needed in order to survive in the state of nature.  Fast-forward through the creation of the world's great religions to the present and religions are still trying to answer the same questions.  Now that there is a world enveloped in electricity and silicon chips, religious activity continues online.[1]  What once existed only in a physical religious environment now occurs in cyberspace, which provokes some questions about man and his relationship to religion.


            A primary question about this relationship is the following: Does a person's humanity decrease if we no longer interact directly (in-person) with holy figures or fellow believers in any spiritual manner?  What makes us human is not only our physical essence[2] but our ability to reason.  When participating in religious activity in physical sense, human brains synthesize all the incoming inputs: sights, smells, sounds, touch.  Anyone who has walked into a centuries old synagogue, church, or mosque, and, depending on the religion, heard the organ, smelled the burning incense or votive candles, and seen the icons, chapels, alcoves, naves and vestments, and listened to the prayers, will remember the experience.  They will also remember with whom they experienced these senses.  So the dichotomy between physical and online religious activity is stark: while both may be otherworldly, the former is typically a full sensory activity while the latter is sight, sound, and some non-bodily involvement.


            This extra-corporeal sensation in online religious activity is one that seems yet to be fully explored, less understood. There can be a group, collective nature to the experience -- now, ever more so, thanks to enabling technology. Though, is the experience less real and more synthetic?  To the adherents, if they believe in the activity, the answer would be no.  Certainly, there are apostates in cyber religions, just as in physical ones.  Thus, another linkage between the two styles of belief is faith: one incorporates the religion and its beliefs into one's being, regardless of mode of reception.  A curious question derives from this idea: If faith can be measured, can believers in online-religions have stronger beliefs than those who practice solely in the physical realm?  The answer, owing to the complexity of the issue, may be impossible to discover.


            Belief certainly is in the mind of the believer; indeed, the process of faith, its strength, its weakness, and the manner of how relationships affect belief are complicated, if not incomprehensible.  Faith itself seems unquantifiable: humans may say their beliefs are strong or weak, but as yet there is no universal 'intensity spectrum' that accurately measures faith in a higher power.  Similar to experiencing love or pain, belief is highly personal.  Whether one participates in an online church or a physical community of believers, the experience remains subjective.  So, the concept of what is ‘holy’ change when religion or communication with God comes through a hand-held device or a computer may seem natural to someone who spends a large percentage of his or her life online anyway.  Clearly, if a person 'lives' in ‘Second Life' though an avatar with an imagined personality, having a cyber-centric belief system is not a far step beyond.  In fact, doing so may feel to those persons a natural progression of their being.


Another question about online-religions is the familiar appearance of their web sites to each other, as well as to commercial sites.[3]  Of course, their images are different but their data presentation is often the same. Perhaps there is a template for creating a standard religious website.  There are some similarities between the many websites for both the online-religions and religions-online.  There are offerings of meditation, different types of prayers, benediction, votive candles, descriptions of sacraments, and maybe even indulgences.  This last item leads to the commercial side of the websites. 


Many online-religion websites have goods for sale in their cyber shop; others offer opportunities for adherents to make a donation.  Of course, with the explosive growth of online activities in the last ten years, particularly with mobile cellular connections, the add-ons for cyber religious sites have also expanded.  Believers may be able to access a ‘hotlineto call for emergency interventions, read holy scripts and texts, view of holy places or shrines, as well as seek advice.  This later concept leads to the social side of any religious community.  Cyber sites have may social networking sites, dating/meet-up places, and live-streaming of ongoing events.  Visible here is a mirror image of the brick-and-mortar religious communities.


            However, there is one activity that seems to be missing in online-religions:  a confession space.  Perhaps this aspect of religion, along with the concomitant penance, are too personal for cyber religious sites.  So why would this be? If believers of religious faiths that require confession can use this application for their confessions, could the confession be received in real-time or asynchronously?  This of course is a possibility.  How could the ‘evaluationand/or penitence be given? One method would be via a video with a discussion of the sin, and of course ways to avoid such offenses in the future, as well as the penitence.


            Some people may debate the idea that confession and the related activity of atonement  or penance, implies a sense of being flawed.  Really, to engage in a confession is to admit fault, pay for acts of commission or omission, and then seek and receive forgiveness.  This series of actions requires a level of humility.  Since online-religious participants may be more individualistic, they may believe in their own strengths more and not sense the need to rely on someone for forgiveness, even a spiritual interlocutor.  Then again, a group chat room may suffice for a modern cyber confessional.  Certainly, some online-religions may eventually deliver absolution via Twitter Tweets or Facebook Posts.


            Besides initiation ceremonies, a confession of one's sins is perhaps the most emotionally intense experience in religions.  The act of admission of failings compares solely to what a person may say to a close personal friend in order to seek guidance for a grave problem.  Certainly, not all religions have a confession-type activity; confessing of sins is to take personal responsibility for failure to live up to a well-defined standard; some online-religions appear more fluid in the doctrine or even a nearly-anything-goes attitude.  Online-religions, particularly later model versions created solely in the age of the internet, may be more in line with the mindset that humans do not need to apologize, or that someone or something else prompted the behavior to do or say a regrettable act.


            Alternatively, there may be a de-emphasis of finding fault with oneself in online-religions.  If people join an online-religion because of the goal to seek like-minded individuals, one of the last things someone may want is to be is judged, particularly by a co-equal.  When one accesses the online-religion's website, one is still physically alone, even though they will likely interact with others.  Thus, a confession to a peer in the cyber community may not have the same effect elsewhere, or even be desirable.  Ultimately, should there be an application for confession and penitence in an online-religion's website, the user would need to be able to find resolution, even feel a catharsis, and all this would be done, like most everything else in online-religions, principally through a computer and its web connection.


            In conclusion, the religious experience that existed only in a physical religious environment also occurs in cyberspace.  The expansion of the environment for humans to engage in spiritually changes man's relationship to religion and to other believers. Humanity itself changes by no longer being confined to experience religion in a purely physical realm, which used to mean a building or an outdoor venue.  The idea of belief expands as the possibilities for accretion of spiritual rules and synthesis of faith grow.  Likewise, the  community of the believers is different as limitations for memberships owing to physical constraints dissolve.  Lastly, the idea of the most intimate of religious experiences, that of confession, also may adapt to the cyber experience, based on the needs of the believers.  The trajectory of online-religions is changing the experience of religion and spirituality, but most of their core processes remain the same as before the cyber era.

[1]This essay principally focuses on online-religions, vice physical, established religions that also have a cyber presence.

[2] A combination of several physical qualities separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom: speech capacity, opposable thumbs, and bigger brains, for example. 

3 For example, this online-church site is emblematic of the genre.




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