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.