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.