“These days politics, religion, media seem to get all mixed up. Television became the new religion a long time back and the media has taken over.”
~ Van Morrison (Inspires Today, 2007)
With time, the media has attained great power, as they play a significant role in our everyday lives. The above quote by Irish singer-songwriter and musician, Van Morrison, would aptly describe how the media can be seen as the new religion for some people. People have begun to obliviously believe in what is presented to them and failed to criticize the world around us. Language, in fact, has gained a great influence on our lives.
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World renowned and long-serving British Linguist, Roger Fowler argued that “language influences thought, in the sense that its structure channels our mental experience of the world.” Language has become influential in our everyday lives, and media, especially television and the World Wide Web are the ones that have mastered this medium and greatly influence our perception of reality. This is because the way we think about the world around us is influenced by numerous factors, such as the society we live in, mass media, and the language itself. This in turn has influenced the manner in which we live, the politics that we preach and the way in which we practice the religions we follow.
As we develop as a society and move further into the 21st, we can clearly see the trends that will govern our ideas of religious practices and society. These ‘challenges’ as I would like to call them, are the rebirth of religion as a national and global force. In contradiction with the past predictions that it would fade because of modern life and society, religion has instead gained a new identity and prominence throughout the world because it has been influencedby virtual religion and mass media.
What is digital media?
Digital media as defined by Microsoft Windows is “Digital media refers to audio, video, and photo content that has been encoded (digitally compressed) which can be easily manipulated, distributed, and rendered (played) by computers, and is easily transmitted over computer networks.” (Microsoft 2010). In layman terms it is any sort of storage device that can store digital data namely computers, smart phones, iPad’s etc.
What is virtual religion?
Virtual religion as opposed to digital media is difficult to define. Essentially it is religion in its electronic expression. Many religious leaders can argue at the point that it is simply a ‘copy and paste’ form of ‘old’ religion into a newer virtual world. Virtual religion goes beyond the physical boundaries of religious practices and brings religions into the immaterial territory of the web and Cyberspace. It aims to help explore the virtual realities made possible by new technologies.
Popular Culture and Religion
Popular culture as defined by urban dictionary, “simply denotes a group of practices or customs accepted by masses.” It is the form of culture where it is widespread and based on the ideas and tastes of ordinary people. Due to the rise of the realm of popular culture and media, technology has become convenient in this fast placed lifestyle. Media provides a platform for rich symbolism and visual pop culture, allowing space for ever changing identities. This fits the evolving patterns of the developing society we live in. The above, all dictate what is modern and what we accept culturally and socially. This is where the battle begins between religion, which is seen as ‘time-honoured’ and ‘authentic’ as compared to media which is ‘modern’ and ‘superficial’, as stated by Stewart M. Hoover in his thesis on media and religion. The question of ‘is new always better?’ is posed. The convergence of these two facets has always been a topic for much debate but the eventual collaboration of these would lead to a mutualistic relationship as one would develop the other.
It is said that through media, religion is slowly losing its authenticity and merely becoming a merely making scheme. It has slowly become a farce but on the other side of the coin, media has become far too etched in religion and religion in media.
Online religion and religion-online
Firstly, I would like to state a difference in diction between that of online/virtual religion and religion online. As stated above online/virtual religion is an electronic expression of religion, basically scriptures online or being able to practice rituals online while religion online as defined by Christopher Helland merely “presents information about religion.” (Helland 2000).Helland states that because of the difference between these two concepts there are different perceptions of how the Internet should be used for religious purposes.
Religion online can be seen, in sporting terminology, as a golfer. He is solitary in is game and does not depend on his competitors and he lacks teammates. This is a rather solitary, one-to-many ideal. There lacks contribution between the members participating as they are unable to give feedback and share their views and beliefs. This notion is quite evident when visiting www.vatican.va, the official site of the Vatican. This one sided concept presents prayer and scriptures but lacks the sense of freedom of speech and belief, therefore restricting an external view.
Many religious groups use professionally designed religious sites as a medium to merely convey information to their readers via religion online. This regulated space allows them to maintain institutional structure and control. They present the ‘chapter and verse’ of the religion. By keeping it as a one-to-many structure, they see this as a ‘tool’, as described by Helland, of not ‘losing control’ of their followers. In my opinion, this is a form of indoctrination as the readers only see what these religious groups want them to see. Is this any different from what Hitler and the Nazi’s were doing? They insist on such a manner because with the advancement of technology and the thinking of man, religious institutions have lost their prominence and their clerical authority has become less important in determining what people believe and the way in which they live their lives (Hoover 2008). This is a way of being subtle dictators trying to keep domination over their followers.
Online religion can be viewed as if it is a team sport, a ‘many-to-many’ fashion, where you interactive and depend on one another. It allows the reader to interact and voice their opinion. This is permitted through opinions like hyperlinks, allowing activities like prayers online, meditation and chat rooms on sites like virtualreligion.net.
The unofficial religious sites used for online religion are seen as far more accessible and user friendly. It caters to the needs of the reader rather than forcing religious material onto them. People now take responsibility for their own faith, spiritualities and religious identities. This non-domineering environment allows the expression of views and religious experiences. Online religion, unlike religion online, is not seen as a tool but rather a ‘place’ where you can find purely information but rather spiritual and religious enlightenment and liberation. This increased supply of mediated religion means that religion and spirituality are increasingly available outside the boundaries of ‘formal’ religions; such has world-charging implications for those institutions. (Hoover, 2008). An example would the 9/11Twin Tower bombing where online prayers and virtual candles were ignited in memory of the lives lost. Knowledge about Islam was also available to readers and they were allowed to communicate those who follow the Islamic faith and in turn learn more about the religion and their beliefs. This prevented Islam form having stereotypical tags attached to them, as Osama Bin Laden gave the world the idea that it was a terrorist religion that killed for God.
With this we can knowingly state that the internet itself cannot be seen as a medium that confines or liberates as the choice is ours to make. It also depends on religious leaders and webpage designers and whether they seen as a chance to enforce power and see it as a ‘tool’ or as a form of liberty and see it as a ‘place’. Therefore, it is fair to say that the internet can be described in a single quote by Frederick Langbridge: “Two men look through the same bars, one sees mud, the other sees stars.”
Is Virtual Religion the answer to all our prayers??
After downloading an application on Google play called “Virtual Hindu Temple Worship”, I was rather surprised at the feeling of enlightenment experienced after participating in this online version of worship. I was able to turn a wicked lamp and ring a bell as if I were worshipping in a temple. A mantra, a Sanskrit word meaning sacred utterance, played in the background giving off this aura of calm and oneness with God. I was also able to choose a deity that I would like to pray to. This showed the convenience and ease of my access to this application. My initial opinion of this form of religion was one that was negative but with actually experiencing it first hand, the excitement of something unknown and different was what that captured my attention.
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I visited a blog by Dariush Nothaft on Yale Daily news; I was astonished to see the levels to which virtual religion had climbed. Here he spoke about stumbling uponsaranam.com, a virtual portal for ordering prayers at Hindu temples in India, for a fee, I might add. The founder ofsaranam.com, Mahesh Mohanan, had this eureka moment after the realization that post nuptial pilgrimages were becoming an arduous experience. These pilgrimages were customary as there had to be performed to further bless marriages and prevent the marriage from having ‘bad eyes’ or bad luck put upon the couple. The guru or ‘franchisees’ as they were called now perform this ritual; in your stead (Nothaft 2007). A ritual as defined by the Oxford dictionary is “A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”.
The online version of these rituals was obviously shorter and avoided the inconvenience of attending a crowded temple. After participating on a similar ritual online, it was evident that I was done quicker and I could choose when and where I could do this prayer as well as fitting it into my schedule, rather than having to make time and then ending up complaining about something I should want to invest my time and effort in.
As a person who is committed to the Hindu faith, I was astounded by this. My conscience would never allow me to participate in such practices. Even though it solved many problems and become an easier, more accessible route to those who lived fair away or were too busy, my thought would be that the sacrifice behind it all be it of your time or money was part of the ritual. The fact that you had made time for God was the important part. The question lies, ‘Are you really invested in this ritual?’ You are unaware of what is happening and this would result in it being conducted without reverence or much thought.
In contention, we cannot blame Mohanan’s ingenuity as the demands of work, family and life make fulfilling all our religious obligations difficult. Nothaft concluded by stating that to participate in virtual religious activities one must be of ‘open, outward-looking mind’ and that he rather people invest in the religious processes in some respect than in no respect at all.
An article posted on TechNews Daily (Fox 2010) recently stated that “Technology changes how people relate to each other, and that is what religion is concerned with”. With the introduction of applications such as Bible quotes and verse and Torah chanting practices on devices such as iPhones, it allows worshippers to mould a personal religious environment in this blasphemous society.
Religious leaders argue that smart phones and their ‘attention-diverting’ nature result in worshippers being unable to engage in real time practices. They detected a vast change in the way worshippers process religion as a whole. They become disengaged from the communal society. The nervous, excitement now given off by them is quiteopposite to the usual calm and soothing nature that suppose to be surrounding a place of worship. Leaders fear that new followers will now see the ‘old’ religious ceremonies as strange and boring this will lead to their loss of prominence in our daily lives. Virtual religion and technological advances will lead to the end of familiar worship and begin a form that is unpredictable and uncontrollable.“The future is very bright, but we have yet to get our mind around a world were some people get their whole religious experience through a device.” said Dudley Rose, a Dean at Harvard University.
In the essay above, my focus was based on the practice of virtual/online religion with reference to media and religion.
Firstly, the realm of popular culture was discussed showing how media and technology have become more culturally accepted in the 21st century. Secondly the differences between online religion and religion online were discussed in depth, concluding that religious leaders prefer the ‘religion-online’ format as they have far more structural control over their worshippers, while the worshippers themselves took a liking to ‘online religion as it allowed them to express religious views and opinions and giving them the freedom of interaction.
The positives of virtual religion were shown through its influence during the 9/11 attacks. Lastly, a blog and an online article were reference, highlighting views of real men and woman of how media, technology and virtual religion’s effect on ‘old’ religion and it is not merely a theory but a large part of reality. I would like to conclude by quoting Thomas Merton who once exclaimed:
“Technology is not in itself opposed to spiritualityand to religion. But it presents a great temptation.”
- Inspires Today, 2007.Available from: //www.inspirestoday.com/quote/41015.html [16 April 2014]
- Fowler, Roger. Language in the News : Discourse and Ideology in the British Press. New York: Routledge, 1991.
- Microsoft Windows 2010. What is Digital Media?Available from: <//technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/what-is-digital-media-2.aspx>
[16 April 2014]
- Helland, Christopher 2000, “Surfing for Salvation”, Religion,Vol. 32, (4), 293-302. Available from: Google scholar citations[16 April 2014]
- Hoover, SM 2008, Media and Religion, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, A White Paper from The Center for Media, Religion, and Culture.
- Nothaft, D 2007, ‘Virtual’ religion raises interesting questions. 9 February 2007. Yale Daily News. Available from <//yaledailynews.com/blog/2007/02/09/virtual-religion-raises-interesting-questions/> [17 April 2014]
- Fox, S 2010, Technology changing the way we practice religion, smart phones allow religious practice in new times, spaces and ways, NBCNEWS.com, 7 July 2010. Available from: <//www.nbcnews.com/id/38126658/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/technology-changing-way-we-practice-religion/> [17 April 2014]