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Cyberspace and Religious Life:
Conceptualizing the Concerns and Consequences

by Lorne L. Dawson (Department of Sociology and Department of Religious Studies, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada).
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London.Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without consent of the author.

Cyberspace is suffuse with religious content, of both a conventional and innovative kind. It presents new opportunities and challenges for all aspects of the study of religion, whether textual, historical, or field studies. Moreover, the Internet as a medium bears unique features that may well alter the global context of religiosity in which the academic study of religion operates. In intended and unintended ways a media revolution is well underway that is likely to change the face of religion by changing the social context in which religion happens. It is important that we seek to understand how and why this may be the case.

As with previous media revolutions, ranging from the invention of writing to television, we must recognize that the social implications are likely to be profound (e.g., Ong 1982). In many respects we have only begun to appreciate the religious implications of these past changes in communicative technologies. With the analyses of McLuhan (1965) and others in hand we now recognize that the medium is the message. Media are not neutral or passive conduits for the transfer of information. They mold the message in ways that crucially influence the world views we construct. They adjust our self-conceptions, notions of human relations and community, and the nature of reality itself. Unlike previous media, however, the Internet has blossomed almost overnight, and its astonishing growth is proceeding at an accelerating pace.

The religious uses of the Internet evoke parallels with television, but there are important differences as well. At least three crucial differences come to mind: (1) the Internet is an interactive and not simply broadcast medium; (2) anyone can launch themselves onto the world wide web with relative ease and little expense; and (3), the Internet is truly global in its reach. With a comparatively small investment in time and money I can make my religious views known, at least potentially, to hundreds of thousands of others throughout the world. Television is the preserve essentially of a small cultural elite. The world wide web is open in principle and in practice to almost anyone.

In this essay I quickly survey the presence of religion on the Internet, discussing the diversity of its forms and functioning. Then I dwell on two of the many research problems that are emerging from this new field of study: the potential impact of the Internet on the formation of personal identity, and the emergence of new kinds of communities.

In most instances religious ideas and practices continue to provide the ultimate framework of meaning within which people pose questions of identity and community. But the link between the Internet and religion, through experiments in the formation of identity and community, is dialectical and not causal. Religions have always exercised a profound influence on our conceptions of self and sense of community. But if changes in the material conditions of communication facilitate new experiences or ways of thinking about the self and social relations on a massive enough scale, then the religious framework of ultimate social legitimation will have to change. Of course the changes induced will be resisted by others. In other words, the question is: Has the Internet introduced a significant new dimension to the process of world construction associated with religion (Berger 1967)? Has it done so intrinsically, as seems to be presumed by the peddlers of a soft technological determinism? Or is the Internet a force to be reckoned with because it is synergistically aligned with some larger patterns of social change? I suspect the latter suggestion is more plausible, but then we must consider the interpretive options for gaining a sense of the relevant patterns of change. To date two primary interpretive frameworks have been proferred: various French postmodernists insights or Anthony Giddens’ conception of the consequences of modernity (Giddens 1990, 1991). Time constraints will confine me here to a brief consideration of questions dealing with the Internet, personal identity formation, and religion.


The Presence of Religion on the Internet

Religion is abundantly present on the world wide web and a host of Internet chat and news groups. Every major world religion is represented, every major and minor Christian denomination, almost all new religious movements, thousands of specific churches, and countless web pages operated by individual believers, self-declared gurus, prophets, shamans, apostates, and other moral entrepreneurs. In addition the net has spawned its own religious creations, from megasites of cyber-spirituality to virtual "churches," and strictly online religions. To this mix we can add numerous commercial sites wishing to turn a profit on our spiritual appetites, providing us with religious news, selling us religious paraphernalia, and acting as network nodes for links to hundreds of other sites. There are also many sites launched to educate the public or to pursue a diverse array of religious causes (e.g., sites based on university courses or anti-cult crusades). [1]

On the Internet people can read about religion, talk with others about religion, download religious texts and documents, buy religious books and artifacts, take virtual tours of galleries of religious art or the interiors of religious buildings, search scriptures using electronic indexes, locate churches and religious centers, participate in rituals or mediation sessions, vote on organizational propositions, see images of their religious leaders, watch video clips, and listen to religious music, sermons, prayers, testimonials, and discourses. Soon they may even be able to feel the texture of objects appearing on their screen or smell the aroma of the virtual incense burning on the computer generated altar to their gods. The technology exists to simulate both.

The growth in the religious uses of the Internet is so extensive that the number of sites available exceeds the capacity of existing search engines and other specific online and off-line guides. No one can keep pace with all the changes. [2] There is a need, however, to begin to map the terrain better. We need to know more about what is on the net, who has put it there, and why. This should involve the content analysis of sites, as well as surveying and interviewing the creators, moderators, and users of specific web sites, MUDS, newsgroups, listserves, and chat rooms. We need to develop a more precise profile of the users of online religious materials and opportunities. We need to identify who actually is using the net in this way (i.e., their age, ethnicity, occupations, geographic locations, religious backgrounds, etc.). What are their habits, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions? Does "virtual religiosity" exist already? If so, how, why, and to what effect?

Transforming the Self in Cyberspace

The structure and the diversity of the modes of interaction available through the Internet are augmenting the social experiences of increasingly large numbers of people in ways that are having a reflexive impact on their understandings of their own nature - as individuals and as human beings. The changes in question are in line with those precipitated by the move from a rural and pre-industrial economy to the urban environment of advanced capitalism. Our social relations are becoming increasingly numerous and diverse in kind, while our subjectivity and preference for subjectivism is deepening, and our daily existence is becoming ever more segmented and modular. From the isolated comfort of our own homes, offices, and cars we are being pulled into the world, while simultaneously being encouraged to plunge ever deeper into our inner most states of mind. The Internet as a medium tends to reiterate and extend this bipolar pattern of development.

Large numbers of people are now spending many hours a day in cyberspace, doing everything from e-mailing, to engaging in synchronous chat with relative strangers, to assuming a well-crafted fantastic role in an ongoing virtual world. In all cases, though with notably varying degrees, the communication effected is marked by some distinctive features of the Internet that users may seek to mute or take advantage of, but which no one cannot avoid altogether. Some of these features are: anonymity, multiplicity, deception, and disembodiment. In practice all these features are almost inextricably intertwined.

The Internet is the first mode of mass communication that encourages anonymity by both technical and social convention (Myers 1987; Reid 1995). With the right technical knowledge, all but the most adept user can always be identified. But postings to electronic bulletin boards, news groups, Relay Chat rooms, and MUDs (multiple user "virtual" domains) are normally only done under the guise of a chosen, and usually fictitious, "screen name." Moreover, the mode of communication is textual. As such it is limited and far more subject to the control of the participants. It is clear, from Internet ethnographies (e.g., Turkle 1995, Markham 1998), that this anonymity is part of the appeal of these spaces for social interaction. It permits and often seems even to induce participants to engage in more risky behavior than they would entertain in so-called "real life" (Witmer 1998). People will more readily and completely express their views and feelings, running the full gamut from anger to erotic obsession. They will adopt imaginative identities and explore hidden or simply unexplored facets of their own social lives, personalities, and minds. They may do this in multiple ways in different online contexts simultaneously or serially. In each instance, by not being themselves, as conventionally defined, a space is paradoxically created for self-disclosure and discovery. Gender-bending is one of the most interesting and commonly discussed instances of such behaviour (see e.g., McRae 1997; Danet 1998; Kornbluth 1998; Markham 1998: 159-160, Waskul, Douglass, and Edgley 2000). So is the entire discourse on "disembodiment" engendered by the Internet. For those uncomfortable with their physical appearance or abilities, or simply resentful of the restrictions placed on how people judge one another by social conventions, the Internet is seductively liberating (e.g., Markham 1998: 57, 175). Paradoxically, for some the strictly textual expression of self online can seem more real and fulfilling than their physical self offline (e.g., Markham 1998: 202).

Accordingly, one of the best known students of the Internet, the psychologist Sherry Turkle, proposes that the Internet may serve a therapeutic function. It may offer individuals a "moratorium" from some of the most distressing features of their real life, "an outlet for [working] through personal issues in a productive way," and "a space for growth" (1995: 196, 244, 263; see Waskul, Douglass, and Edgley 2000: 387-388 as well). For while one may be hiding part of one’s self from others, one is nonetheless engaged in dialogue with others. Every forum stands, as Turkle notes (1995: 11), as an invitation to join in a collaborative and quite unpredictable act of collective writing or performance. In just "lurking" on the edges of the ongoing dialogue of others, lonely or stigmatized souls may experience a needed sense of connection, perhaps even community with others. And unlike the passive viewer of a TV soap opera, they can choose to participate at any time, and in the way they wish.

At the same time, however, Turkle recognizes the dangers posed by the conventions of anonymity and playing with multiple identities. Participants may exploit the net equally well to deceive others and themselves, in witting and unwitting ways. The rough and tumble dialogue that characterizes so many chat rooms and listserves may well be a protective social response to the lack of the traditional foundations of trust on the Internet (like the signs we normally give-off and make during face-to-face interactions; see Goffman 1959). The Internet provides a greater opportunity for new kinds of conversations with the self through the medium of new kinds of conversations with others. But some users may employ the multiple dimensions of the Internet simply to escape that self in favour of repetitively indulging in some maladaptive behaviour with impunity. As the explosion of sexual activity of all kinds on the net reveals, the Internet is quite indiscriminate and sometimes undesirably double-edged (e.g., Branwyn 1994, Dibbell 1994, Ehrenreich 1998). Many may celebrate the freedom from repressive social conventions afforded by the Internet, but few can deny the debased nature of much of the interaction offered, sexual or otherwise.

Either way, Turkle provocatively suggests, computer-mediated forms of communication have become new "objects-to-think-with" or "test-objects" (1995: 22, 185) for experimenting with "the constructions and reconstructions of self" (1995: 180). Taking her cue from the French postmodernists (e.g., Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deluze and Guattairi), she proposes that our increasing comfort with technologically mediated forms of social interaction, with the generation of multiple selves online, is slowly conditioning us to a more performative and decentered sense of self. As we cycle in and out of so-called "real" and "virtual" worlds, the set and unitary self of modernist thought, the true self within, is giving way to a more composite and constructed sense of personal identity. The distinction between real and virtual life begins to blur as we become "increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real" and are "explicitly turning to computers for experiences that [we] hope will change [our] ways of thinking or will affect [our] social and emotional lives" (1995: 23-26). Reverting to the more extreme views of Jean Baudrillard, other commentators talk of "hyperreality" and the loss of any real referents in the endless play of signs, of representations of reality, that is cyberspace (e.g., Nunes 1995, 1997, Rheingold 1993: 297-300, Urban 2000).

In an interview Baudrillard was asked whether he thought the rise of the Internet posed "great risks." His reply is typically obscure and provocative (Baudrillard 1996):

I do not see a doom-laden phenomenon there. ... I don’t think that it is possible to find a politics of virtuality, a code of ethics of virtuality because virtuality virtualizes politics as well: there will be no politics of virtuality, because politics has become virtual; there will be no code of ethics for virtuality, because the code of ethics has become virtual, that is, there are no more references to a value system. ... Virtuality retranscribes everything in its space; in a way, human ends vanish into thin air ... One communicates, but as far as what is said, one does not know what becomes of it. This will become so obvious that there will no longer even be any problems concerning liberty or identity. ... The media neutralizes everything ...

There is a measure of truth in this intriguing exaggeration, but it will be a challenge to sift it out. The challenge must be met with reasoned analysis based on sound empirical research into peoples’ experiences online.

Turkle’s observations are based on a limited sample of interviews with early and heavy users of the Internet, and only a minority of the participants in her study fit some aspects of the postmodernist profile. They may display either a typically postmodernist cynicism towards rationalistic and instrumental standards of truth, or a willingness to eclectically combine and derive meaning from a pastiche of cultural sources, or a disregard for the differences between high and low (or pop) culture, or they may celebrate the seeming fragmentation of the self playfully in their social relations and conversation. But for the vast majority of Internet users the situation is much more mundane. In her more calculated and careful ethnography of life online, Annette Markham (1998) draws conclusions that tend to bring the high-flying postmodernist speculations about cyberspace down to earth.

First, Markham argues, people experience computer-mediated communication "along a continuum" (1998: 20; see 85 as well):

For some, the Internet is simply a useful communication medium, a tool; for others, cyberspace is a place to go to be with others. For still others, online communication is integral to being and is inseparable from the performance of self, both online and offline.

For most users the Internet is the first, a mere tool, and the third option holds as yet for only an exceptional few.

Second, users do not concern themselves much with the "reality" of their virtual activities, even when intensely engaged in disembodied communications through imaginary bodies in fantastic places. The real life-virtual life distinction, broached so often in academic discussions of the Internet, is sidelined by the experience that "everything that is experienced is real." Notions of "reality" are shifting with the spread of the Internet, but in ways still grounded in the experiences of embodied selves in ordinary life (see Dawson 2001 for further discussion)..

Third, Markham concludes, life online is very much about the exercise of control, and not its loss:

... participants go online, or remain there, in part because in cyberspace the self has a high degree of perceived control. Some users enjoy the capacity to control the presentation and performance of self in online contexts. Others talk about their increased ability to control the conditions of interaction and to control the extent to which people online have access to the self. For almost every participant, control is a significant and meaningful benefit of online communication.

Users may be draw, by intent or tacitly, into attempting to transcend the constraints of social life, and maybe even their physical beings, through the construction of forms of cyber-sociality. But over and again, Markham discovered, users recognize that the "reality" of online life cannot be separated from offline life. Online life always works in a feedback loop with offline life, and the strong satisfaction Markham’s users expressed with their online control of the presentation of the self is more characteristic of a modern than a postmodern mindset. Some may experience a fragmenting of the self online, but they understand this to be but a graphic and true representation of their offline existence under conditions of modernity. Consider the comments of one Markham’s participants (1998: 194; see 163 as well):

"When I first joined Echo [(an Internet community)], I was advised to be ‘myself,’ and I couldn’t really figure out what on earth that was. Was I supposed to be a graduate student, a sex worker, a bisexual woman, a family cancer survivor, a person who suffered from depression, or what? In time, I have learned to ‘be’ all of those things online, but there is a time and a place for each of these manifestations of personality. ... I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had ‘one self.’"

Peoples’ experiences on the Internet are not significantly discontinuous with their offline lives. Continuity is more the norm, and recognition of this fact is of greater social significance than paying attention to the differences. As I have argued elsewhere: "The innovative potential of cyberspace for social relations is circumscribed, it would appear, by a strong public desire to establish continuity between the experiences of on-line and off-line social relations (see Blanchard and Horan 1998, Fox and Roberts 1999, Parks and Roberts 1998, Rheingold 1993)" (Dawson 2000: 35). The relevant continuity, moreover, is not so much with some emergent postmodernist social order (whatever that may be) as with the conditions of late, high, or radicalized modernity, as delineated by Anthony Giddens (1990, 1991) and others (see Slevin 2000).

The pivotal feature of this social order, with regard to questions of personal identity, is the institutionalization of reflexivity. The self and the larger social order are constitutionally open to continual revision in the light of new knowledge. This revision is not just an occasional occurrence or possibility, it is a daily expectation, and it introduces a crucial measure of "manufactured uncertainity" (Giddens 1990) into the lives of modern individuals (see Dawson 2000: 45-48). Something their predecessors were spared. As the traditional social order fades in the face of the information age people are experiencing mounting moral and practical ambiguity coping with the many choices to be made, choices for which the consequences are increasingly problematic in societies of massive functional interdependency. It is important to realize, then, that the claims made by Markham’s Internet users are not necessarily made in playful abandonment of the modernist quest for individuality. Rather, they are indicative of the personal struggle with modernist reflexivity. The users are employing the Internet to ameliorate, maybe even deny, the real experience of plurality with its incumbent risks, by instrumentally accepting and asserting control over a multifaceted, but still essentially unitary sense of self. As Markham has cause to repeatedly lament, the users she met consistently displayed a surprisingly naive, nonrelational, unidirectional, and even solipistic view of communication (1998: 155-156, 175, 209, 213-215). They spoke of their control over the textual manifestations of the self online with little cognizance that others might be doing the same, or that the fuller and less controllable interactions of so-called "flesh meets" (i.e., face-to-face interactions) "play an important role in the construction of their own subjectivity" (1998: 124). Their engagement with cyberspace is, in other words, simultaneously a promotion of and cultural response against the dilemmas of personal identity posed by the heightened reflexivity and uncertainty of modern life -- one made uniquely possible, however, by the mediation of this particular technology with its greater transcendence of the restrictions of time, space, and social distinctions.

So what will happen when people turn to the net to express and amplify their religious life? To some extent by virtue of their mere exposure to the medium they will be drawn into the dialectical interplay of changing conceptions of self in the light of changing patterns and frameworks of social interaction. In other words, religious involvement in the Internet will likely accelerate the need for largely pre-modern religious ideologies, practices, and institutions to adapt to the demands of a more radically reflexive social world, as well as the use of other features of this same technology to resist or even unconsciously subvert the consequences of this same social imperative. If the diagnosis of Giddens and company is on target, religions are of necessity adapting to these new realities already. The Internet just magnifies the effects and provides a new and perhaps more potent mechanism of adaptation. As such, study of cyber-religiosity might provide a unique window onto these larger changes and their implications for all forms of religious life. This also means that religious users of the Internet can only choose to be cognizant of the possible consequences of their activities, and not to avoid them altogether.


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[1] World religion: e.g., for Buddhism or for Zoroastrianism; Christian denominations: e.g., for the Catholic Church or for the Southern Baptist Convention; new religious movements: e.g., for Eckankar or for Soka Gakkai; megasites of spirituality and virtual churches: e.g., or the First Church of Cyberspace; online religions: e.g., the Church ov MOO, ; commercial sites: e.g., , , ; educational sites: Jeffrey Hadden’s course site, , the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance site, , the Academic Info site, ; anti-cult sites: e.g., Steven Hassan’s site, or The Watchman Fellowship, .

[2] An Altavista search of English only sites on the web on February 27, 2001 turned up 11, 803, 771 pages for the search term "sex," 23, 456, 800 for the term "cars," 3, 447, 338 for the term "investments," and 7, 894, 673 for the term "religion."


The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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