Scholar’s Top 5: Christopher Helland on Online Religion and Religion Online

My early research into online religious activity developed a system of classification that recognized a distinction between online religion (where the religious activity actually occurred in the online environment) and religion online (where the medium was used as a tool to facilitate religious activity in the “offline” world). This dichotomy was useful in a very general way for trying to make some sort of sense out of the explosion of religious expression that was showing up on the World Wide Web. It also helped demonstrate the different ways the medium was used for religion: many-to-many forms of communication where the end user could participate online in various forms of religious activity—and one-to-many online communication where the religion is dispersed in many of the ways religion had been mass communicated in the past (much like radio, television, and the printing press).

Although the framework was helpful as a very general heuristic tool there were issues that were not properly addressed by the system of classification. As several scholars argued (e.g., Cowan, Dawson, Young) having a dichotomy is not as representative as recognizing a scale between these two forms of online expression—and in many cases religious groups will provide both forms. It still remains helpful to see how and when different groups communicate in different ways—particularly as Web 2.0 develops and online user-generated content becomes more standard—but a clear distinction between the two is linked to recognizing a separation between life “online” and “offline” and for most Internet users that distinction never really existed.

As I have continued to study online religious activity the one clear shortcoming I had when I developed the theory was arguing that people are only “doing” religion when they engage religious activity in a form of reciprocal exchange, communication, or communal participation (online-religion). In my examination of online activity associated with Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Government in Exile, it became very clear that many people within this tradition do religion online by watching the Dalai Lama perform ritual activities and communicate information about their religion—of course many religious traditions function in this way. This activity is clearly “religion online” and the flow of information is absolutely from one-to-many. However, it is also a way of “doing” religion, much like sitting at the feet of the guru to receive a blessing or teachings, it is a powerful form of religious engagement and one that happens online now much more frequently with the development of new technologies that can broadcast HD and HP (high powered) sermons from charismatic religious leaders and teachers.

Examining how new media is impacting religious activity and how people “do” religion is exciting and interesting work. I have listed five articles that have helped me think about how people do religion online—there were a lot of good articles and scholars to choose from and I apologize in advance for only being able to post five of them.

1) MacWilliams, Mark (2006). Techno-Ritualization: The Gohozon Controversy on the Internet. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 2(1). Avaliable online at:

Through a detailed examination of Nichiren Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), and the American Nichiren Buddhist Independent Movement, MacWilliams examines the controversy over ritual practice and authenticity of the sacred when the “Gohonzon” is produced online and made accessible through the Internet. In this very detailed article MacWilliams demonstrates that one-to-many communication online can be a very powerful force for religious engagement. His work also shows how controlling this flow of information can have significant impact on religious organizations and individuals.

2) Miczek, Nadja (2008). Online Rituals in Virtual Worlds: Christian Online Services between Dynamics and Stability. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3(1). Avaliable online at:

Miczek examines two forms of online Christian ritual activity to further develop the ritual transfer theory. Her work highlights the changing processes that occur when ritual is transferred into cyberspace and how ritual can “fail” if a number of criteria are not met. In this article she explores how it is (or is not) possible to create an online activity that becomes a form of real ritual engagement for the participants.

3) Grieve, Gregory P. (1995). Imagining a Virtual Religious Community: Neo-Pagans and the Internet. Chicago Anthropology Exchange 7: 98-132.

Although most people credit O’Leary with publishing the first scholarly article examining online religious activity, the recognition should go to Gregory Price Grieve for his research article that came out one year earlier. Like O’Leary, Grieve was fascinated with the development of neo-pagan online communities and ritual activities in the early years of the Internet and World Wide Web. Unlike O’Leary, who examined ritual transcripts after-the-fact, Grieve did significant online ethnography and online fieldwork to explore the activity. This included interviews, surveys, and meeting with participants “off-line” at the World Parliament of Religions in 1993. His article explored the aspects, qualities, and characteristics of neo-paganism that made it compatible with online activity—particularly the manner in which their ritual (and ritual imagination) functioned.

Grieve’s early article drew upon a number of theoretical frameworks to develop and clarify what he was seeing online. This includes work from Benedict Anderson, Weber, Eliade, Baudrillard, Turner, Catherine Bell, J.Z. Smith and Walter Ong. Although this article was written almost 20 years ago it is still worth a read.

4) Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (1): 64-93.

In this recent article, Campbell explores the developing shifts and intertwined relationship occurring between broader Western culture and the online religious environment. She develops the concept of “networked religion” as a tool for exploring the larger picture of what is occurring when we talk about religion and the Internet. Networked religion has five components or characteristics: networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practices, and multisite reality. Campbell’s article challenges the dichotomy between life online verses life offline and explores how life in a networked society impacts religion in the society. She makes it clear that these two things cannot be separated out—Western society and culture has changed significantly with the development of the Internet and World Wide Web and religion is not immune from these changes—or a separate sphere that somehow operates outside of our networked world.

5) Helland, C. (2005). Online Religion as Lived Religion: Methodological Issues in the Study of Religious Participation on the Internet. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1(1). Available online at:

In response to Glenn Young (2005), I explored the limitations of the Online-Religion/Religion-Online framework in relation to ritual practices. The original paper was presented at the University of Heidelberg online ritual studies conference and helped me clarify my understanding of online religious activity and the limitations of one-to-many forms of communication in the online environment.