Good Reads: More reflections on “Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds"

Last month, Wendi Bellar wrote a blog post about Heidi Campbell’s edited book, Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (2013). The blog post summarized the book’s structure, its content, and assessed its strengths, one of which is its synthesis and presentation of the various themes in the study of digital religion, including ritual, identity, authority, community, and authenticity. What follows is a more detailed review of a few portions of the book; I will firstly give an overview of Campbell’s conceptualization of the field in her introductory chapter, and then offer reflections on two of the themes presented in the book: ritual and authority.

As the title suggests, Campbell conceptualizes the subject of her edited volume as digital religion. It is fairly important to define the terminology in discussing the intersection of new media and religion. Study of emerging technologies, after all, is described using a wide range of terms, including Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Internet studies, cyberspace studies, and new media. There is considerable overlap in these terms, and clarification of terminology is necessary for a growing subfield. Campbell’s description of digital religion as “the technological and cultural space that is evoked when we talk about how online and offline religious spheres have become blended or integrated” (p. 4) errs on the side of being a bit too all encompassing (the alternative, of course, is to propose terminology that is overly restrictive). Yet the themes articulated in the book create space within digital religion to specify areas of inquiry, which are helpful in conceptualizing the landscape of the subfield. I will now turn to two of the themes in the book.

Chris Helland, a staple in digital religion studies for his early conceptualization of online-religion and religion-online, makes the observation that ritual, which is the “purposeful engagement with the sacred” (p. 27), can be mediated by the Internet but can also occur on the Internet. The two case studies on ritual in the book are examples of the latter; Heinz Scheifinger and Louise Connelly’s respective studies on online Hindu pujas and Buddhist meditation on Second Life demonstrate the nuances with which we ought to explore online religion. Each scholar’s concise yet thorough treatment of the issues involved in each of the religions offers a reminder that online rituals are not one size fits all. Each religion must grapple with issues particular to its own traditions, and it is even presumptuous to assume all branches of a particular religion approach rituals in the same way, a point made specifically in Connelly’s description of the Buddhist center she studied.

Pauline Hope Cheong conceptualizes the study of authority through two logic systems: the logic of disjuncture and displacement, in which traditional religious authority is largely eschewed, and the logic of continuity and complementarity, in which religious authority is successfully negotiated. Tsuriel Rashi's case study of the kosher cell phone is an instance in which religious authority is maintained in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, but demonstrates in part the dialectical relationship of religious authority and new media that Cheong observes. Paul Emerson Teusner's study of emerging Christian bloggers in Australia provides an interesting example of new standards of authority that appear on the web. Cheong observes that authority has not been treated as extensively as other themes that appear in the volume. I suspect this is because authority is difficult to conceptualize: other themes, like community or ritual, are quite easy to spot when one has an idea of what it's supposed to look like. Authority's existence is also variable depending on the religion observed.

It seems that digital religion is slated to become a useful umbrella term under which to orient much of the study of religion and new media. Under this umbrella are a number of thematic elements that were previously scattered in scholarly cyberspace. Five years ago when I began my graduate studies, the key themes in this subfield were not consolidated anywhere. I spent an entire summer searching academic databases and reading to get acquainted with the literature, happening on the scholars in this volume by perusing the results sections of the databases. As Campbell stated in the introduction to the volume, her chief goals in scholarship was to produce an apologetic for the subfield, provide a map of key research and themes, and create a space for interdisciplinary work. The fact that such a book exists is affirmation of the growing subfield.