Physicality and New Rituals: Internet Religion

Life would be very different without the internet. We wouldn’t be able to keep up to date with earth shattering news and important developments that will have major implications on our everyday lives. On a more serious note, the internet has made a major change to our lives as students and teachers – whether through the easy access to information afforded by online journals and  Blackboard, to the digitisation of previously inaccessible texts (which as a historian, makes me very happy!). The internet has certainly opened up religious boundaries in a way that we couldn’t really have imagined twenty years ago. The rise of the practice of Wicca, for example, has been specifically linked to the way in which the internet has enabled people to explore religious traditions that might previously have been deemed off-limits. Practitioners have been thrilled by the opportunity to discuss their faith with similarly minded people who they would not have had the chance to meet in everyday life. At the same time, however, some older Wiccans bemoan the fact that the internet has attracted young people who want a “quick fix” version of their faith, exploring it only to access spells for their own benefit or as a way of rebelling against their parents. Internet communities that were initially welcoming of outsides have therefore shifted to a sceptical and even hostile attitude towards those exploring the tradition. Online communities can therefore be as problematic as offline traditional communities: it can be tempting to put the boundaries up once the community has established itself.

At the same time, we need to ask what sort of religious practice flourishes online. We saw in the lecture some of the ways in which different faith traditions attempted to use the internet and how these attempts almost always returned to emphasising physical locations: whether through virtual pilgrimages by paying people to physically visit Hindu temples or sending prayer requests to be posted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem. From personal experience I know that this is true: after my conversion via internet the online community I was a part of organised several physical meetings. I have good memories of various visits to meet internet friends, where amongst other things I ended up being interviewed for a 2004 Channel 4 documentary on apocalyptic Christianity and directly insulting a potential US presidential candidate (tip: always check who’s standing behind you in a lift).  This begs this question – if internet religion always returns us to the physical, has it actually changed anything tangible about the way in which we function religiously?

One example might be found in Pauline Hope Cheong’s examination of reactions to Michael Jackson’s death on the internet. Using Emile Durkheim’s definition of ritual as “revitaliz[ing] communal sentiments and a sense of sacred purpose”, she shows how responses to Jackson’s death have been used to create a sense of “transcendence” in cyberspace. Through YouTube videos and online prayers, she argues that his fans were able to function in different ways: as an evangelistic call, as a chance to pronounce judgement upon his critics, and as a way of extending his memory. This, she claims, allows the internet to become “the living virtual grave for the enactment of pious religiosity”. The idea of fans clustering around a virtual shrine; of a cross-media and unified understanding of what death means and how it can be applied might be a little disconcerting (it seems slightly morbid and distasteful), but perhaps this is the way in which the internet will function in the future. It’s worth considering if the internet, if capable of creating new classics, is also capable of creating new understandings of both life and death as well.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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