AAR Part 4: Dr. Stewart Hoover | Reflections on Digital Religion
In November, 2011, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation held several panels at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California. Participants from the Faith & Globalisation and beyond presented their research on various issues. In the fourth installment of our blog series from the America Academy of Religion, we look at the presentation offered by Dr. Stewart M. Hoover, entitled “Reflections on Digital Religion”.
Summary: Prof Stewart Hoover reflects on how the common and overly simplistic understanding of the internet’s influence on social and religious practices masks the truly important question facing us today – how does the internet particularize, relativize and challenge religious authority? Hoover notes that many religious authorities often do not fully understand this and are often in full panic mode when it comes to articulating the implications of the digital, rather than truly knowing what they are actually up against. The real issue is not the digital media itself, Hoover explains, but rather the particularizing and relativizing of religious practices and authority, subsuming them into a horizontal marketplace of choice.
Abstract: Reflections on Digital Religion
I recently returned from an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Qatar where the theme was digital religion. It was interesting to note that at the conference there were a number of experts in religion from the three Abrahamic traditions speaking, and yet a typical talk started with them saying, “You know, I really don’t know anything about digital culture or social media so I asked my kids.” They then proceeded to offer a thorough evaluation of how digital media are affecting religion. It was a fascinating disconnect that caused me to reflect, especially in relation to these papers, about the question of how we talk about the digital and how we should think about it.
This raises important questions about the frames we use when we encounter and respond to the changed realities resulting from the digitalization of religion and spirituality. After reflecting on the arguments and information presented there, it occurs to me that there is a tendency for people who don’t know much about the intersection of religion and the internet, but want to talk about it, to either essentialize or particularize the digital. First, by essentializing, I mean that some tend to evaluate the digital and digital practice in relation to what it does, what it stands for, or who effectively it stands in for. This means some see the digital as a pundit or poor substitute for the actual and authentic role played by religion.
A second response by some is to particularize the digital, by instrumentalizing it and thinking about how digital culture and practice might serve or stand in for prior means of mediation and other previous forms of practice. What these two perspectives illustrate is both the need for and the value of a more nuanced view of the digital. We have to understand that it is not just a question of authenticity in the broad sense, or simply a response which trivializes the digital or the social into a merely instrumentalist frame. It is actually a much more complex and layered situation or negotiation that we must undertake. The problem is that without this larger scale view, as these chapters here illustrate, it is not possible for us to consider whether there is really something truly unique about being produced by engagement with the digital. For me, some key ideas emerging out of these explorations indicate that our understanding of the digitalization of the religious and spiritual is indeed moving forward into a more nuanced understanding.
One of the very interesting implications of this situation is the following – we must always keep in mind that there is a truly different relationship to authority being articulated due to the nature of the digital. The question is not so much, “How is the digital authoritative?” which is an important issue, or “How is it authentic?” which is also important, but a different issue. The more significant issue is how this range of practices online, the many layered complex practices, how they tend to particularize, relativize and thus challenge religious authority. There is new instantiation of authority emerging. Authority itself is very much, to use a Texas metaphor, “in the cross hairs”. Many religious authorities often do not fully understand this and are often in full panic mode when it comes to articulating the implication of the digital, rather than truly knowing what they are actually up against. The real issue is not the digital media itself, part of the problem is the particularization of that media.
The digital practices one can explore on the internet show how online religious and spiritual practice actually identifies and engages with real religious material in the form of drawing on accepted symbols, icons and other meanings found in traditional religious context. It is possible for authorities that are related to those symbols and icons to be confused by these new online representation, but in fact there are some consistent narratives being relayed online that offline authorities are actually a part of. What’s going on is the practice is particularizing and relativizing those things and subsuming them into a horizontal marketplace of choice. This is actually a serious problem.
I think that the issue of practice is very central to this; it is kind of a meta‐response to changes at work regarding our understanding and practice of religion. What is new and what is different about the digital is the extent to which it encourages new modes of practice, and that it is practice that defines what is going on and not the symbols, not the history, not the authority. The question we need to look at is how digital religion is generative. We need to explore how “it”, becomes this complex expression of nuance and constant‐layered practice of interacting with tradition, quoting religion, particularizing religions, coming up with new and elastic forms of new tradition. We need to explore more how the digital serves as a generative space for religion, and can we actually generate meaning from online engagement and interaction.
Thus it seems to me that there are four lessons that come out of set of reflections on religion and the internet. One is regarding the ways we think about the digital and it’s locus of generation as a new space, as ‘a third space’. We use the term at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture as does the work of the Pew Internet and American Life project in considering the space which the digital creates. It is important to understand that constitution of the third space does not grow out of the logic of the technology, but it grows out of the logic of digital practice. In other words, it grows out of various “as‐ifs” generated by diverse practitioners and audiences, who flexibly engage in actions within this new space that they inhabit, which is one that they create in their aspiration and their self‐understanding and their subjectivity.
Second is the issue of how these third spaces act and are understood. Rather than being framed as large, vast spheres of discourse in which various religious symbols and values are linked to religious institutions, third spaces are in a way small sphericals of focused interactions. They are not a large public sphere, but small sphericals of action and practice that operate as their own spaces. Social action can be generated out of these logics. One concern of leaders of the Abrahamic faiths from the conference I mentioned was how digital space can be generative of certain kinds of social actions. This is an important question, but we shouldn’t be confused into thinking that it is always about the instrumentalization of the digital or equating it with an idea and projection towards an implied or desired social action that is the central question. The question must be asked – what is entirely new with the sort of space the digital creates, and what sorts of things does it produce?
Finally there is the related issue of the ways that the digital and digital religion are treated, at least in public and journalistic discourse. Attention and discussion given to digital religion is usually focused on what it produces in the digital space. Yet we have to keep in mind that at some fundamental levels, digital religion is essential about religion and spirituality. It is not about changing the world and politics; it is about people using technologies to live out the spiritual. We must see digital religion in terms of it being about the generation of models of practice and the ability to produce meaning in the world that relates to the religious. A colleague of mine has remarked that in many ways what really defines much of online practice is the aesthetic, rather than cognitive and perceptive logic of the digital. What do technologies hail us into because of the abilities that they have for us in terms of aesthetic purposes and qualities? This question and these related issues are the questions we must continue to ask and explore.
Stewart Hoover is professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder