Online religion journal 1: Opening observations

I am still at the very beginning of this learning journey, but after having read a few dozen abstracts on “online religion” I have some observations to make.

First, in order to fully understand the topic I need to read beyond its immediate scope. For example a lot of the articles place the study in the tradition of studying the interaction of religion and media. In this context “religion and the internet” needs to be understood in a similar way to “religion and press,” “religion and radio” and “religion and television.” On one hand it makes perfect sense and I am sure there are plenty of lessons one can learn from those fields. On the other hand the internet is much more participatory so the previous models where individuals were mostly consumers of media have to be seriously modified if not fully rebuilt.

In the early days of the world wide web (say 1994-1997) there was a lot of idealism that this media will democratize the knowledge sphere and eventually all spheres of life. The idea was that individuals and small companies have equal footing with big corporations as the barrier of entry was so low. Anyone could build a website, while starting up a newspaper/radio/tv station was significantly costlier in terms of financial and technical capital. This promise did not played out to its full possible extent till the advent of Web 2.0, when the technical barrier went even lower: you don’t need any technical knowldge know to start a blogk, post your pictures or thoughts. (Even posting videos is getting less and less technical) Now that there are more sophisticated structures in place that allow not just building a website but spreading one’s message or idea on social web channels one really has a chance to crate fame and/or money with limited resources. (Check out the report and the earnings of TubeMogul’s list of top ten independent YouTube stars.)

My second point, also affecting the scope of my studies, comes directly from the first one: I need to go beyond how established offline religions (and their adherents) behave online and consider in what ways the internet enables the creation of the new religious movements*. As I pointed out above the internet has the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between media and the individual. This must have consequences in the are of religion. Two obvious examples: movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the “Invisible Pink Unicorn” would have remained much smaller in the pre-internet era.

* “New religious movements” is the term used by sociologists for what in every day use would be called sects or cults, as this term is value neutral, has no pejorative connotations.

This note leads to my third point: the various lenses “online religion” can be viewed. Reading the abstracts I encountered articles examining the phenomena from the social, educational, proselytism, spatial, generational, gender point of view, but didn’t find any yet about the financial and legal questions. The latter was brought to mind, by Heidi Campbell’s post from earlier today titled “Can an online community be a church ? IRS says “No”!” She pointed to a recent court case, ruling that

religious organization that primarily holds their worship services on the Internet (or radio), did not meet the Internal Revenue Code’s definition of a “church.” (PDF) That means they are not eligible for tax-exempt status….
The full ruling it explains this online church failed meet a 14 criteria test set out by the IRS on the form/function of a church….
So to have validity the online will be forced to establish offline structures of accountability.

This was a “simple” US case, but if we consider the international nature of both the internet and organized religion the legal questions are even more complicated. E.g. Scientology is a legally accepted church in some countries are from being one in others.

To summarize, I will need to

  1. familiarize myself with the study of religion and (old) media,
  2. think of the two way nature of internet and religion (not just how offline religion plays out on the net, but the other way around too),
  3. be aware and systematically think through the numerous disciplines the topic can be viewed from.

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