Category Archives: Online religion

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.

Teusner on CMRC

Paul Teusner posted three entries on his blog reflecting on presentations at the Conference on Media, Religion and Culture 2010. In the first one he summarized two presentations on “religious videos and personalities,” one on Islam and the other on Christianity, titled respectively “Building Religious Authority in the Media Age” and “The Struggle for Religious Authority in Dynamic Web 2.0 Environments.” Teusner found “in both presentations a great comparison between “viewers” and “users” in the negotiation of religious text, meaning and authority in videos in both platforms.”

His second entry is less relevant for us as it was about “the struggle between church and media as meaning-making institutions in the context of [the] television program, Rescue Me.” But his third entry focused on a presentation about “a small conservative Christian community on the Atlantic side of Canada, who wanted to go live online, by video-streaming their services.” The most important sentence from this post for me was, “Going live online for them was a test where the search for new and distant friends and fellow congregants required the relinquishment of control over their own church environment.”

Thank you, Paul, for your notes that accompanied nicely the abstracts I read earlier.

Apps for Ramadan

Yesterday I posted about an academic article on “Islamic applications for mobile devices.” As Ramadan starts today, I would like to point out out an NPR piece about apps for Ramadan:

Observing Ramadan? There’s An App For That

Cell phone applications such as “iPray” or “iQuran” offer a beeping reminder of requisite prayer times, while the “Find Mecca” and “mosque finder” programs help the Muslim traveler in an unfamiliar city find the nearest place to pray…

Bunt: Islamic Applications for Mobile Devices

Gary R. Bunt‘s article, “Surfing the App Souq: Islamic Applications for Mobile Devices” appeared in CyberOrient, Online Journal on the “Virtual Middle East” hosted by the website Digital Islam. I learned about it from Heidi Campbell’s blog. Here is the article’s abstract and conclusion.


This article introduces issues associated with Islamic apps for mobile devices, and surveys some of the products that have emerged into the market. It considers the potential impact of mobile phone interfaces in relation to interpretations of Islam and the use of Islamic resources, given that mobile devices have widened potential audiences for online materials in various forms, especially in areas where other forms of digital access may be more problematic. The article also explores some of the religious and ethical concerns associated with mobile phone use.


The impact of increased and varied phone applications in the name of Islam is transformative, in that it offers wider access to Islamic resources (amongst a competitive marketplace) and digital access continue to increase. As 3G phone technology becomes more widely available, evolves (towards 4G) and is integrated into more phones, then the key providers of apps and other phone compatible services have the potential to be a significant channel of influence and authority. Islamic software products continue to develop at the cutting edge of technological innovation, so as new products for mobile phones enter the marketplace, one can expect developers and content providers to respond with Islamically ‘appropriate’ applications. The modes and communications dynamics of scholars, opinion providers and petitioners (or consumers) are shifting in response to technological developments, while perhaps maintaining the essence of long-held traditions of religious authority and interpretation. Following these trends will be a significant area for observers of Islam in the contemporary world.

Articles added since July 27

Since I started up my archive of academic articles related to online religion I kept adding to it. Since July 27 it grew by 41 articles. you can read the abstracts on the webpage or in the csv file. But for ease of references here is their list, linking where you can find the full versions.


The little I know of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) includes the fact that sites dedicated to a certain topic get higher rankings than mixed site. For example if I had a dedicated site to the materials I collect and share related to on online religion they could be easier to find than mixed in here with my film/book reviews and other posts. Therefore Sunday night registered and created a new site: I copied all the existing posts there. Having its own site/blog also allowed me to create categories for the blog entries, while here they were all lumped under one label. From now on I will post my related entries both here, on my personal blog, and there too. You may call the reason I keep posting them here vanity or need for acknowledgment: I want this collection be associated with me, after all I am putting my time in it. But from now on when I share my content on social networks I will propagate the version of it.

Conference on Media, Religion and Culture 2010

The 7th International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture will be held in Toronto from August 9 – 13, 2010, hosted by Joyce Smith of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. Below I list all the sections and papers from the program (PDF, as of August 2) that are explicitly pertinent to this blog and had abstracts available. (Apologies for the unusual length of the post.) Many other presentations will touch on the topic, of course. The conference can be viewed online live. Continue reading

Patheos: The Future of Religion

Patheos is halfway through its series on “The Future of Religion.” First a word about Patehoes from their “about” page: “[it] is the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs.” Based on the further description (see below) it seems they position themselves as the new; a place to:

  • Explore religious beliefs and histories through a deep library of accurate, balanced information on the world’s religions, as well as through unique interactive lenses that allow visitors to compare, contrast and explore religions and belief systems in new and innovative ways
  • Enrich the global dialogue on religion and spirituality through responsible, moderated discussions on critical issues across religious traditions, in the site’s unique Public Square
  • Experience religious traditions, both online and off, through a variety of multimedia applications and online directories
  • Engage in intra-faith discussion through religion-specific portals, designed to provide a forum for discussion and public interaction

And now about their Future of Religion series:

As new forms of worship and belief continue to evolve in the twenty-first century, we have asked thought leaders from a variety of religious traditions to talk about the future of religion. What trends will influence how people across the spectrum of faiths worship and practice? What are the challenges and opportunities that will confront faith leaders? What are the controversial issues? Will cooperation or conflict between religions be dominant in the years ahead? What reform movements will shape the future of belief?

Essays will tackle such subjects as race, interfaith relations, blogging, theological controversies, gender issues, proselytizing, music, emerging movements, politics, and film.

For each week they have between a dozen and 20 articles from prominent and/or interesting representatives of the religion discussed that week. Readers can comment right below the articles and the comments will show up on Facebook as well.

Here are some essays pertinent to the “online religion” topic:

I will post links to more relevant articles at the end of the series, after all of them appear online.

Lytle: Virtual Incarnations (2010/07)

An interesting article appeared in the July issue of Religious Education by Julie Anne Lytle of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It, titled “Virtual Incarnations: An Exploration of Internet-Mediated Interaction as Manifestation of the Divine,” is interesting to me because this is the first scholarly article I encountered that is clearly written from a strong religious perspective. See the abstract:

As faith communities are moving online and creating virtual churches, one widespread critique is the disembodied nature of online relationships. Citing fears of engagement with others who are misrepresenting themselves, many argue that virtual churches are not “real” and Internet-mediated communications (IMC) should not be incorporated into faith formation. However, with the exception of those who lived and walked with Jesus, most of humanity knows God and feels God’s presence through “virtual incarnations.” This article identifies the essential communicative and expressive aspects of physical relationships that manifest the Divine and some of the ecclesial ramifications of virtual church.

Is Apple Really A Religion?

Last week I posted about Heidi Campbell‘s article on iPhone4 as religion. Since the, on Friday, she posted another entry on her blog as a reaction to a furry of emails by angry Mac fans. They reacted not to the academic article, not even to the article in a popular magazine, but to a misquote of Campbell’s words on Fox News. She explains it all in her post. The short version is that the journalist deduced that she was making the claim that “Apple is a religion.” based on the following written answer she gave to a question:

“The religious like behavior and language surrounding Apple devotion/fandom  could be interpreted as an example of ‘implicit religion’, where secular activities/rituals & artifacts take on sacred like attributes due to how they are used and viewed by some fans. Implicit religion demonstrates technology use can take on a religious role or quality in postmodern culture when it substitutes for belief and behaviours once attached to religion and religious practice.”