Give Me That Online Religionby Brenda E. Brasher
Named one of the ten best books in religion in 2001 by the Christian Science Monitor
"One can find a no better guide to cyberspace's impact on the complex passions and strivings of premodern, modern, antimodern, and postmodern humanity than this brilliant, empathic, and unfailingly honest inquiry. Few writers on religion can combine critical acuity and great-hearted… See more details below
Named one of the ten best books in religion in 2001 by the Christian Science Monitor
"One can find a no better guide to cyberspace's impact on the complex passions and strivings of premodern, modern, antimodern, and postmodern humanity than this brilliant, empathic, and unfailingly honest inquiry. Few writers on religion can combine critical acuity and great-hearted compassion the way Brenda E. Brasher does."--Richard Landes, director, Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University
As the Internet and the World Wide Web break down barriers of time and space, religion enjoys an ever-increasing accessibility on a global scale. Inevitably, people online have sought out encounters with the otherworldly, launching religion into cyberspace. In this compelling book, Brenda E. Brasher explores the meaning of electronic faith and the future of traditional religion.
Operating online allows long-established religious communities to reach hearts and minds as never before. Yet more startling is the ease by which anyone with Internet access can create new circles of faith.
Bringing religion online also narrows the gap between pop culture and the sacred. Electronic shrines and kitschy personal Web "altars" idolize living celebrities, just as they honor the memory of religious martyrs. Looking ahead, Brasher envisions a world in which cyber-concepts and -technologies challenge conventional notions about the human condition, while still attempting to realize age-old religious ideals such as transcendence and eternal life.
As the Internet continues its rapid absorption of culture, Give Me That Online Religion offers pause for thought about spirituality in the cyber-age. Religion's move tothe online world does not mean technology's triumph over faith. Rather, Brasher argues, it assures religion's place in the wired universe, meeting the spiritual demands of Internet generations to come.
Dr. Brenda E. Brasher is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at King's College, University of Aberdeen. She frequently serves as a religious consultant to the media, and for more than a decade has documented and analyzed Internet and Web activities of traditional and alternative religious groups.
- Rutgers University Press
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Read an Excerpt
A Revolution in the Making: Spiritual Wonder Goes Online
To interact via computer monitor with an online Hindu temple is a profoundly different religious experience.
Near the top of a narrow road that threads around a small mountain located near the city of Bangalore in southwestern India, a small Hindu temple dedicated to Kali hugs the ground. As with most Hindu places of worship, the exterior of the white stone temple is completely covered with elaborate carvings depicting goddesses and gods deporting themselves in accord with scenes from cherished sacred Hindu tales. People wait patiently for hours in a long line to get inside, into the temple's heart, to be near an image of Kali.
With slick black limbs in supple pose, Kali sits in the center of the temple, looking as if she had been sculpted of molten ebony and would burst into flame were it not for two hammered silver cuffs that simultaneously adorn and cool off her volatility. Multicolored twinkling lights positioned around Kali give her a sparkling, rainbow frame. Directly in front of the image, a circular brass tray holds glowing embers that emit fat puffs of gray smokeofferings to Kali's Shakti (sacred energy).
Around Kali, devotees stretch out their arms and call to her in singsong prayers, while in a nearby alcove Brahmin priests chant the Sanskrit verses of a private puja (worship) for those gathered near. The flagrance of flower and fruit puja offerings hangs heavily in the air. Worshiping Kali at the temple involves sounds, smells, tastes, and sights thatleave newcomers breathless, absorbing them in an encounter with the numinous, the sacred unknowna transcendent otherness that attracts and frightens at the same time.
To interact via a computer monitor with an online Hindu temple is a profoundly different religious experience. Consider, for instance, a Web page titled Digital Avatar. Without leaving your desk chair, you can visit this virtual temple. The page opens to reveal not a temple building but rather a small, stunningly rendered image of a white-faced Shiva framed in black. Moving into the site, you discover a menu of worship experiences. Under a smiling Shiva mouth, hyperlinked text invites you to click on it to savor Shiva's cosmic delights. Other links offer "take-away" religious experiences. You can download Shiva's image for later attempts to encounter his Shakti. If it's meditative bliss you seek, you can download the aum, the mystical utterance of Vedic praise that expresses and affirms the totality of creation. For those who need or want visual stimulation as well, a QuickTime movie file with accompanying sound allows you to meditate to an eerie, mystical, rapid alternation of Shiva images.
In light of the fact that the Digital Avatar site was produced during cyberspace's infancy, it was a marvelously foresighted effort to construct the sacred electronically. Imaginative absorption into the numinous may occasionally be sparked by its provocative multimediated construction. Yet its ability to stimulate physical absorption into the numinous is highly limited.
To contrast Digital Avatar with the Kali temple, in the former the journey to the site is gone. There is no wait to get into the temple. There is no interaction with other pilgrims en route. The temple itself is gone. The heavy smell of flower and fruit offerings has vanished. In sum, in the transition from temple to screen, a radical alteration of the sense stimulation integral to Hindu worship has silently taken place. Consequently, the religious experience itself has been altered. The numinous, or holy, experience that cyberspace makes possible by way of Digital Avatar is almost entirely an affair of the mind. This stands in huge contrast to the immersion of mind and body in the numinous of an actual visit to the Kali temple.
Still, the Kali temple itself imposes limits. Only a select number of people beyond those who live in the immediate vicinity can readily visit the temple. Given its smallish size, a mere fifty or so can enter the temple at any one time. At the temple, novice worshipers may gaze without comprehension upon the iconography meant to summon the gods' presence. None of these limits apply to Digital Avatar. Its hyperlinked visual elements enable visitors who see an unfamiliar image or sound to learn all about it in their own language. Whereas a thousand may travel to the temple of Kali in one month, that many and more can visit Digital Avatar in one day.
The mere fact that a person travels to a place is no guarantee that she or he will fully experience it (as any parent or guardian who has gone to synagogue, church, or mosque and taken along a two-year-old can attest). Digital Avatar can be visited at two in the afternoon or three in the morningwhen the computer is free, the weather is awful, the car is not running, the children are in bed. Whenever time for the contemplative arises, online religion is there. All it takes is a momentary visit to cyberspace, the unexpectedly novel terrain of human spirituality.
Cyberspace as the Site of Online Religion
Cyberspace is a fiction of public etiquette that orients people in a virtual environment. An abstract idea with electronic components, cyberspace identifies the expanse, if not the time, where those communicating by means of computers believe and act as if they are. A partly communal "where" fantasy, cyberspace is the sum total of the millions of mental maps people draw on when online to determine where they are. At the start of the new millennium, the best-known use of cyberspace is for commerce. Whatever else it may be, cyberspace is our first global, virtual mall. Surging excitement over cyberspace as a commercial locale produced some of the late twentieth century's wealthiest individuals. For a time, futuristic allure overrode unproven profitability to make online stocks soar.
Yet one of the best-kept secrets of cyberspace is the surprising amount of religious practice that takes place there. My own explorations have revealed more than one million online religion Websites in operation. They encompass every major religious tradition in the world, most new religious groups, and innumerable social movements that function as de facto religions for their followers. The sites and activities that make up online religion are intriguing, delightful, and at times disturbing. The central goal of this book is to introduce the phenomenon, along with certain interpretive frameworks that may help make sense of it all.
A low-key political argument winds throughout the book as well. I contend that online religion is a crucial contemporary cultural outlet for our meaning heritage from the past. Bringing religion into the global arena, online religion ensures that humanity's religious acumen is kept alive and positions that heritage to maximize its relevance for future generations. Most important, for all the risks entailed, the wisdom Web pages and holy hyperlinks that are the stuff of online religion possess the potential to make a unique contribution to global fellowship in the frequently volatile area of interreligious understanding. Fueling the trend that widespread mobility began, cyberspace diminishes the relevance of location for religious identity. As it widens the social foundation of religious life, cyberspace erodes the basis from which religion contributes to the destructive dynamics of xenophobia. In the process, it lessens potential interreligious hatred. Because of this, just as "real" religions are acknowledged and supported in the form of tax abatements, one political argument this book makes is that online religion should receive comparable public acknowledgment and support. Its successful development harbors important hope for the future of civil society.
A Little Definition
Before plunging into the extraordinary adventure of online religion, it may be helpful to define cyberspace more carefully. Evoked by the intermesh of computer hardware and software, telephone or cable lines, and the human imagination, cyberspace is at once monolithic and diverse. The monolithic aspects of cyberspace derive from its technologies and protocols. Their consistency makes computer-mediated communication (CMC) possible. At the same time, cyberspace is necessarily pluralistic. It has material diversity from the variety of hardware and software people use to access it. It has psychological diversity from the variety of human users who enter it.
That people inhabit cyberspace when they go online is, to a degree, a whimsical turn of events on the part of computer users. But they have not invented cyberspace totally on their own. Computer hardware and software organizations, along with "dot-com" companies of varied ilk, have worked hard to construct the Freudian illusion that is cyberspace. Sound and dazzling color imbue cyberspace with seductive virtual substance. Like the childhood dream of a perfect parent, the key illusion of cyberspace is that it is continuously available and can answer our every desire. Want a new car? Go online. Want companionship? Go online. Want to know what the weather is like in Antarctica? Go online. Want to know whether we are receiving signals from another planet? Go online. And people respond. Each day, millions of computer users engage in the repetitive acts of communal imagination that bring cyberspace into being.
Among the genres of human fantasy, cyberspace most closely resembles myth. It is a public story that expresses widely held values and beliefs. The popularity accorded this semi-imaginary locale gives it more symbolic weight than countless actual places have. Believed in by millions, cyberspace is real in its consequences if not in its geography. In cyberspace, we see the inaugural instance of global interactive relations. Through it, we have at our fingertips a form of community that could include the whole world. If fully realized on a macro scale the global interactive fellowships that cyberspace supports could alter our assumptions about what constitutes community and make obsolete the boundaries of the modern nation-state. On a micro scale, it could mean that at the edges of life no one ever need be alone. But thanks to its capacity to produce enormous wealth, cyberspace is quickly becoming commodified. Its mythic potential is being electronically etched over by banner ads, "cookies" (the small text files that some Website you visit create on your own computer's hard drive), and push mail.
At Home in Cyberspace
It is a notable human trait that people who inhabit a territory extend its significance by attaching invisible meanings to its physical features. The imagination instrumentally aids our ability to relate to every abode. A good example is the large white rock that sits next to the outdoor tennis courts at the small liberal arts college where I teach. Three feet wide and two feet tall, the white rock is simply a rock to campus visitors; but to the students, the rock is a site of highly contested meaning. During the day, it is a mineral billboard that advertises the slogan or logo of some school group. According to local custom, no one touches the rock during the day. But once night falls, a band of painters from a campus group surreptitiously paints the rock with a message for the next day. Some nights, the white rock is painted over three times as bands of painters vie to be the ones whose message the rock carries the next day. Visitors physically see the white rock. Culturally, it is invisible to them. But for insiders, knowledge and imagination create a thick web of meanings around the rock that frame and color it. That makes all the difference.
To a certain extent, the grids of invisible meaning that people lay upon cyberspace differ little from how my students relate to the white rockthat my students are, at least, restrained by the rock. The virtual terrain of cyberspace has few, if any, consistent physical objects; consequently, more than most places of heightened cultural meaning, cyberspace is substantially determined by the imaginations of those who engage it. To one person, it is a swirl of mind and emotions awakened by fervently dancing electrically charged elements. To another, it is the mental oasis one enters upon hearing the placid hum of computer processing and tapping keystrokes, accompanied by the visual stimuli of ever-changing combinations of electronic symbols, icons, and images. In short, there can be as many cyberspaces as there are people online at a given time.
This variety sets the stage for the intense conflicts over the virtual world that regularly arise. Is cyberspace a public square or a carnival? Is it a place where common decency applies or where all rules are off? Citizens and politicians contend among themselves and with each other over whether cyberspace should beor even can besafe, frightening, sexual, playful, violent, serene, profane, sacred, carefully fenced in, or regulated at all. Absent a viable concord over virtual decorum, conflicts flare online, in law courts, and in legislative bodies over what can and should take place in cyberspace. None of this slows the breakneck expansion of cyberspace. Individuals, schools, corporations, governments, and religious groups are busily erecting virtual contributions to a place that did not exist half a century ago, even though they do not agree on exactly what kind of place it is.
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