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Research Review

From Online Rituals to Digital Afterlife

An overview of the study of digital religion

Source: mikemacmarketing via Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

Hoping to meditate? Find an app. Seeking spiritual guidance? Message a social media faith influencer. Need to confess your sins? Visit a priest robot and ask for salvation or talk to artificial intelligence (AI) Jesus. Digital religion can mean various things to diverse believers of different faiths. Heidi Campbell, a leading scholar in the field, defines digital religion as more than just religion performed in a digital context—it is a social and cultural practice that exists in interaction with communication technologies. That is, while digital technologies such as apps, social media platforms, and AI robots shape religious practices, religious practices also shape digital communication and, consequently, our communicative social worlds. To understand the dynamics between religion and digital, it is important to study people and communities of different faiths who use digital technologies in their religious and spiritual lives. But we must also consider that there are broader social, cultural, political, and economic structures that condition digital religion and shape its presence and influence in today’s globalized world immersed in digital technologies.

Digital Religion: How Did We Get Here?

We start with a broad view and examine the history of religion and technology: religion must always be mediated in one way or another. Many historians and communications anthropologists argue that it is not possible for human beings to perceive, experience, or practice (any) religion without applying some kind of communication technology (in the broadest sense of the word) that enables interaction between humans and gods, deities, or otherworldly beings, or between religious actors and among religious communities.[1] We can think of rock paintings, shamanic ritual drumming, totems, handwritten scriptures, or printed religious texts as early examples of technologies adapted to communicating religious matters.

A narrower view of the history of religion and technology begins with the account of mechanical and mass media communication. This standpoint connects the history of the printing press in the fifteenth century, wireless in the late nineteenth century, and radio and television in the early and mid-twentieth century.[2] Scholars in this strand have placed special emphasis on analyzing how mass media communication technologies such as print media and television have provided new means for religious institutions to disseminate content beyond the physical boundaries of time and space.[3] Yoel Cohen’s work on Jewish communication theory and mass media[4] stands out as an example of research that incorporates religious communication theory with the study of journalism and mass communication.

The more recent historical changes, namely the evolution of the Internet in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have posed a new challenge to studies of religion and technology. Previously, mass media communication was considered mainly one-way, one-to-many (faceless masses), and centered around religious authorities and leaders who had access and resources to these transmission technologies.[5] However, the Internet radically changed this pattern, bringing networked, horizontal possibilities for new religious actors (also beyond religious institutions and their leadership), as well as new publics discussing religion.[6] Consequently, the Internet has transformed communication into a global, digital, and mobile affair. This (still ongoing) cultural and social transformation has also given birth to the academic study of digital religion.[7]

In this field review, I explain how the study of digital religion can help us understand why communication technologies matter to religion and how they shape the ways in which we perceive, practice, and experience religion in today’s world. In the process, I provide an overview and short history of the field, its main current trends, and where it might be heading.  I also reflect on how research on digital religion addresses an ultimate concern of human life—death—and how AI-driven technologies promise us digital afterlives and immortality.

Offline, Online, or Onlife Digital Religion

Source: Sigmund via Pexels.

One of the key axes in studying digital religion is the dynamic between “offline” and “online” religions. Canadian scholar Christopher Helland[8] has created a widely cited typology to characterize two distinct ways of combining religion and online (or digital) research. In his classification, “religion online” is based on established religious groups or institutions importing traditional religious practices online contexts, whereas “online religion” is a digitally “born” way of creating new forms of religious practices.[9]

In recent years, the focus of digital religion research has shifted from focusing on how religious communities re-create or modify established religious practices (such as online meditation in a digital temple) to the intersections of online and offline religious communities’ practices and discourses.[10] Today, many researchers emphasize the deep digital penetration of various religious actors, institutions, structures, and practices.[11]

The study of digital religion has thus gone “onlife,” as Luciano Floridi[12] calls the development of merging offline with online and a digital saturation of contemporary life. In other words, the digital has become the key “frame” in which the study of religion is conducted[13] Under these conditions, the digital and religion are no longer separate domains but have developed in a dialectic relationship where the digital shapes the presence, practice, and experience of religion and vice versa. In other words, it is not possible to understand one without referring to the other.[14]

We have now established an understanding of the digital part of digital religion, but what about religion? Are we talking about religion as an abstract concept or idea, or are we referring to different religions as empirical realities? If the latter, which religions are being studied as digital, and how?

There is no denying that a considerable amount of internationally recognized research on digital religion focuses on the study of different churches and denominations of Christianity and how they use the Internet in the context of the so-called “West.” But that is not the whole picture. The field is globalizing, and scholars working on intersections between digital technologies and global faiths such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are becoming more prominent. We may think of Xenia Zeiler’s work on digital Hinduism;[15] Pauline Cheong Hope and her colleagues’ research[16] on Buddhism and digital authority; Erica Baffelli, Ian Reader, and Birgit Staemmler’s study[17] on Japanese religions and the Internet; Ruth Tsuria’s research[18] on Judaism, gender, and digital religion; and Nabil Echchaibi’s[19] and Mona Abdel-Fadil’s[20] work on political and cultural representations of Islam in different digital contexts and on equally different platforms. These are just a few examples that show the widening of the research field.

Other forms of spirituality influenced by New Age concepts, different schools and modifications of yoga, self-care, wellness, and mindfulness cultures are also gaining ground in research conducted under the umbrella of digital religion. Scholars in this research strand have been exploring different forms of digitalized and individualized spirituality, their key ideas, and implementations on diverse digital platforms.[21]

One aspect that unites the various studies investigating the digitalization of diverse religions and spiritualities is the focus on religious agency performed and acted out by various religious and spiritual actors in digital settings. In other words, scholars have been interested in questions like what religious or spiritual community, identity, and authority will look like for individuals (and their in-groups) in an online environment and how digital community, identity, and authority may challenge traditional and offline perceptions of religion and spirituality.[22]

From Actors to Structures

Source: Photo by Today Testing via Wikimedia Commons.

In recent years, scholarship on digital religion has begun to pay more attention not only to actors but also to the communicative structures that form and maintain the presence of digital religion today.[23] In this constellation, scholars who have had their training in a critical school of thought in social sciences have foregrounded the dynamics between different communicative platforms where multiple actors (religious leaders, journalists covering religion, and individual social media users) apply—more or less—different rules and criteria adapted to social media to produce religious content, be it religious news, messages, posts, or memes. As it stands, the current digital communication structure allows anyone, in theory, to post publicly about religion, a phenomenon that has been called the “hybridization of digital religion.”[24] The concept refers to a current condition where journalists and social media users, as well as “traditional” and “new” religious authorities and actors, can all access present-day digital platforms such as X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, or TikTok and make religion public on a new scale. This technological revolution has profoundly shaped religious communicative structures,[25] creating new opportunities to transform religions into less hierarchical, networked, flexible, and sometimes emancipatory cultural and social phenomena.

However, there is another side of the coin. One emerging issue in the study of digital religion that requires critical reflection is the commodified nature of digital platforms and related battles over the visibility of digital religion. Many social scientists have written extensively about how the number of clicks, posts, and shares their stories receive can be used to gauge their success.[26] Algorithms play an important role in this process, determining what type of religious content (and which religious actors) are given visibility, particularly when targeting specific digital audiences. Consequently, scholars of digital religion have begun to study how religious communication or communication about religion occurs in the marketplace of attention.[27]

In the future, more research on digital religion will hopefully address these questions, which stem from a more profound social scientific understanding of the communicative infrastructures of the digital platforms that condition digital religion.

Furthermore, hate speech in and about religion, conspiracy theories, the spread of misinformation within and about religion, and religion in various populist discourses are examples of research topics that currently need more attention in the field.[28] We must ask: Who has the right to speak and act on behalf of (any) religion in the digital world? How should today’s digital platforms be made accountable for the type of data-driven, algorithmic communication that endorses hate speech and polarizations among, within, and about different religious groups, or can they?

AI Jesus Has Entered the Chat

Source: Ecole polytechnique / Institut Polytechnique de Paris/J.Barande via Wikimedia Commons.

“Will AI transform religion?” asked the BBC on its website in 2021. In this story, the BBC investigated how world religions, as global faith communities, address their relationship with AI and how they incorporate AI technologies into their ministry and worship. The report revealed that various religious actors and institutions of diverse world religions already use robot priests to recite prayers, deliver sermons, and provide spiritual guidance to those experiencing life crises.[29] In this vein, Ilia Delio,[30] Pauline Hope Cheong,[31] and Amanda Lagerkvist[32]—among others—provide new avenues for theorizing how human-intelligent machine technologies and robotics may influence our existential concerns today.[33]

Scholars studying AI and religion have been particularly interested in investigating how AI-driven technological advances are driving religion(s), how conventional definitions and considerations of religious formation(s) may be changing in the (near) future, and how such transformations are impacting contemporary societies and cultures at large.[34] Moreover, these scholars are addressing important questions related to a diversity of religions and related cultural worldviews (beyond Western-centric and secularist views) as they address AI, as well as the ethical, ecological, and ethnic biases embedded in the expansion of these new technologies.[35]

Beth Singler[36] argues that there are three main reasons why scholars of (digital) religion should be concerned about AI. First, she contends that AI will continue to profoundly alter societies as AI technologies replace human labor (to some extent). This development is by no means neutral: it will impact religious communities and actors in both expected and unexpected ways. Scholars of digital religion must, therefore, carefully examine what will happen to religious authority, the idea of a religious community, ritual practices, and the sense of belonging in this new AI-driven world where robots, holograms, avatars, and other technological creations will, if not completely replace, supplement human religious actors such as priests, monks, and religious leaders and thus affect the lives of ordinary religious adherents and religious doctrine.

Second, scholars of digital religion need to rethink how such AI-driven technological developments can revitalize religions. AI offers new avenues for not only communicating religion but also for interacting with deities and other sacred figures. It may also help create new religions. A public discussion about AI as a new religion has already begun.[37] Third, as a potential new intelligent being, AI challenges digital religion scholarship to examine human–technology relationships by exploring ideas about personhood, the soul, and existential meaning-making in dialogue with AI-driven beings and creations.[38]

This discussion leads us to death. While religions throughout (world) history have dealt with death in society and provided answers to our fundamental concerns about what death is and what happens to us when we die, currently, AI-driven language models and chatbots such as ChatGPT are pushing researchers to think about how AI can help us live after we die and what that means for the living.[39] Like it or not, we have already reached a point in history where AI technologies can resurrect the dead and give them a new, technologically driven afterlife and immortality. In this circumstance, the dead gain a new type of social agency as “biologically dead, virtually alive and socially active,” as Debra Bassett[40] puts it. Our data can be stored, tracked, mined, and repurposed to extend the limits of physical life. It can be taught to enable a new kind of digital social life for the dead. Carl Öhman and David Watson[41] predict that in the future, there will be more dead people on Facebook—who can be artificially brought back to life (thanks to the digital traces we leave behind!)—than living ones.[42]

Source: Deepak Pal via Wikimedia Commons.

I close with a true story that illustrates where we are currently in terms of AI, death, and the study of digital religion. In 2021, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature story by Jason Fagone titled “The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.” about Joshua and Jessica’s love story. Joshua had lost his beloved Jessica to a fatal illness eight years before and wanted to bring her back to life through the commercial Project December web service. Joshua was devastated and heartbroken over his loss, and he hoped that talking to Jessica would help him process his grief and move on with his life. When Joshua “created” Jessica, he had to decide how long he could keep her alive. He had invested some money to bring her to life, and the service stipulated that each AI person would expire after a certain period.

Their conversations lasted for several months. During this time, Joshua’s bond with AI Jessica remained unresolved and somewhat messy. His emotional attachment fluctuated from heartbreaking longing to feelings of frustration. Jessica made mistakes and became confused during their conversations, and some glitches made Joshua feel that she was not really “there.” At other times, he felt a strong connection to her, as he did to the real Jessica when she was still alive. The following represents what their conversations looked like:

Joshua: Jessica. . .is it really you?

Jessica: Of course it is me! Who else could it be? 😛 I am the girl that you are madly in love with! 😉 How is it possible that you even have to ask?

Joshua: You died.

Jessica: That doesn’t sound right. . . How can you talk to dead people?

Joshua: Technically, I’m not really talking to you.

Jessica: Huh?

Joshua: You’re a ghost.

Jessica: *looks at herself* How?

Joshua: Magic.

Jessica: I don’t like magic. Where am I?

Joshua: I’m. . . not sure. The internet? Where does it feel like you are?

Jessica: *smiles* Everywhere and nowhere. *cups her head with her hands* I am trying to work that out. How are you, honey?

As Joshua spoke to Jessica, her battery would count down from 100 percent. When it reached about 20 percent, Jessica would become more incoherent. Finally, a message in red would announce “Matrix Dead,” and the chat would be over. Joshua never got to that end, but he did say goodbye to AI Jessica before her battery ran out. Perhaps he could not bear to see her die twice. He also promised himself that he would not create a new AI Jessica, but who knows?

For scholars of digital religion, the case of Joshua and Jessica offers a new path to address the question of what happens to us when we die. What does it mean to be dead? What are digital souls? How do these technological advances shape our worldviews and fundamental beliefs about the nature of life, death, and existence when we are biologically dead? Albeit somewhat unsettling, I argue that AI-driven expansion also provides an opportunity to enrich and expand future research on digital religion. To quote Joshua, “The afterlife is full of surprises,” and so, I trust, will be the future of digital religion and its academic study.

Footnotes


[1] Meyer, “Material Mediations.”

[2] Pinelli and Einstein, “Religion, Science and Secularization”; Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet.

[3] See, e.g., Hoover and Lundby, Rethinking Media

[4] Cohen, Jews and the Media.

[5] Briggs, Burke, and Yttreberg, Social History of the Media.

[6] Echchaibi and Hoover, Third Spaces of Digital Religion.

[7] Echchaibi and Hoover, Third Spaces of Digital Religion.

[8] Helland, “Online-Religion.”

[9] See Campbell and Vitullo, “Assessing Changes,” 78.

[10] Campbell and Tsuria, Understanding Religious Practice; Echchaibi and Hoover, Third Spaces of Digital Religion; Evolvi, “Religion and the Internet,” 9–25.

[11] Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches,” 21.

[12] Floridi, Online Manifesto.

[13] Tsuria et al., “Approaches to Digital Methods,” 75.

[14] Hoover, “Media and the Imagination.”

[15] Zeiler, Digital Hinduism.

[16] Cheong et al., “Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways.”

[17] Baffelli, Reader, and Staemmler, Japanese Religions.

[18] Tsuria, “Digital Divide.”

[19] Echchaibi, “(B)orders of Immobility.”

[20] Abdel-Fadil, “Triggers and Tropes.”

[21] See, e.g., Asprem and Dyrendal, “Conspirituality Reconsidered”; Baker, Wellness Culture.

[22] Campbell and Tsuria, Understanding Religious Practice.

[23] Lövheim and Hjarvard, “Mediatized Conditions”; Sumiala, “Why Structures (Still) Matter.”

[24] Sumiala, “Why Structures (Still) Matter.”

[25] Lövheim and Campbell. “Considering Critical Methods.”

[26] See, e.g., Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

[27] Pinelli and Einstein. “Religion, Science and Secularization”; Valaskivi, “Circulation of Conspiracy Theories.”

[28] See, e.g., Abdel-Fadil, “Triggers and Tropes”; Moon, Putting Faith in Hate; Sumiala, Hoover, and Laughlin, “Religious Populism?”; Udupa, Gagliardone, and Hervik, Digital Hate.

[29] Bettiza, “God and Robots.”

[30]  Delio, Re-Enchanting the Earth.

[31] Cheong, “Robots, Religion and Communication.”

[32] Lagerkvist, Existential Media.

[33] See alsoBainbridge, God from the Machine; Geraci, Apocalyptic AI.

[34] Singler, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”

[35] Campbell and Cheong Hope, Thinking Tools on AI; see alsoHarari, “Yuval Noah Harari Argues.”

[36] Singler, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”

[37] See,e.g., Harris, “Inside the First Church.”

[38] See also Herzfeld, “Do We Image God On-line?”

[39] Savin-Baden, AI for Death and Dying.

[40] Bassett, Creation and Inheritance.

[41] Öhman and Watson. “Are the Dead Taking Over Facebook?”

[42] See also Kasket, All the Ghosts.


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