From Cyberchurch to Faith Apps Religion 2.o on the Rise?

Pauline Hope Cheong

In contemporary wired developments, it is a popular proposition that many of us are living in a “Web 2.0” age. In common conception, social media represents a paradigm shift from “Web 1.0,” which is described as an email era with read-only content, static HTML websites, and directories, to Web 2.0, with read-write, user-generated content and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Digg. In parallel, we are said to dwell in a “Religion 2.0” age. Whatever else Religion 2.0 is affiliated with, it may be aptly initiated by attending to the recent release and proliferation of hundreds of religiously themed apps that feature interactive reading, scripture searches, prayer and rituals. By way of an introduction, the following describes three examples of “apps” or mobile application software.

  • 2. “Penance” is an app released for the iphone in December 2010. Users interact with a screen and digital interface that resembles a confessional booth, where they can play different roles to confess as well as to absolve one another’s sins. Users can also reflect upon the shared confessions of others from a list of most commonly confessed transgressions. This app is free for download but users subsequently interact with a convertible currency of “horn”s (for confessing) and “halos” (for granting penances) to dollars as they climb in office from Bishop to Holy Father/Mother of the Church.
  • 3. Launched in February 2011, “Confession” is another app that invites users to confess and keep track of their sins online, for a price of US$1.99. The first part of the app prompts an examination of conscience, where users can click through a prepared catalogue of possible sins before they enter a confessional. After this review, the second part lists instructions of what to do inside a confessional, including an invitation to recite the Act ofContrition prayer, receive absolution and respond with Amen. The third part is a space to record any absolution from a priest. [1]

tools for organization and demonstration in the service of democratic movements. At the same time, however, the tendencies toward commodification and other factors go hand in hand with contemporary recognition that the democratizing potentials of digital media have, in fact, manifested themselves less potently than tech celebrants might have touted.2

Therefore, this article will unpack the Religion 2.0 phenomenon by critically discussing the changing constitution of religious authority from a communicative perspective, drawing upon multidisciplinary new media studies including my research publications and recent examples of religiously themed apps. To fulfill this remit, this article will first briefly review the earlier developments of cyberfaith and the virtual church, before moving on to discuss more contemporary manifestations of religion online and their embedded interactions with the material world. In a past review, I have proposed that there are related, and to some extent, overlapping clusters of concepts related to religious authority that are in tandem with the maturing growth of the broad field of internet studies, which has progressed from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds into “three ages”3 or multiple stages that somewhat parallel the chronological and ontological development of digital media.4 The aim here is not to provide an exhaustive commentary on the historical growth of faith online but to highlight the key themes underlying the development of how far “religion”—meaning, minimally here, the individual and institutionalized practices, values, and beliefs that make up specific Christian traditions—has interacted with the multiple affordances and possibilities of computer-mediated communication. The article will also discuss the emerging paradoxes and tensions surrounding Religion 2.0. In short, the goal here is to offer a critical conceptual framework to articulate the multiple links between new media and religious authority, in order to extend awareness and deepen understanding of the (re)configurations of religious activities, particularly, the constitution of authority and influence. These findings have significant implications for how we conceive of notions of digital participation, feminist empowerment and social change in an increasingly mediated world.

  • [1] submit that these recent apps may point to how digital and socialmedia are facilitating changes in the religious landscape. The inventionand appropriation of religiously themed apps serve as a portal to raisefresh inquiry in today’s dynamic communication environment. It istimely to consider thoughtfully a set of related questions about thechanging nature of faith community and authority. These questionsinclude: What is the nature of religious connectivity, community, andcollectivity? What constitutes religious power and authority? And whatare the benefits and challenges to religious leadership and laity as theynavigate digital media in their wired spheres? While the topic of wired religion has been of longstanding interestto faith practitioners, believers and new media scholars, the critical examination of religious authority in a purportedly Religion 2.0era, has received relatively less systematic scrutiny and research attention. Furthermore, in the face of electronic culture, it is commonlybelieved that authority is destabilized and routinely weakened withweb-based networks and the possibilities of participatory democracy and augmented grassroots activism to construct and rearticulatenews content. As recent events in the “Arab Spring” at the dawnof the second decade of the new millennium have demonstrated,contemporary computer-mediated technologies, including those facilitated via internet-enabled smartphones, are enormously powerful
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