Cyberchurching in Electronic Frontiers and Religion 1.0
The dominant conceptualization in early internet studies related to faith can be characterized by a logic of displacement and disjuncture whereby varied forms of religious practices are altered and disrupted with digital technologies.5 In sync with the dazzling hype of virtual community formation,6 the earliest phase of internet research related to religion promised new forms of enlightenment, apart from traditional leaders and religious institutions. In the nascent pioneering years of internet research, much attention was paid to the exploration of the pristine lands of cyberspace, including the nature of virtuality, presence and interactivity online among the early faith adopters of the internet. Several scholars postulated that the internet will have significant impact on how religious faith is conceived or practiced, including greater secularization, an erosion of religious authority and a homogenization of faith practices.7
Accompanying this initial phase were public and popular discourses that hypothesized utopian and dystopian extremes for human connectivity. For example, virtual communities were primarily seen as idyllic and egalitarian gathering hubs at the heart of a community.8 In parallel, at the outset, religiously related virtual communities were often regarded as a cyber oasis apart from the practices of traditional and organized religion. For instance, online religious interaction is juxtaposed against offline realities as the internet is said to be “alternative spiritual sanctuaries with few speech restrictions.”9 In a similar frame, reports on new religious movements and the virtual church focused on interpretative textual communities that functioned without a central leader or institution, but moderated and founded by lay persons, including female priestesses.10
Correspondingly, in the “Religion 1.0” paradigm, much attention was given to the fast growing availability of online multimedia resources, including search engine use for sacred texts, expository and devotional materials online. It was consequently commonly asserted that broadened informational access will lead to an increase in the number of non-professionals, newer religious interpreters and even critical or schismatic members who may challenge traditional authorities’ ability to define legitimate teachings.11 Online forum leaders and web masters have also been portrayed as new authority figures given the projected shifts in “congregational power structures” to “techies.”12 For example, Herring noted how posters in an online Christian news group generally accepted the moderator as a “governing authority” and spiritual advisor.13
Moreover, it has been anticipated that the internet helps create new mediators or virtual providers associated with new online services, altering the hierarchical order of established religious organizational practices. Intermediary personnel have served to conduct sacrificial rituals and sell religious implements and indulgences.14 Multiple websites have emerged offering substitute virtual spaces for prayers, confessions, and blessings for weddings and funerals. Interestingly today, we can see for example how this displacement logic of authority has boomeranged and applied now to some religiously themed apps. For instance, by allowing the conduct of “confession” to function solely in cyberspace, Vincent Gonzalez15 argued that Penance, an application game released for the iphone, “allows users to absolve one another’s sins” via an interface resembling a confessional booth. According to Elizabeth Drescher, “users usurp the clerical sacramental authority entirely” as this app presents a “significant theological conundrum inasmuch as it invites users to go well beyond the removal of the priestly intermediary in petitioning God for forgiveness.”16 Here, more broadly, echoing early 1990s’ theory and rhetoric that emphasized major distinctions between the virtual and the real, Gonzalez raises the intriguing possibility that a virtual practice such as Penance can fully replace their offline, real-world counterparts and connection points to “generate spiritual orientation and guidance via a form of ‘crowd sourced Catholicism.’”17 Hence, as the above review and discussion points out, the internet is perceived by many to be a largely, though not universally, positive resource for promoting bonding social capital in virtual religious communities as it becomes more popular among the religiously oriented, to facilitate new ritual practices and support the rise of new positions of power.