The widespread influence of the Internet is a fairly recent phenomenon. Over the last few decades, swarms of information have been plastered on millions of web addresses about any subject imaginable. What used to be just an “information superhighway,” however, has recently become a hub for community building and self-identity development. Religion, which has traditionally supported localized communities of like-minded believers, is currently flourishing in the realm of the World Wide Web. Curious individuals are now able to search for websites about any religion they can imagine (or that someone else has imagined) and are instantly directed to pages filled with full religious texts, interactive experiences, and contact information. With the surge of religion proliferating online, the need for face-to-face religion that typically prevailed is thrown into question. Many religious activities that people are participating in online, including sending prayers, are the same as offline practices, just done differently, which implies consequences to the changing face of religion. Both positive and negative ends of the spectrum are already in existence, as seen through the examination of specific online religion examples, such as “The Church of Fools” and the Heaven’s Gate cult. As religion shifts from face-to-face to online, the triumphs and pitfalls are vital to determine due to virtual religion’s potential impact on the beliefs and actions of participants.
Defining the nature of cyberspace in relation to the physical world is vital to understanding religion’s place within both. An important distinction that emerged in the early online religion movement was the difference between “religion online” and “online religion.” The websites that offered information-based content such as religious transcripts of texts were classified as “religion online,” while “online religion” represented an interactive experience to participate in religious practices (Dawson 2004). This clear-cut distinction is diminishing, however, as religion on the Internet grows. Because technology is constantly improving in cyberspace, most websites are beginning to combine both information and a space “where this information can be lived” (Helland 2005). An example of this is emailing a prayer request through the church, which has extended their physical community online (Helland 2005). This experience combines religiosity with interactivity and therefore blurs the boundary between face-to-face and online religious expression. This example, however, proves that there is usually an outside connection to religion that leads a believer to one of these faith sites. Disregarding creations such as “The Church of Spongebob” and other solely internet-based beliefs, religion in the real world is a necessary foundation for online content, which in turn leads to the majority of real world religion being reproduced online (Dawson 2004; Lovheim 2004). The online religion movement therefore does not discourage usually offline actions, such as congregating in a space of worship, in the growth of the religion. Some websites even have implemented technology to created computer-generated virtual spaces with the intention of substituting conventional services (Dawson 2000). As the variety of online resources for religion grows, so grows the varying perceptions of each religion being represented virtually. These technologies are proving to reach deep into the human consciousness (Dawson 2001). Although online religion is still a fairly nascent study, the benefits and disadvantages of switching from face-to-face to online religion are emerging.
Including online religion interaction into the believer’s practicing regiment shows great promise for the development of not only the ideas of a religion but also the opportunities for very human communities to form, despite the guise of a username or avatar. As opposed to other forms of communications media, the Internet provides interactivity for the user and could in some ways rival the interactivity of offline relationships (Dawson 2005; Slevin 2000). Other forms of media, such as television programs or pamphlets, lack that extra dimension that could potentially immerse newcomers. The basic building blocks of religions became available online early on in the “religion online” movement, including commentaries and interpretation to help both the faithful and newcomer alike. By providing this information online, potential followers can dip their toes into religious material at their leisure and can lead to people making important decisions regarding their beliefs, which can ultimately be shared with others via the website (Horsfall 2000). The sharing of religious perspectives and interpretations is one of the most unique features of online religion. The communities that form via message boards are free of stereotyping (ethnic, class, gender) and can transcend time differences and space constraints, creating a free flow of opinions from around the world (Dawson 2004a). This anonymity serves a dual purpose for participants. It focuses the debate specifically on the topic and not on human differences. Because the Internet can protect individual identities, it allows for more unrestrained discussion and can therefore lead to valuable personal development for members of the online community (Lovheim 2004). It also provides a safe haven for those who feel deprived of real life social relationships and find solace in their interactions with the message board community (Laney 2005). Online religion therefore breaks down boundaries and insecurities as people are exposed to alternative perspectives on religion from people outside of their face-to-face community. With the development of technology past the message board, online religion has generated virtual spaces to perform religious rituals and experiment with several religions. This eliminates having prerequisite knowledge that would be necessary to complete rituals in a physical worship setting and therefore does not deter new entrants to the faith (Dawson 2001). By shifting religious activity to the Internet, a believer can partake in his faith with a much larger community than offered by his hometown institution while also providing the option to perform rituals and prayers from the comforts of his own home. All of these positive factors of online religion come together in the success of the computer programming experiment, “The Church of Fools.”
Creating an online church environment that mimics the activities at an actual service created an emotional attachment to the community by participants as well as widespread popularity and interest. One of the lead creators of “The Church of Fools,” Simon Jenkins, began the project with a simpler version of the program named “Ship of Fools,” which simulated a virtual Ark from the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, and he enlisted twelve real people to control an avatar of either a biblical saint or a sinner. What he observed was revealing; the participants claimed to experience an oddly deep immersion into the virtual environment and truly believed they formed strong relationships with the others as well as with their own online identity (Jenkins 2008). His team was then inspired to create the virtual church that became “The Church of Fools,” which was an experiment to see whether church could be translated seamlessly into the virtual realm based off of observations from the last program. A stamp of legitimacy was attached to the project when the project became support by the Methodist Church of Great Britan and also the Bishop of London proving that real churches had interest in expanding religion into cyberspace (Jenkins 2008). The virtual church could only display thirty visible avatars at a time, but numbers of visitors on average, floating around the room invisibly as “ghosts,” were recorded at 7,337, proving that the small internet church project was “drawing cathedral-sized congregations” (Jenkins 2008). Examples of the interactivity that occurred in the church includes the congregation typing in the Lord’s Prayer in sync, kneeling beside avatars to pray with them, and blessing other avatars. Despite some silliness, such as blessing the vending machine, Jenkins certainly saw his vision come to life. The online world created an educational experience for those who would never enter a real church and generated genuine experiences of spirituality through the community, despite not being in a physical church (Jenkins 2008). The success of “Church of Fools” proves that people are open to expressing their faith in unconventional ways and feel that it is a legitimate way to develop their relationship with God and other believers. For one person, it could be an augmentation to their faith, while for another it could be a fun introduction to the religion. The diversity of potential with virtual religious environments has been proven with the positive response to “Church of Fools.” An Internet community, however, also has its downfalls when disseminating religious information.
The shift away from face-to-face to online religion poses a threat to the very human interaction that religion developed out of and may eventually blur the true message of the faith due to misinformation or lack of attachment. One of the most basic limitations of online religion is its accessibility. Those who are fortunate enough to have computer access may not even have the skills or knowledge to appropriately utilize religious programs, while millions of people will never even use a computer in their lifetime, making the complete removal of face-to-face religion unlikely (Hadden 2000a; Lovheim 2005). Many experiences that are offered online simply do not transfer well through a computer screen. An example of this is the minimization of the full-body experience that occurs when visiting the Kali Temple, a sacred Hindu worshipping ground that yields many visitors. By shifting this experience into a virtual reality, it minimizes the complete immersion of the body that can only be observed via the physical interaction with the sacred (Brasher 2004). This example emphasizes the one-dimensionality of online religion. Although many newer programs allow for complex interactivity, the online version of the true place diminishes its potential value for the believer and leaves him complacent with his weakened version (Dawson 2001). While distance may make it impossible for a follower to make the pilgrimage to the temple, the online version provides a lackluster replacement. In addition to weakened ritual experiences, misinformation runs rampant throughout these websites. Because the online religion community is open for all, it is nearly impossible to sift through every comment and every interpretation for pertinent information, since many message board users “misrepresent religious materials for their own purposes” (Dawson 2001). This diminishes the legitimacy of the religion and also may deter newcomers from remaining interested. Therefore, the problem of religious authority and authenticity is created from online religion. Because the identity of the overall group is skewed due to varying perspectives, online religion also diminishes the community bonds that are so strong in real life circumstances. Substituting messages boards for a true congregation therefore may be interpreted as a form of modern alienation (Dawson 2004a). When individuals become united in their alienation, however, utilizing the Internet for religion can become traumatically violent, as witnessed in the Heaven’s Gate cult.
The community environment created by the distribution of information online by the Heaven’s Gate cult proves the dangerous potential for disillusionment and misguidance that can be propagated by anyone who publicizes a religion online. Formed by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles in the early 1970s, the pair claimed to be Christ-like extraterrestrials that prophesized joining a spacecraft traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet that would transport them to the heavens (Robinson 1997). Although they began advertising for the cult with pamphlets, by the mid-90s, they created an Internet community that was inundated with graphic design and proficiency, such as audio and video clips, that assisted in the recruitment of followers. This form of communication was attractive to “the lonely, the shy, misfits, outcasts,” who took to the Heaven’s Gate message easily, and allowed members to converse with anonymity and in private (Zaleski 1997). On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine members of the cult all committed suicide together in hopes of bring transported to the spacecraft behind Hale-Bopp. This cult in particular displays the potential dangers that can arise from the integration of religion into the Internet. Because of the sense of identity and community that the authors of Heaven’s Gate were able to articulate to their socially inept users, the interface created by the Internet became an extension of themselves and were attracted to having a “computer-mediated consciousness” (Robinson 1997). The virtual world in which each member was immersed therefore blurred their sense of reality, which completely shifted the virtual world into their reality. Because of the freedom that the Internet provides and widespread coverage that information can travel, the likelihood of these events occurring more frequently is higher. While having the opportunity to express new beliefs and form communities is positive, the Heaven’s Gate cult created a sensationalist flurry of misinformation that cost the lives of blind followers of an internet “religion.”
The inevitability of religious practices becoming more predominant online is impossible to ignore. As technologies continue to improve, replicating religious ritual is becoming more realistic and meaningful. While virtual communities keep people physically segregated, they manage to link together believers, nonbelievers, agnostics, and more from around the world, creating a congregation with several different perspectives to share. On the downside, it is possible to misuse the connectivity of the Internet to spread personal mantras for the sake of gaining power and clout. The messages that muddle the clarity of the religion displayed may eventually diminish the true message in the original face-to-face version of the religion. Because online religion is a newer field of study, conclusive evidence about the benefits or disadvantages of virtual religion is uncertain. Its presence in society, however, is a modern indicator of how society receives its culture and demands interaction with information it desires. People are starting to challenge what they are taught, which arms believers with more knowledge when they enter a real house of worship. The chances of face-to-face religion disappearing are slim, but the integration of online religion with reality will continue to grow and make an impact on participants.
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First Reformed Church of Spongebob: http://churchofspongebob.tripod.com/