Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bridging the gap between journalists' beliefs and attitudes, and their professional work: A commentary

My commentary is on the articles, ‘I will show you my faith by what I do: a survey of the religious beliefs of journalists and journalists' faith put into action’ and ‘The framing of Islam on network news following the September 11th attacks’.

The first article by Underwood is based on a 1998 study in the US and Canada to examine the inter-relationship between journalism and religion, in light of the news coverage on religion that seemed to focus only on ‘contentiousness, scandal, or the offbeat’. Conservative critics claimed that journalists were secular and irreligious, and the researchers of the study hypothesised that journalists were not irreligious as they seemed to be.

Although there were earlier studies that examined journalists’ religious beliefs and attitudes, the questions centred mainly on the frequency of the journalists’ church attendance and affiliation to any religious institution. In Underwood’s study, the researchers delved deeper into understanding the role of religion in the journalists’ value systems and how their beliefs were translated into their professional work. The analysis of the survey was done in three steps, as shown in the following diagram:

From the survey, the results showed that journalists were not irreligious as the critics claimed to be. With regard to the treatment of religion in news coverage, a high percentage of journalists responded positively to the statements that ‘Journalists should have good knowledge of religion’ and ‘Journalists bear responsibility for public discourse on the role of religion in society’. To ascertain whether these beliefs are translated into their professional work, the second article by Ibrahim examines this, in light of the September 11th attacks in the US.

According to Ibrahim, the representations of Islam in the news coverage following the September 11th attacks range from Islam being represented as a violent religion to it being a peaceful one. One of these misrepresentations stems from the unbalanced reports done by journalists, who would interview Islamic extremists such as bin Laden and present their views without balancing them with alternative Muslim perspectives, especially from the Islamic scholars’ point of view. Another misrepresentation of Islam is present in news coverage in which the focus would be on angry Muslim men who carry rifles, or wear ski masks. Whether on reel or real life, Muslim men are depicted in a negative light.

The rampant misrepresentations only serve to reinforce the American non-Muslims’ skewed opinion of Islam. Baudrillard’s theory on hyperreality explains this conflation of truth/reality and simulacra. Even Kees Brants (2008) questions about the objectivity of truth:
Is there such a thing as a real picture of reality? Are we talking about a redefinition of truth itself? No, not a redefinition of truth, but being clear that objectivity and truth are an impossibility.

In view of this, journalists need to consider multiple perspectives when reporting stories about religion, and be aware of cultural or religious sensitivities that could arise from the coverage. They also need to practise discretion when interviewing Islamic extremists such as bin Laden so that the public does not have a misconception of Islam. They also need to have a sense of ethical responsibility and accountability to ensure that the events covered do not trigger civil unrest or hatred among different faith groups.


Baudrillard, J. The precession of simulacra. In Durham, M. G. & Kellner, D.M. (Eds), Media and cultural studies, (pp. 453-481). UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Ibrahim, D. 2010. The framing of Islam on network news following the September 11th attacks. International Communication Gazette. 72, 1, 111-125.

Underwood, D. 2002. I will show you my faith by what I do: a survey of the religious beliefs of journalists and journalists' faith put into action. In from Yahweh to Yahoo! the religious roots of the secular press, 130-147, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rituals and Pixels - A Review

Review of “Rituals and Pixels: Experiments in Online Church” By Simon Jenkins

The invention of the world wide web has offered society a highly accessible, highly efficient, and very fast way of accessing literally thousands of pages varying from encyclopaedias to virtual worlds. In these worlds we are able to connect to thousands of people from all over the world who have interests in pretending to be a colourful penguin (see club penguin), to attending a church service online. In the article “Rituals and Pixels: Experiments in Online Church”, Simon Jenkins sets out to explore the possibility of genuine online church services, and the pros and cons associated with a virtual church – dubbed “the church of fools”.

The “Church of Fools” was established to create a non-denominational, global, Christian community. The church itself was made to be easily recognisable as church, complete with soaring arcs, stained glass windows and an altar. However, the main issue explored by the creators was whether the experience and community of a virtual church could be as genuine and close as a “real” one. In order to achieve this goal, the creators employed real people of the clergy to conduct the services and gave the many online users the option to visually demonstrate their prayer through gestures such as blessing, crossing and kneeling. Overall, virtual church was a success for those using it for the reasons the creators intended, with many individuals stating that it was just as moving, if not more moving than their “real life” church services.

Despite this, Simon Jenkins also noted that there were many issues with the online church. Firstly, the anonymity of the users was abused, with some using derogatory terms or directing worship towards inappropriate areas of the church (e.g. other users, vending machines). Secondly, there were many attempts made to hack the “Church of Fools” to plant viruses or otherwise shut down the church. Finally, although the church proved to be very popular, due to limited computer capacity there had to be a cap placed on the number of people allowed to enter the church at one time to avoid the systems crashing.

In conclusion, it has been found that a virtual church can provide the same spiritually moving experience and community bond as a “real church”. However, due to the limits of technology and the anonymity of the internet communities such as the “Church of Fools” may be abused by users.

Jenkins, Simon. "Rituals and Pixels: Experiments in Online Church." Online - Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Can authentic religious expression be found in a digital medium?

While it can be argued that modern cultural obsessions such as celebrity worship, sport or political fanaticism, or fantasising about Edward Cullen are expressions of religion in some regard; today I plan to focus on the traditionally understood definition of religion to see how religious rituals developed before the technological age can be adapted into a digital medium.

Looking at virtual worlds, it is important to understand that watching an avatar which represents the viewer can provide a compelling experience. Rizzolatti’s discovery that brain activity while watching a task is similar to brain activity while performing the task, shows that 3D worlds like second life should be able to trigger a similar experience to participating in the physical ritual.

I have observed several religious sites in the Second Life world, each of them intricately designed and programmed to allow users to participate in ritual by-proxy. While each of these sites has suffered with the decreased popularity of Second Life, at one time they were all bustling spiritual centres of worship. Large groups of people were able to worship together and build social capital through virtual interactions. While Second Life was full of people exploring the world, these churches received a lot of first time visitors and retained a few regular members. With the reduced popularity of Second Life, there were fewer new visitors and consequently the appeal to the regular members of massive corporate worship was reduced. The social appeal of the church dried up and eventually even the loyal members moved on. These deserted sites stand as quiet monuments to the revival that could have been.

Another approach to online religion is the browser based church. By making the service as accessible as clicking a link, these sites guarantee high numbers of first time visitors, which allows the regular members to feel part of a large corporate experience. This is a more maintainable illusion, but still an illusion.

For the social capital earned in these sites to have a lasting value, the disposable nature must be replaced. Developers of online community games such as World of Warcraft have found that having users work together towards goals can build very strong personal ties while gaining in-world prestige over several years of commitment. Churches wanting to encourage loyalty in both their online and offline congregations need to provide tangible goals for users to work toward in small community groups with internal trust and companionship rewards and progressive external rewards in acknowledgement of successful task completion. These tasks could include activities ranging from raising a set monetary goal for the church, to developing a new online forum or collaborating in gathering signatures for a petition to recognise online churches.

I have only seen limited expressions of this in online churches, but I expect that when religious leaders begin adapting game theory and digital media to promote religious expression the real extent of the potential benefits of digital media for religion will begin to be understood.


Camerer Colin F. Behavioral Game Theory: Experiments in Strategic Interaction [Journal]. - Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2003.

Campbell Spiritualising the Internet [Journal] // Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. - online : [s.n.], 2005. - 1 : Vol. 1.

Gallese, V; Fadiga, L; Fogassi, L; Rizzolatti, G Action recognition in the Prmotor Cortex [Journal] // Brain. - Oxford : [s.n.], 1991.

Hagström C Playing with Names: Gaming and Naming in World of Warcraft [Journal] // Digital Culture, Play, and Identity. - Massachusetts : Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008.

Helland C Online Religion as Lived Religion [Journal] // Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet. - online : [s.n.], 2005. - 1 : Vol. 1.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Can I wrap that for you? Consumerism and celebrity worship in Rojek's 'Celebrity and Religion'

By Jessica Hudepohl

Rojek C. 2007. Celebrity and Religion. In S Redmond and S Holmes. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Celebrity and Religion explores the relationship between fan and celebrity. Rojek investigates what attracts a person to a certain star and offers reasons as to why they begin to worship them. He continues to draw connections between religion and the culture of celebrity through applying Emile Durkheim’s theory of ‘collective effervescence’. Unlike Durkheim, Rojek believes that the importance of religion has not been surpassed by science and an emphasis on rationality, and has instead been restructured around nature and culture. He argues that a similar religious experience can be felt through participation in spectator sports, animal rights, and ecological movements. It is also suggested that “celebrity culture is secular society’s rejoinder to the decline of religion and magic” (173).

Within the first half of this work, Rojek focuses on the mass consumerism of celebrity culture. He discusses the market of celebrity belongings and compares them to the belief in religious relics. Rojek argues that for a fan, these reliquaries reduce the distance between their celebrity and themselves, with some willing to spend large sums of money; auctions regarding President Kennedy’s possessions fetched upwards of $450,000 each item. However, it seems the real money is made after a star dies. Celebrity cemeteries are major tourist attractions, and the owners of these sites have cashed in on this, charging entry fees and offering funeral packages for burial near one’s idol. The homes such as Graceland have become the centre of pilgrimages for the more dedicated fans, and those who owned them reaching supernatural or divine status.

The second half of Celebrity and Religion deals with the religious and/or divine attributes given to the rise, fall, and redemption of celebrities in general. Rojek discusses aspects such as elevation, magic and immortality in relation to the rise of mass media and the influence of the silver screen. Various examples are given surrounding the descent of celebrities and how both the media and star in question were responsible for their downfall. Lastly, Rojek explores the ritualised attempts of celebrity redemption. He argues this process is not always successful, and that the celebrity may never regain the same level of elevation they once experienced.

While recognising that celebrity culture is no substitute for religion, the idea that celebrity idolism maintains aspects of religiosity is successfully explored within this work. Rojek offers an insight into the world of fandom and attempts to explain the social phenomenon that is celebrity worship.