Religion for some has taken a back seat in our fast paced, technology addicted life styles – but now it’s making a come back.
Religions are embracing the online environment as we’ve never seen before – and it doesn’t stop there. We’re talking podcasts, social networking, SMS calls to prayer – religion at your fingertips and in a form that is second nature to many people today – particularly generations X and Y.
When you think about it, the potential for religion online is just about limitless. You can find about all kinds of religions, experience other cultures, participate in online sermons and in fact, there are now some faiths that only exist online.
In Insight, Homepage producer Amy Spear chatted to World Youth Day Spokesman Jim Hanna and Doctor Kathleen McPhillips, Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney about religion’s shift into cyberspace…
So just to get us started today, Kathleen, are more people turning to technology to learn and practice religion?
It’s a good question. The answer is a little bit complex because part of the problem with the internet is that it’s so diverse and large, so it’s very hard to research. But I think what researchers have found is that there is an enormous amount of material on the internet, covering a very large area of topics and religious traditions and people are very engaged in virtual religion.
Is it all kinds of religion? Different religions?
Yes, it is. Well, major religious traditions, all of them have websites. Then you get new age religions, so lots of pagan websites and you get lots of witch websites and so on. Then you also get lots of religious healing sites, sects and cults are on the internet. There also very productive websites, such as interface dialogue discussions between faith tradition. So it can be a space where there is a lot of diversity and tolerance.
Are you able to tell a particular demographic that uses these? Or is it across the board?
It’s hard to know but it’s probably generations X and Y that are more active on the internet then other generations, particularly in relation to religion. I mean, one of things about religion on the internet is that it does probably encourage a more individualised use or attention to it. So the older generations may be used to going to church on Sunday or Saturday, or whenever it may be, and having a more traditional, physical relationship with their congregations. Whereas younger people are probably more adept at using the internet as a form of community and communication.
Is it that religion is changing? Or is it just taking on a new form of communication?
This is a very good question and it’s one of THE questions – does the internet change the nature of religion and religious practice? I think the answer to that has to be yes. I mean, first of all, there’s the question of the internet itself. It is a kind of mysterious technology. It’s a form of virtual or cyber space – we can’t see it. It isn’t magic – so how does it happen that we can connect up with people that live so far away from us in less than a second? So there’s a question about whether the internet itself is a kind of religious experience and may encourage people to believe in something that doesn’t exist. Then there’s another question about whether people can have religious experiences on the internet using some of the sites. So these are really interesting questions to ask. I think we have to say that it does change the social context in which we practice religion.
Religion amongst younger people has, in some cases, lost relevance over the past few years. The internet, then, could be a way of bringing it back to them – communicating through their means and providing a whole range of info.
Absolutely and I think that’s one of the things that religious congregations are hoping for – that by using these technologies that young people are much more familiar with and comfortable with, that they will be able to reach out to them. Whether they’re successful or not is hard to define. I don’t know if there are any studies done in this area. I mean, one of the things is that there would be a significant group of young people, we know this from the census, that, while they may have been raised in a religious tradition, they don’t practice it. It’s their parents who continue to practice it. So there is an element of alienation amongst young people and the internet might be one way they can keep a connection with a religious tradition active, while not feeling so disoriented and alienated by the weekly practices of that tradition which may not speak to them at all.
In your opinion, what are the most common ways people are using the internet for religion?
What I know about is the New Age sites and I think they’re using them for a lot of different things. You can set up your own website for starters and you can advertise yourself and your religious preferences. But I think for information, to join a group, to do healing practices and also to have fun. You can access things like an Ouija board, so the black arts are there as well. I mean some religious groups only have an existence on the internet and there I’m particularly thinking about Jedi Religion. Now I don’t know if you recall but in the early 2000s (2001 Census) 70 000 Australian nominated Jedi religion as their religious practice and it was a phenomenon that also happened in other Western countries like Britain. From that developed a number of internet sites on Jedi religion so you can actually join a group and become a Jedi Master or practice some of the more esoteric practices associated with Jediism.
To take a closer look at how religions are using technology, I spoke with Jim Hanna from World Youth Day about the initiatives they’ve been using to get their message out there.
World Youth Day is targeted at young people all around the world and, especially in Australia, young people are more tech savvy then the older generations – then their parents and teachers. So we know that if we want to reach people effectively, we’ve got to use the communication tools they use. That used to be radio, TV and maybe some youth magazines but now it’s the internet, it’s mobile phones and it’s a range of different things on the internet. You can’t just say the internet anymore – you’ve got to talk about chat rooms, forums networking pages etc. So we’re looking at the whole range of things and we’ve come up with a few ideas that we hope will appeal to young people and be things they will use.
In what has been termed by some as the Big Prey Out, over 60 000 Aussies from outside of Sydney will join double that from all over the world in this years World Youth Day. So are more people jumping online to find out about it and to connect with other people?
Yeah, I think it’s more the second thing that you said. It’s more connecting with other people and I think a really effective way for young people to get involved in their faith is if they see and hear other people in their own age group taking part in it and this is a great way to see other people do something spiritual. If you’re not talking about a strict religious sense, it might just be looking for guidance and I think getting online is a great way to communicate with other people but still be yourself. There’s still a reasonable degree of anonymity and you can preserve your privacy – you can be yourself a little bit more than you can in a group situation, around a table or at a restaurant or something.
Has this level of communication ever been possible before?
Well that’s right. This is going to be a first for WYD. We’re going to have a social networking space called XT3.com, that’s going to be launched this month, and for the first time Pilgrims from all around the world will be able to get online and become friends before they actually arrive here in Sydney. They can start meeting each other, getting to know each other and getting to know something about each other. We’re also going to have daily text messages from the Pope. The Pope will write something and we’ll get it out to people so it will be a direct communication to them from the Holy Father, which I think is going to be pretty cool. The other thing that I think most people are finding very innovative is an idea we got when U2 were out here the last time, where you could text your phone number to a particular number and you could see your name come up on the big screen at the event. Well what we want to do is do that in a Catholic sort of way. Often people want other people to pray for something, some intention or other, it could be world peace, it could be freedom from hunger, it could be for a sick relative, it could even be for their footy team to win – and Lord knows I’ve been doing a lot of praying for my team! They had a win last week so that’s good – it does work everyone! So what we’re doing is a Digital Prayer Wall where you can text your prayer to a particular number and it will come up on the screen where a couple of hundred people are gathered. It’s great to know that at least some of the people in that crowd would all being praying for that same intention. It gives people a sense of warmth and reassurance. So that’ll be a first and hopefully that will be something that continues on to the next WYD. We’re also going to be bringing people together who might live in regional Australia, by having some sort of webcasting (like a teleconference but on the internet) and we’re hoping to do one of those before WYD. So the Bishop here in Sydney will reach out to people further out in Australia. We’re going to work with Telstra on that.
Jim agrees that religion is now a lot more accessible, particularly to those younger people.
Yeah and I think it needs to be. I think the Church needs to enter the 21st century and I think it’s trying to do that. It needs to appeal to younger people who, as I said before, they just read and hear and see things differently. They still use the old media forms like TV and everything else but I think young people especially work in their own space. If the Church wants to be relevant to them it’s got to come to those spaces and be part of their lives.
Religion, in all its shapes and forms, is certainly taking on a whole new look. And it’s much more accessible in today’s lifestyle to boot. There is still much debate surrounding the issue, so keep an eye out for new developments.