Pros and cons of being a heretic on Faceboook

In the November 13 issue of USA Today there was an article about “A mysterious blogger who set off an uproar in the Arab world by claiming he was God and hurling insults at the Prophet Muhammad is now behind bars — caught in a sting that used Facebook to track him down.”

Below is a longish excerpt form the article that summarizes of what he is accused of (using the internet to spread his views on religion) and how he was caught (by monitoring his online behavior) . This little piece covers both the advantages of internet use, how it enables intellectual freedom and the power it gives to law enforcement to break down on those who violate the local law.

Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a “primitive Bedouin.” He called Islam a “blind faith that grows and takes over people’s minds where there is irrationality and ignorance.”

If that wasn’t enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran. At its peak, Husayin’s Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors, overwhelmingly from Arab countries.

His Facebook groups elicited hundreds of angry comments, detailed death threats and the formation of more than a dozen Facebook groups against him, including once called “Fight the blasphemer who said ‘I am God.'”

The outburst of anger reflects the feeling in the Muslim world that their faith is under mounting attack by the West. This sensitivity has periodically turned violent, such as the street protests that erupted in 2005 after cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad were published in Denmark or after Pope Benedict XVI suggested the Prophet Muhammad was evil the following year. The pope later retracted his comment.

Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.

Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.

Drash: Vayetze – Interwebz literacy

This week’s parasha*, Vayetze (Genesis 28:10–32:3), starts with these lines

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it

Commentators asked lots of questions, but I want to focus on the significance of why the angels were going both up and down. Mordecai Kaplan, one of the founders of Reconstructionist Judaism, suggested that as Jacob was entering a new phase of his journey one set of guiding angels had to leave him and a new set had to come to protect him at his upcoming adventures.

I found this image a useful metaphor for our transition from a life where our interconnectedness was non-digital to a lifestyle that incorporates the channels and medium of the interwebz. We need to reevaluate which of our principles and guiding values are applicable to our online life and how, and which has no relevance there. Or if you wish, which protecting angels can work with us online and which are delegated to the physical world only.

I have been online long enough (starting 1992) to remember when the meaning of the phrase “netiquette” entered the public discourse. It referred to a list of dos and don’ts, what you can/should do online and what is inappropriate. There were lots of variations, depending on who, with what kind of offline value system, wanted to define the meme. All the versions of netiquette I encountered in the mid/late 1990’s intended to be universal, i.e. one set of rules of the whole internet. This worked to some extent before the advent of the social web/Web 2.0.

Nowadays I rarely encounter “netiquette”, as the concept has been superseded by digital literacy. Wikipedia suggest that it is “the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology.” I think it is important to add to it, that the various digital platforms require the users a unique set of skills to use them. There are overlaps in the skillsets, but what one works at one place may not work at another one. E.g. Howard Rheingold wrote up last year the essential of Twitter Literacy for the San Francisco Chronicle. Facebook Literacy is discussed elsewhere, for example in Jeff Verbeem’s slides.

You can find best practices and principles of information use for each major platform. To put it in Biblical terms, you will need a different angel at each digital platform to watch over you, not just for protecting you from committing a faux pas, but also to guide you in your usage of the domain. Jacob “only” needed guiding angels at his real life, but we all need them in our digital ones.

*For what a parasha and a drash is  see the  first paragraph of the first entry in this series.

Is Facebook God?

On November 7 I led a group discussion at my synagogue with a group of teenagers talking under the purposefully provocative title “Is Facebook God?”  We took Maimonides13 attributes of God and attempted to compare it to Facebook or at least discover connections to it. Most of the nine teens and their group leader seemed to enjoy the conversation which lasted about 45 minutes. At the end they were all keen to take home a copy of the handout (PDF, 105 kb) that listed the attributes and provided one Facebook related idea and a suggestion for each. Here is the content of the handout:

There is a Creator who is perfect and put into motion all that exists.

Facebook (FB) and the internet is not perfect but it can put into motion good tendencies. FB is a tool that amplifies what you put into it.
Suggestion: Be proactive in the issues you support.

God is One.

FB is a huge website and you may feel, because of its market dominance, that it is all encompassing and the only one. But other sites exist, that are dominant elsewhere on the planet: Orkut/Brazil, Wiw/Hungary, Bebo/Ireland…
Suggestion: Explore other sites to find exactly what meet your needs.

God has no body, cannot be affected by any physical force.

FB and the internet is non-corporeal and is certainly designed not to be affected by physical force (to withstand a nuclear attack.). But it can be hurt, it is just a complex network of machines and code. See how desperate you feel when Twitter is down. Imagine if FB would be down.
Suggestion: Keep a healthy independence.

God is Eternal.

There were plenty of popular sites before FB. E.g. MySpace was the market leader up to a few years ago. If Google makes a social networking site, it can take FB over. Don’t think that FB is eternal, that it will be there for you forever.
Suggestion: Make periodic backups of your FB profile
(Account->Settings->Download your information)

A Jew must worship God exclusively and no foreign or false gods.

With half a billion users you can encounter all kind of person on FB. It is a great place to connect to other cultures and recognize the value in all. It is also a great place to connect to fellow Jews in your own town, county, state, country and Israel
Suggestion: Support your local Jewish organizations on FB.

God communicates with humanity through prophecy.

Your favorite musician, politician, rabbi, artist, company, team, celebrity … communicates through status updates. You “like” them and follow their activities and words online. However following too many entities may fragment your attention and may bury you into an avalanche of unimportant information.
Suggestion: Fight the tyranny of recency over relevancy.

The prophecy of Moses is the greatest there is and ever will be.

There are people who seem credible online who really are not. There are forms of false prophecy on and offline, often looking like spam. Maimonides’ 12 modes of prophecies, organized by degree of clarity is helpful to identify them.
Suggestion: Read more about the levels of prophecies: tinyurl.com/prophecy-levels

The Torah comes from God.

But what you read on FB does not. People say and write lots of things, motivated by a wide variety of reasons. They may lie about who they are and what they say. Check your sources of information before your trust them.
Suggestion: Think critically about what you read on FB.

The Torah cannot be changed.

FB is changing all the time. Not just the constantly growing content, but the framework, i.e. the features. It is important to follow the terms of service changes to adjust it to your own preferred privacy level.
Suggestion: Use profilewatch.org

God knows and sees all.

FB was partially funded by Accel Partners, a company that has several people from venture capital firm established by the CIA. Law enforcement is using FB in its detective work to enforce the law.
Suggestion: Watch this video tinyurl.com/28mjmdv

God rewards and punishes people.

Your social network can reward and punish your actions. Coming through a single interface, it may feel as if it would be a single, depersonalized community. Don’t be mistaken by it. It consists of individuals.
Suggestion: Being mean on FB will haunt you.

The Messiah and the messianic era will arrive, some day.

Global Brain: Society as a living system, a universal knowledge network, a higher level of evolution.
Messianic Age: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
Suggestion: Think about how you see the Messianic Age and whether the developing Global Brain is bringing it?

God will resurrect the dead.

FB serves as memorial of deceased people. Friend and families leave messages for the dead to keep memories alive. “Memorialized” profiles are frozen with no login, not showing up in searches, only accessible to friends.
Suggestion: Memorialize your deceased friend’s account.

NMC: Religion Online

Elizabeth Pyatt, a Penn State Instruction Designer, participated in New Media Consortium‘s 2008 summer conference. There she attended a presentation by Edward Lamoureux of Bradley University, titled “Expanding our Knowledge About Online Religion and Religion Online.”

This presentation reports research about online religion and religion online (OR/RO) in virtualSecond Life communities. Extant literature about OR/RO is based on, primarily, text-basedinteractions via email, listserves, and bulletin boards, or relatively static websites. The expandedbehavior potentialities in virtual environments, such as Second Life, provide transformativeopportunities for OR/RO. Research therein sheds light on new horizons for the use of technologyin spiritual practice.

Ms Pyatt wrote a detailed blog entry about the session. Her notes mentioned that Lamoureux remembered that other great media revolution (Gutenberg), explored the question is whether the Internet can be used as a source of information only or whether actual religuous ritual can happen online, analyzed the interest in building elaborate churches in Second Life (“the act of building is itself a religious or meditative activity for many people”) and coveed how the Internet is a double-edged sword for religious groups.

Articles added in October

I keep an ever-growing list of articles on the topic of religion online. In the month of October I added 40 entries to it. A lot of them dating back several years, some goes back 12. As I am new to the field I need to familiarize myself with the older materials too, so recency would not reign over relevancy. The list below includes the seven fresh, (published in October) articles I mentioned two days ago. Below is  the most important parts of the list. The full version, with links and abstracts, is here.

  • At the Frontlines of God’s Army: BattleCry as a Microcosm of Modern Evangelical Culture by Lilly Matson Dagdigian
  • Cyber-Islamophobia? The case of WikiIslam by Göran Larsson in Contemporary Islam
  • Cybergnosticism? A Study of Contemporary Christian Faith Communities in Cyberspace by Graham J. G. Hill
  • “Cyberpilgrimage: A Study of Authenticity, Presence and
  • Meaning in Online Pilgrimage Experiences “ by Connie Hill-Smith in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  • Effects of Online Christian Self-Disclosure on Impression Formation by Piotr S. Bobkowski, Sriram Kalyanaraman in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
  • Evangelical Christianity Online: Eliciting Material World Responses in the Cyberworld by Erin Flewelling in Lore
  • Faith Tweets: Ambient Religious Communication and Microblogging Rituals by Pauline Hope Cheong in Media/Culture Journal
  • Heaven’s Gate: The End? by Wendy Gale Robinson in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
  • Identity in Transition: Connecting Online and Offline Internet Practices of Morrocan-Dutch Muslim Youth by Martijn de Koning in Institute for the Study of European Transformations working paper
  • Internet Threats to Hindu Authority: Puja-ordering Websites and the Kalighat Temple by Heinz Scheifinger in Asian Journal of Social Science
  • Internet, Religion and the Attribution of Social Trust by Alf Linderman, Mia Lövheim in “Mediating religion”
  • Interpreting Islam through the Internet: making sense of hijab by Heather Marie Akou in Contemporary Islam
  • Miracles or Love? How Religious Leaders Communicate Trustworthiness through the Web by Stefano Pace in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  • My[Sacred]Space: Discovering Sacred Space in Cyberspace by Seth Walker in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  • New Thoughts on the Status of the Religious Cyborg by Paul Emerson Teusner in Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion
  • On the Relevance of Angeletics and Hermeneutics for Information Technology by Capurro Rafael, Takenouchi Tadashi, Kawasaki Leslie M. Tkach, Iitaka Toshikazu in International Journal of Applied Research on Information Technology and Computing
  • Online U-Topia: Cyberspace and the Mythology of Placelessness by Douglas E Cowan in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
  • Online-Religion in Japan: Websites and Religious Counseling from a Comparative Cross-Cultural Perspective by Akira Kawabata, Takanori Tamura in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
  • Our Lady of Persistent Liminality: Virtual Church, Cyberspace, and Second Life by Rachel Wagner in “God in the Details”
  • Programming the Apocalypse: Recombinant narrative in cyberspace by Dino Enrico Cardone
  • Pixelated Stained Glass: A Fantasay Theme Analysis of Online and Face-to-face Christian Community by Elizabeth B. Jones
  • Religion on-Religion in Cyberspace by Anastasia Karaflogka in “Predicting religion: Christian, secular, and alternative futures”
  • Religiosity Online: Holy Connections with the Homeland by Filipino Migrants in Japan by Reggy Capacio Figer, Winton Lou G. Ynion in Asian Social Science
  • Religious Conflicts in Cyberage by Birgit Braumluchler in Citizenship Studies
  • St. Pixels: An Experiment in Online Community by Sophie Lam
  • Texting God: SMS and religion in the Philippines by Anthony G. Roman in Presented at the 5th International Conference on Media, Religion and Culture, Stockholm
  • Texting Tolerance: Computer-Mediated Interfaith Dialogue by Ally Ostrowski in Webology
  • The Effect of Religiosity on Shopping Behavior: An Exploratory Study during the Transitional Period in China by Xian, China in 2009 International Conference on Information Management, Innovation Management and Industrial Engineering
  • The internet and collective consciousness: an exploration of spiritually based social movements online by John Lannon in Internet Research Annual, Volume 4
  • The Internet and the Church: An Introduction by Timothy Hutchings in The Expository Times
  • The Jagannath Temple and Online Darshan by Heinz Scheifinger in Journal of Contemporary Religion
  • The Sacred and the Virtual: Religion in Multi-User Virtual Reality by Ralph Schroeder, Noel Heather, Raymond M. Lee in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
  • The Semiotics of Religious Space in Second Life by Massimo Leone
  • Tweeting Prayers and Communicating Grief Over Michael Jackson Online by Jimmy Sanderson, Pauline Hope Cheong in Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society
  • Virtual Religion and Duality of Religious Spaces by Ameli, Saied Reza in Asian Journal of Social Science
  • Virtually Religious: New Religious Movements and the World Wide Web” by Dougles E Cowen, Jeffrey K. Hadden in “The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements”
  • Weaving Webs of Faith: Examining Internet Use and Religious Communication Among Chinese Protestant Transmigrants by Pauline Hope Cheong, Jessie P. H. Poon in Journal of International and Intercultural Communication
  • www.Faith.org: (Re)structuring Communication and Social Capital Building among Religious Organizations” by Pauline Hope Cheong, Jessie P.H. Poon in Information, Communication and Society
  • ‘You Wince in Agony as the Hot Metal Brands You’: Religious Behavior in an Online Role-Playing Game by David Feltmate in Journal of Contemporary Religion

Cybersociology: Religion Online / Techno-Spiritualism

Cybersociology Magazine was  a forum for the cross-disciplinary academic discussion of life online, until September 1999. Its last, seventh web based issue, focusing on Religion Online / Techno-Spiritualism, had five relevant articles:

The Spirtual Cyborg, by Erik Davis, a San Franciso-based writer, culture critic, and independent scholar who recently published “TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information” (Harmony Books, 1998).

Examines the theme of the ‘spiritual cyborg’ with particular attention to two contemporary spiritual movements, i.e. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way and Ron Hubbard’s Scientology

Is Cyberspace a Spiritual Space?, by Margaret Wertheim, is a regular contributor to numerous magazines and is the author of “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet” and “Pythagoras Trousers”

Many cyber-enthiusiasts have techno-religious yearnings and are convinced that cyberspace is a new kind a spiritual space. In her wonderful book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, Margaret Wertheim traces the history of western notions of space and how these have been informed by cultural, and particularly religious, concerns. From Dante’s Inferno to today’s Internet, there’s a connection in the dualistic Western conception where body and soul are seen as two distinct spheres. Within this tradition, the immaterial has always been equated with with the spiritual. Such a confusion is not without dangers, Wertheim argues . The following essay is a shortened and excerpted version of chapter seven of her book.

Dialogue on the Cyber-Sacred and the Relationship Between Technological and Spiritual Development, by Michel Bauwens and Father Vincent Rossi.

The following is a dialogue on the notion of the cyber-sacred and the relationship between technological and spiritual development. The first entry is written by our guest editor Michel Bauwens, who penned down his conclusions after finalising a three-hour documentary on this subject, entitled TechnoCalyps, which will be shown this fall on several TV stations worldwide. The response is from Father Vincent Rossi, who is a priest in the Christian Orthodox tradition.

Techno-Spiritual Quotes, Collected by Jeremy S. Gluck, the founder of Spiritech UK, an association that strongly believes not only the function of technology as a mirror of human consciousness but in the eventual unfolding of an original machine consciousness that will be a partner to humankind.

Cyberspace: the New Frontier for Religion, by Lin Collette, Brown University, USA.

Articles published in October

I am aware of seven articles that were published in October 2010 that directly relate to the topic of religion online. I will list them below with the abstracts if available.

Sidenote: I was pleased with myself when I read Heidi Campbell’s blog entry listing “New Publications in Religion and the Internet. She is a scholar who is  immersed in this field and has more access to resources than I do, but I found earlier three of the five articles she mentioned on the list. So my finger starts to get on the pulse of the discipline.

Tweeting Prayers and Communicating Grief Over Michael Jackson Online
by Jimmy Sanderson, Pauline Hope Cheong
in Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society

Death and bereavement are human experiences that new media helps facilitate alongside creating new social grief practices that occur online. This study investigated how people’s postings and tweets facilitated the communication of grief after pop music icon Michael Jackson died. Drawing on past grief research, religion, and new media studies, a thematic analysis of 1,046 messages was conducted on three mediated sites (Twitter, TMZ.com, and Facebook). Results suggested that social media served as grieving spaces for people to accept Jackson’s death rather than denying it or expressing anger over his passing. The findings also illustrate how interactive exchanges online helped recycle news and “resurrected” the life of Jackson. Additionally, as fans of deceased celebrities create and disseminate web-based memorials, new social media practices such as “Michael Mondays” synchronize tweets within everyday life rhythms and foster practices to hasten the grieving process.

The Internet and the Church: An Introduction
by Timothy Hutchings
in The Expository Times

The Internet is connecting people and organisations around the world in important new ways, changing the way we relate to one another, find resources, share information and form communities. These changes have very important implications for Christians and their churches. This article offers an overview of online activity, including websites, blogs, forums, social network sites, virtual worlds and online evangelism, and introduces theoretical work on the importance of online social networking, the role of the user in shaping technology, and the balance between control and participation in online activity.

Internet Threats to Hindu Authority: Puja-ordering Websites and the Kalighat Temple
by Heinz Scheifinger
in Asian Journal of Social Science

This article investigates particular threats to authority within Hinduism as a result of the Internet. It focuses upon websites which allow for pujas (devotional rituals) to be ordered to be carried out at the important Kalighat Temple in Kolkata. The two groups which currently exercise authority at the temple are identified, along with the specific forms of authority which they exercise. The processes which are occurring as a result of the puja-ordering websites and the activities of those responsible for them are then demonstrated. The argument put forward is that, in addition to the puja ordering services being a threat to both the authority of the temple administration and the priests working there, they also have the potential to affect the relationship between these two groups. Findings from the Kalighat Temple case study further suggest that the effects at temples of online puja-ordering services are dependent upon the current situation at respective temples.

‘You Wince in Agony as the Hot Metal Brands You’: Religious Behavior in an Online Role-Playing Game
by David Feltmate
in Journal of Contemporary Religion

Examining the role of religion in the online, text-based fantasy role-playing game Darkmists, this article explores the factors that could lead to a religion existing exclusively online. Interviews with players and primary sources gathered from the game demonstrate that players create a culture in an online environment where religion is an important social element. Building on Erving Goffman’s theory of frame analysis, the ways people use offline perceptions of religion to create online religions are analyzed for their theoretical importance.

Interpreting Islam through the Internet: making sense of hijab
by Heather Marie Akou
in Contemporary Islam

Hijab, the practice of modesty or “covering,” is one of the most visible and controversial aspects of Islam in the twenty-first century, partly because the Qur’an offers so little guidance on proper dress. This forces Muslims to engage in ijtihad (interpretation), which historically has resulted in vast differences in dress around the world. By transcending some of the boundaries of space, time and the body, the Internet has emerged as a place where Muslims from diverse backgrounds can meet to debate ideas and flesh them out through shared experiences. After discussing hijab in the Qur’an and other traditional sources, this article explores the use of cyberspace as a multi-media platform for learning about and debating what constitutes appropriate Islamic dress. The last section focuses on a case study of the multi-user “hijablog” hosted by thecanadianmuslim.ca, which represents one of the largest in-print discussions on hijab ever recorded in the English language. On this blog and other forums like it, ijtihad has become a critical tool for debate on matters such as hijab, which are important but sparsely discussed in the Qur’an.

Religiosity Online: Holy Connections with the Homeland by Filipino Migrants in Japan
by Reggy Capacio Figer, Winton Lou G. Ynion
in Asian Social Science

Religion is an indelible aspect of Filipino culture.  It has been challenged by different modes of discourses and has resulted to a variety of sects (kapatiran) and cults (samahan).  In the contemporary dispersion of human capital, Filipinos have been caught in the suspension of the performance of religiosity.  It is on this context that Internet has been utilized to develop significant network connections among Filipinos in diaspora.  This paper seeks to examine the interface between religiosity and the Internet use of Filipino migrants in Japan.  Drawing from the textual analysis of online postings on Timog.com, it is evident that Filipino religiosity is reproduced as a form of long-distance ritual practice and cyber pilgrimage.  Through the interchange of affective subscription to one’s religion, Filipinos develop connections among online migrants and with the sacred homelan

New Thoughts on the Status of the Religious Cyborg
by Paul Emerson Teusner
in Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion

Drash: Haye Sarah – Online memorials

In order that the whole  Torah, the five books of Moses, would be read in the course of a year Jewish tradition divides it into weekly sections, “parashot“. It is customary to read and reflect on the week’s parasha (singular form of “parashot“). Rabbis and others often develop a drash (exegesis/commentary) based on it, sharing a teaching they deduce from the Torah’s texts. Last week I delivered a five minute long drash at the beginning of a meeting. I enjoyed and was inspired by the process and decided that I can use the traditional framework to share thoughts on religion online. Below is my first attempt.

This week’s parasha is Haye Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18. In it Sarah dies, Abraham manages to purchase the Machpelah cave as the burial site. By the end of the parasha he passes away and gets buried at the same place. (In later chapters we learn that all patriarchs and matriarchs are buried there.)

The bargaining process that Abraham conducts to buy the cave is intricate and described in details. Lots of commentaries were written about its importance, showing that owning the cave outright has significance. In relation to religion online I first wanted to analyze the functions of  physical tombs and memorials through the lenses of  whose (perceived) interest we are looking at (the deceased, family, friends, larger community, God, or in the case of celebrities fans). Having peaked into the literature I decided that it is too vast to cover in a short blog entry. Particularly that I wanted to compare the functions of the offline memorials with that of the online ones.

Next I thought I would do a listing of online memorial sites. Doing that may have limited utility for the reader, but at least I would familiarize myself with the major players in the field. Here are a few non-religious sites:

And a few religious places:

Side note: The linked websites at the Virtual Memorial entry of the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying is woefully out of date, most of them are either dead sites (no pun intended) or show that their design haven’t been updated for the last 10 years. Which could be valued as an advantage , considering that we are talking about eternal sites here, but looking at it from web-savvy perspectives they show their age.

Next I thought I would give a quick overview of the literature on online memorials. Again, there is so much out there that I don’t have time to read and decide which pieces are worthy to include here. So, at the end I decided simply to share the original thought that prompted this entry. The physical location and the rights to it of Sarah’s burial site was important for Abraham. He believed that the only way he could ensure that her tomb would never be bothered if he (and his descendants) would own the place.

Most online memorials are single pages (or sections) of large websites specialized in selling memorials. Some places offer you to maintain (i.e. keep online and fully functional) the online memorials for one time fee. But most require a yearly payment. Either way the virtual tomb is much lass static than its physical counterpart. Its accessibility depends on the infrastructure of the internet, including the backbones, servers, hosts, domain registrars. So nobody can own the whole “land” for a virtual memorial; most people just rent some minimal space and service from a company handling thousands of similar mini-sites. Even if you operate your own server and own your own domain name, visibility of your site will depend on the upstream provider(s) and DNS servers too.

In short virtual memorials provide an opportunity for bereavement from anywhere in the world for anybody, but at the price of being much less eternal than physical ones. I wonder what kind of virtual memorial Abraham would have set up for Sarah? I suspect none as he was more concerned of Sarah’s perceived need (i.e. that her body would not be disturbed till the Messiah comes) than with the bereaving family’s.

(FYI: I am aware that I was discounting all the wonderful Midrash about the Machpelah cave, including that Adam and Eve is buried there and that it has hole accessing the under/after-world.)

Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion

Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion is a new online journal, edited by Joseph Duggan and published by Sopher Press. Their content is slowly evolving and I hope the design of the website will too. For now the latter is quite simple, but the former is already worth following. I like that they announce on their Facebook page every time new content is added. Here is what they have online so far:

  • October 25: Third article: John M. Francis and Murdo Macdonald: “All Things New: A Brief History of the First Forty Years of the Church of Scotland Society, Religion and Technology Project, 1970-2010.”
  • October 19: Second article: “New Thoughts on the Status of the Religious Cyborg,” by Paul Emerson Teusner
  • October 11: First book review: Elizabeth Drescher reviews Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus
  • October 11: First article: “Intersections Between Technologies and Religions: The Next Generation,” by  Joseph F. Duggan.

The topic of this new journal/website is close to what I want to do with this website. See their introduction:

Theologians and theorists interested in religion are beginning to address technology on their own terms as a community-enabling tool. Community has surfaced through a variety of different dimensions, including online church opportunities, digitized diaspora, and the application of diverse modes of theological criticism to new technologies. JTTR’s articles in the first six months will reflect popular interests among theologians such as virtual church, Facebook, cyborgs, and identity formation through cyberspace. We invite submissions on these and related topics, such as faith and video games, global connectedness and religious communities, online pedagogies and religious education, divisions created by technology use, religious attitudes toward technological innovation, ecology and sustainability, nanotechnology, genetic technology, and more.

When I was brainstorming the URL/name for my own site one of the ideas I was considering was techandreligion.com.. Considering that I own (and eventually will start to redevelop beyond its old content and structure) filmandreligion.com it would have fit nicely into my profile. But I am happy that somebody else took it and will fill it with content. I wish the best to this journal and will probably keep mentioning them as newer articles will appear on the site.

Cyber pilgrimage – In the Courtyard of the Beloved

I just watched an amazing multimedia presentation of a Sufi shrine. I recommend you to immerse yourself (full screen volumes turned up, no interruption), as much as you can on a computer screen, into the world re-imagined and captured here. More on the experience after the official description:

IN THE COURTYARD OF THE BELOVED ( http://exposureroom.com/members/andreasburgess/26664dd5b55c449c8fa6faacc2667076 ) is a visual and aural portrait of Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, a Sufi shrine in New Delhi, India. Made from over 18,000 still images and ambient sounds recorded on-site, rapid-fire bursts of kaleidoscopic imagery assemble into fractured collages where a moment expands outwards and then converges back into itself, fleshing out a three-dimensional rendering of place.

Each day, hundreds of pilgrims travel by airplane, train, car, rickshaw and foot to reach this shrine, which honors a 12th century Sufi mystic who believed in drawing close to God through renunciation of the world and service to humanity. Beginning with imagery from these journeys, the film then enters the physical space of the shrine; a unique nexus of marketplace, social space and spiritual haven, where devotees come to offer their prayers and find a moment of reflection away from the din of Delhi traffic. As the sun sets behind the dome, musicians begin the qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music that ranges from contemplative religious elegy to raucous crescendo.

Having explored the shrine’s visual and auditory experience online I started to think about the nature of cyber-pilgrimages. I had three circles of thoughts before I checked what the literature says. First, noticing the fantastic opportunities that new media enables for pilgrims. The full sensory experience of being at a shrine cannot be duplicated via digital means (yet). However the online world can add a lot to the offline, and create a different kind of pilgrimage that in some ways is better than the original. There are features and characteristics of doing it online that you cannot do offline. Starting with the number and mix of concurrent visitors, not to mention the mix of people who can be “present” at the same time.

My second line of thought was about how (virtual) access to sites that hold significance in your belief system can change your religious life. On one hand it can be provide you strength and refreshments to “go” there any time you want to. On the other hand it may cheapen the experience, because one of the value of doing a pilgrimage is the infrequency of the event. Something you prepare for and anticipate and then fully present yourself for. If it’s just a click away that may take away from the spirit of it.

Finally, if your religion is keen on proselytizing then the option for cyber-pilgrimages can act a double edge sword. It and the aesthetic beauty of your shrines can draw in people. But it can also alienate potential converts. After all why bother joining, if they can get whatever they want online. I know that it is very limited and simplistic view of conversion and religion itself, just arguing the devil’s advocate here.

Now let’s have a quick view of what scholars wrote about cyber-pilgrimage. This is not exhaustive survey of the literature, just a few highlights on chronological order.

Mark W. MacWilliams argues in a 2002 issue of Religion, in his “Virtual Pilgrimages on the Internet,” article that virtual pilgrimage has four key characteristics as a form of religious travel:

  • First, it creates a mythscape, an immaterial mental geography that originally comes from sacred oral or scriptural traditions.
  • Second, it exists as an interactive visual-auditory medium for experiencing a sense of sacred presence.
  • Third, it generates symbolic forms of entertainment that are liminoid in character.
  • Fourth, as a leisure activity of individuals ‘Net surfing’ from their home or office computers, it can create ‘virtual travelling communities’ of pilgrims who use the discourse of communitas to describe their experience.

Sabine Kalinock, in a 2006 issue of Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet,  discusses the relation between innovations and traditional discourses in her “Going on Pilgrimage Online : the Representation of Shia Rituals on the Internet” essay:

Emphasis is laid on the possibilities that the Internet offers and which are especially important in the Muslim and Iranian context: the mixing of the sexes, exchange with believers in other parts of the world and the free expression of critical ideas.

Below is the abstract of Connie Hill-Smith‘s “Cyberpilgrimage: A Study of Authenticity, Presence and   Meaning in Online Pilgrimage” in a 2009 issue of Journal of Religion and Popular Culture:

The idea of cyberpilgrimage may be met with scepticism. There may be a sense that pilgrimage via the Internet intrinsically cannot be authentic, that without any physical depth, it can only be an affectation, even a caricature, of “proper” (terrestrial) pilgrimage. This “authenticity issue” is crucial, and failure to address it will undermine academic attempts at its study, even while Internet religion becomes increasingly central to understanding contemporary religious expression. This article explores various aspects of the new phenomenon of cyberpilgrimage, framed by a discussion of the potential authenticity of cyberpilgrimage.

I feel that these three articles prove that my initial thoughts were on the right track. I still have a lot to read on the topic, I will probably start with reading all the references of the last, latest article. Meanwhile I cannot deny the feelings the Courtyard presentation evoked in me, a non-Muslim, who appreciates Sufi theology, poetry and the art it inspired throughout the centuries. I bow in front of beauty but do not prostrate myself.