CFP-Islamopedia Online Public Resource at Harvard

From my email box:

The Islam in the West Program at Harvard University is presently soliciting short contributions for Islamopedia Online, a public web-based resource on contemporary Islamic thought and religious opinion available at at islamopediaonline.org .  Since its inception, Islamopedia Online has gathered material on contemporary Muslim intellectual debates, interpretations, and controversies with support from the Carnegie Corporation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard.

Contributions are displayed under the “Analysis” tab on our website to explain to an audience from the general public the rationales, cultural and political factors, diversity of opinions, and sometimes dissent among religious authorities on a wide range of issues.

We are currently inviting papers on the current Islamic debates on status of religious minorities (in and outside Muslim majority-countries), women’s religious leadership, apostasy, secularism, and bio-ethics.  Length should be approximately 3000 words with minimal footnotes.  Links to relevant internet multimedia are welcome.

Contributions are compensated on a sliding scale depending on the originality and depth.  Submissions should be received by Dec. 1st 2010, unless otherwise arranged. Interested parties contact: clizzio@mail.harvard.edu

The Dead Sea Scrolls online

As this Reuters article announced the Dead Sea Scrolls will be available online in high-resolution images. The New York Times coverage has more details about the history a of the scrolls and the technical aspects of the project of putting them online. Neither piece mentions when will the images be available (although NYT mentions the possibility of matter or months) and whether access to them will be free or not.

This is an important step in democratizing access. From the many function the internet can play in religious life widening the circle who has access to information, or in the case of religion founding texts, is an important one. However it would be misleading to think that the circle of people who will actually read the Scrolls in their original will be growing  exponentially.

The process is similar how the “digital divide” concept changed over the years. Originally it was about simple question of access: the two sides of the divide were compared on whether they could access the internet or not. Rural vs urban, young vs old people, affluent vs poor, males vs females… These were some of the categories we used to think of. Nowadays that the technical access is cheap and pervasive, digital divide experts ask questions about how people are using their access and what defines their effective use of the available information. The issue became primarily a question of skills and the obstacles to attain them.

Similarly, religious scholars and clergy have been fighting for decades to gain access to the  Dead Sea Scrolls. As the result of decisions often based on politics the circle of people who could study them remained relatively small. Now the circle, presumably, will be extended to everybody. Does it mean that every person will be able to read, understand, and analyze the text? No, you still have to be steeped into the language it was written in, familiar with the script to be able to recognize the differences between that version of the Bible and other ones in order to draw any conclusion. Theoretically the role interpretation of the text can be taken out of the hands of the high priests of science, but more realistically speaking only those who can read the text and have the necessary background knowledge will be able to conduct meaningful analysis. But they will no longer control the access.

Patel: Acts of Faith (2010)

Yesterday I posted a review of Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation on my personal blog. It is a book about the author’s path leading to building an interfaith youth movement, driven by the belief that influencing young people  during their formative years can help ushering them onto a positive path, based on understanding and tolerance.

Considering the topic and the age of the author I was surprised to find almost no reference to technology. He talks a lot about the effects of offline personal connections, mentoring, peer groups and examples but doesn’t mention at all the possibility of similar online relations. The only example I found in the book to religion online was a negative one on page 145:

The Christian Identity movement is particularly adept on the web. Their sites feature electronic coloring books with white supremacist symbols, crossword puzzles with racist clues, and twenty-four hour webcasts. Interested in reading Eric Rudolph’s most recent musings or writing to him in jail? You can find that information, plus several flattering photographs of him, at the Army of God website. Online Bible studies masquerade as mainstream endeavors slowly take unsuspecting students deeper and deeper into the theology of white supremacy.

I liked the book very much, just was surprised how little the internet influenced Patel’s path. Fortunately the organization he founded is better at using the web, than his book would suggest. This is one of many example showing that technology can be used for good the same way as it can be for good.

(Reactions to the) U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

On September 28 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, a nationwide poll conducted from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.” The Executive summary is interesting enough on its own and if you want to get more details, just follow the links in the right column. The first two paragraphs summarizes the very key findings:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

As expected there were lots of reactions to the findings. Here is a small sampling:

  • Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times recounted many numbers and included quotes from one of the researchers and the president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers.
  • Ed Stoddard, blogging at Reuter’s FaithWorld, added a wikimedia commons image to the numbers with symbols of 9 religions.
  • Timothy Burke, who is Easily Distractedgoes after the (lack of)  significance that “Fewer than half of Americans do [know who Martin Luther was], apparently, as well as half of Protestants in specific.” He differentiate between use of knowledge and knowledge for knowledge sake. He argues that Luther has little relevance in today’s US society , because the circumstances he drew his thesis from are so different than ours.
  • The bloggers at Killing the Buddha site  quote the New York Times article and suggest to readers feeling scandalized to read Stephen Prothero’s (a ktb contributor) books Religious Literacy and God Is Not One.
  • Mitchell Landsberg, at the Los Angeles Times, includes a few explanation for the surprising results, by researchers, and a reverend.
  • The Two Way blog at National Public Radio, quoted some results, linked to the LA Times piece and found it interesting “that Black Protestants and Latino Catholics scored at the bottom of the survey.”
  • Manya Brachear, the Seeker at the Chicago Tribune, points out that “There was no golden age, no time of ‘good old days’ [of religious literacy].”
  • Nicholas D. Kristof compiled a pop quiz (similar to and inspired by the quiz you can take at the PEW site) at the New York Times, to show that Koran is not the only or the most violent of the books of major religions.

Articles published in September

I found these five articles on the topic of religion and the internet that were published online in scholarly journals during the month of September.

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

Religion has long been playing an important role in influencing human behavior, however, its marketing value as a predictor of consumer behavior has not been adequately examined even though studies in the marketing literature argue that religion influence both behavior and purchasing decisions. This paper examines the effect of religiosity on consumer choice and is based on the proposition that religiosity significantly influences shopping behavior. Using the purchase of a mobile phone as the basis, the research tests the shopping behavior of Christians in China. The results indicate that a kind of shopper, namely trend shopper is consistently related to religiosity, suggesting that religiosity should be considered as a possible determinant of shopping behavior in the future.

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.

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

This paper deals with the relevance of ‘angeletics’ (from Greek ‘angelía’ = message) or message theory and hermeneutics or theory of interpretation for information technology. In the first paragraph the difference between the concepts of ‘information’ and ‘message’ is explained. Different information concepts have given rise to the so-called “Capurro’s trilemma” which is briefly explained in the second paragraph. The power of selecting information from a message becomes a challenge for present democracies facing digital globalization. International regulations are needed no less than “technologies of the self” (M. Foucault). Angeletics is the implicit foundation of hermeneutics as explained in the next paragraph. We live in message societies which means that the ethics of traditional mass media are not enough for dealing with the new technological and societal challenges. The last paragraph opens a dialogue with Régis Debray’s “médiologie” and envisages the future task of empirical angeletics.

Effects of Online Christian Self-Disclosure on Impression Formation
by Piotr S. Bobkowski, Sriram Kalyanaraman
in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

This experiment examined the effects of online Christian disclosure. Respondents (N = 233) viewed a fictional social networking profile containing one of three levels of Christian disclosure frequency: none, nominal, and extensive. Respondents made few distinctions between nondisclosure and nominal disclosure. Most notably, respondent religiosity moderated impressions. Regardless of disclosure level, religious respondents rated profile owners as more likeable and less stereotypically negative than less religious respondents. The least religious respondents tended to rate the extensively disclosing Christian as least romantically desirable and with more negative stereotyping. The most religious respondents rated the extensively disclosing Christian as most likeable and as most romantically desirable. Christian identity tended to be assumed when not disclosed. Nominal disclosure may constitute a socially acceptable level of online Christian disclosure.

The Field of Religious Studies

This post will be slightly off from my usual topic of religion on the internet. But I just read an article (and two more it referred to) that stuck an emotional chord. The original articles was Mark Hulsether‘s Studying Religion is Suddenly Popular at Religion Dispatches. In it he analyzed Newsweek‘s article on “Religious Studies Revival.”

Both pieces mention University of California, Santa Barbara, where both my wife and I got BAs in Religious Studies and where we actually met. Here is what the Newsweek authors, Johannah Cornblatt and Nayeli Rodriguez, had to say about our alma mater:

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, long home to one of the country’s most innovative religion departments, two new courses illustrate religious studies’ shift in emphasis. One, The Evolutionary and Cognitive Science of Religion, looks at the religious impulse of the human mind; the other, Origins: A Dialogue Between Scientists and Humanists, is cross-listed as a physics course and is UCSB’s answer to the broader culture’s larger “faith versus reason” debates.

That sounds rally positive, right? However as Hulsether’s analysis shows the underlying tone of the Newsweek piece overall is that the field is struggling to become less esoteric, less connected to its Christian origins and has uniquely strong associations with social activism. None of these are correct and are based on stereotypes that the article strengthens in readers not familiar with the field.

When we were attending UCSB it already had 5 major programs (Buddhist Studies, Center for Middles East Studies, Jewish Studies, Sikh and Punjab Studies, American Indian & Indigenous Studies)  and was in the process of setting up the sixth, the first Christian one: Catholic Studies. This is not what I would call of trying to get out of Christian focus. Just the other way, trying to engage with it, in addition to all the other areas it already had.

I can offer anecdotal evidence against Newsweek’s assumption regarding  social activism too. At UCSB I also earned a BA in Sociology. When I compare the students at the two departments I find that the Sociology students were more interested in actively bettering the world, while the religious Studies students were often more introspective.

Finally, I didn’t feel or was made to fell at any point during my academic career that the field would be esoteric in any sense. I know that from a scientific point of view, my single example is not enough to disprove Newsweek’s points, but I had to mention them, as they contradict my personal experience.

ReligionLink: God and Facebook

Religion|Link is a “religion story idea and source list resource by journalists, for journalists.” On September 29 they ran a collection of links under the “God and Facebook: Is social networking changing religion?” title. In the first part of the page–prompted by the new movie about the the birth of Facebook, “The Social Network“–they raise points like:

  • Are virtual networks deepening or undermining interpersonal relationships — and our spiritual lives?
  • Something crucial to faith, like a concrete sense of community and the experiential aspect of religious practice, is being lost.

Instead of providing resolutions they offer a list of resources for journalists to find their own answers. Their “background” section includes links to guidelines, original and secondary research on the topic, and to actual online religious communities. Next we get an annotated list of 16 articles in the popular press/mass media ranging from 2007 till last  week. They also link to the issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication that covers religion. The list of religious social networking sites is organized by religions, while the “national resources” is a list of scholars, clergy and industry people who contributed to the study or practice  field or the practice. The page ends with a list of experts organized by the regions of the USA.

The resources are well collected, but far from comprehensive. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as it is intended as a starting point for journalists, who want to write about the topic. As such, it is a well-rounded collection, because it includes links to everything quoted, mentioned. This may sound obvious, after all, collecting quality links is the mission of the site. However I read so many online articles, where the simple step of linking to original materials was omitted that I wanted to praise this page for doing what they set out to.

Campbell: When Religion Meets New Media

I mentioned Heidi Campbell–one of the leading scholars in the area of religion on the net–in several posts, but I never introduced her latest book, When Religion Meets New Media, published in March this year. On the publisher’s page (Routledge) you  find a short description, a shorter review and an even shortest author bio. Here is the official description:

This lively book focuses on how different Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities engage with new media. Rather than simply reject or accept new media, religious communities negotiate complex relationships with these technologies in light of their history and beliefs. Heidi Campbell suggests a method for studying these processes she calls the “religious-social shaping of technology” and students are asked to consider four key areas: religious tradition and history; contemporary community values and priorities; negotiation and innovating technology in light of the community; communal discourses applied to justify use.

A wealth of examples such as the Christian e-vangelism movement, Modern Islamic discourses about computers and the rise of the Jewish kosher cell phone, demonstrate the dominant strategies which emerge for religious media users, as well as the unique motivations that guide specific groups.

And the table of contents:

Acknowledgements
Introduction
1. Understanding Religious Communities Responses to Media
2. Religious Communities and the Internet
3. Considering How Religious Communities Construct Technology
4. History & Tradition: How History and Tradition Shape Religious Communities Approach to New Media
5. Core Values: How Community Values Construct a Basis for Responding to Technology
6. Negotiating with New Media: To Accept, Reject or Reconfigure?
7. Communal Discourse: How Religious Communities Talk about new Media
8. Studying the Religious Culturing of New Media: The Case of the Kosher Cell Phone
9. Conclusion

What prompted me to write about the book now is that Ms. Campbell posted another review , from Claire Badaracco of Marquette University, on her blog about her book:

Heidi Campbell examines how religions negotiate borders and the social and cultural    processes of meaning-making using new media technology. This work has advanced the field as Campbell makes a compelling case for her argument that a robust scholarly approach within the study of media, religion, and culture is needed as it applies to media technology. The author provides the rigorous, comprehensive level of analysis grounding her discussion in the history and traditions of the community as determinative of the currency and wisdom informing new media use, and how orthodox and fundamentalist believers’ “core values” (p. 88) contextualize their uses of new media.

You can buy the book at Amazon as a hardcover, paperback or eBook.

NPR: Religious search engines

A few days ago I mentioned how we like to read content that conforms our belief system. Today NPR had a short piece about religious search engines. These sites take this concept even further and provide their users with search results only from sites approved by the editorial boards of these companies.

The NPR piece, titled Religious Search Engines Yield Tailored Results,  was written and produced by Habiba Nosheen, an award winning Pakistani/Canadian/American journalist. After the introduction of the topic and a brief mention of SeekFind, a Christian search engine, we learn more about the users and creators of I’mHalal, a Muslim one. The second half of the article compares and contrasts the views of whether such search engines practice censorship or their “selective inclusion” brings new users to the web.

I found the piece lacking clarity. Maybe the editors cut it short, but calling the voluntary use of a limited search engine censorship is misleading. Had they talked about the gatekeeping role in closed communities, where the only allowed and/or socially approved search engine is a religious one I’d have found the debate more meaningful. That’s one of the research topics of Karine Nahon (Barzilai-Nahon), which I will talk about in another post.

I also missed a bit of analysis of the technologies involved at religious search engines. From my, technically inclined, point of view it is important which of three options a site uses. Most religious search engines simply create a “Google Custom Search“, a service that allows to use Google search feature on a limited, predefined set of sites. This is what Jewogle (mentioned in the article) is using. One step up on the ladder of complexity is using a commercial (or open source) search engines that you actually need to install on your server, because it indexes and searches the content of your site internally. For example SeekFind is using Zoom. (This kind of solution is typical for “older” search engines that have been around since before Google started to offer its Custom Search solution.) I’mHalal, however decided to create its own technology and algorithm, which is the most time, skill and money consuming option of the three.

From a user perspective there may not be much difference, but the effort it takes to set up a search engine varies a great deal: setting up a Google Custom Search can be done in 5 minutes; downloading, purchasing, and installing Zoom can be done in half an hour, but if you want the right kind of results you will need to configure it to your needs, which adds more time. Developing your own search engine from scratch is a major enterprise.

The level of customization also changes along these levels of technical options. If you test drive the various Jewish search engines I listed below you will see that Koogle’s results page is most unique, while the others’ are very similar to each other. Google offers some customization in terms of colors and fonts, but the elements of the page will always be the same.

Google Custom Search

Commercial tool

In-house tool

  • Koogle.co.il

Rachel Wagner, PhD

Reading Religion Dispatches will slowly introduce me to more people who write, study, work on the topic of religion and the internet. On Labor Day I read about a new online game based on the Bible. The author, Rachel Wagner, explains what a MMORTS (massively multiplayer online real-time strategy) is and how this kind of games work. Then she asks lots of good questions the game poses, including:

  • How [does] the game’s dynamics handle the problem of divine inevitability and human interaction?
  • Could the very notion of interactivity in a game like this have some effect on our everyday approach to the Bible’s stories?
  • What if anything it means if I, as a woman, play as Abraham and direct the conquest of Canaan?
  • What exactly would it mean to win the game?
  • If I play it, do I become more “pious?”
  • How we as a culture we are trying to figure out the relationship between play, theology, and performance of belief.

These intelligent, provocative questions piqued my interest in the author. I found that on Religion Dispatches she wrote two more articles: Dreaming Cyborg Dreams: Virtual Identity and Religious Experience in 2009 (about “four types of immersive new media that address the issue of religious identity”) and Sacred Texting: When Religious Writ Gets Wired in 2008 (seeking answers for the questions of “What are the new forms that sacred texts are taking? And what are the implications of these transformations?”)

Next, I checked Ms. Wagner’s page at Ithaca College, where she is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy. There I learned that her “work centers on the study of religion and culture, including especially religion and film and religion and virtual reality.” These are topics that interests me too, so I will definitely will follow her work. “Following” in this case mostly means to follow her “Godwired” Twitter feed, which is about her upcoming book “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.” The book should be out next year. Till then I recommend reading her articles online.