ChristWire.org

Mark Oppenheimer–an author of three books, who has a doctorate in religious studies–wrote an expose in the September 3 issue of The New York Times about ChristWire.org. He starts the article off with the titles  of a few pieces posted on the website. After unveiling that the site is a big joke he introduces the people behind it and how its content permeated into mainstream, non-joke sites. The later part of the article covers how people at these more established sites reacted when they learned that they fell for a joke.

Mr. Butvidas, one of the two originators and writers behind the project summarized the site’s concept as “Let’s write stuff to expose how stupid people are.” Oppenheimer is right on target when he explains its popularity in these terms:

A close reader of ChristWire will soon figure out (one hopes) that the site is not serious. But many of the columns are deft enough, just plausible enough, to fool the casual reader. Even — or perhaps especially — a reader whose beliefs are being mocked.

I would like to add to the analysis that one of the reason sites like ChristWire can gain popularity is the tendency to seek out information that supports our established worldview. In this case, if you are a conservative Christian you are more likely to be interested in reading content that is in alignment with what you believe in. This characteristic, however, applies to most of us.

In recent decades religion and politics mixed in new ways. Ever since the Christian right became a prominent feature of the political landscape politicians on all sides rely on the stereotypes about the block. This is what the writers for the ChristWire play upon. They know the call words and the hot buttons that are associated with their target audience. Therefore the site is a mockery of the connection between the political and religious views of people.

There are plenty of smart people amongst conservative Christians, but this site strengthens the stereotypes that most of them are stupid. It’s unfortunate, but often makes funny reading. Similar sites could be made about other segments of the population and they probably exists. Could you point me to some?

Mehta: How the Internet Is Reshaping Humanism

I wrote earlier about Patheos‘ series of articles on the Future of Religion. Each week a  series of guest authors wrote about the future of a particular religion. The last few weeks covered Mormonism, Islam, and Paganism, but none of the articles related to the internet’s role. This week’s articles are about  “Humanism“, but they really mean positive secularism by that. Hermant Mehta, whose blog is at FriendlyAtheist.com, wrote a pieced titled, “How the Internet Is Reshaping Humanism.” Mehta assesses three aspects of the answer:

  • The impact of the “Blogosphere”
  • Increased membership in and donations to atheist organizations
  • Larger and more niche atheist communities

His analysis is not exhaustive, but correct. However his points are not unique to atheism. These very same trends can be observed in relation to most religions, or subcultures. Nevertheless it was good to read them from his perspective, despite that I found the piece too short and would have appreciated more examples.

Hemant MehtaHermant Mehta

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD

I read a creative connection in a current column of Religion Dispatches. In “The Amish and the Myth of the Simple LifeElizabeth Drescher compares the digital hyperconnectivity of teenagers with the communitarian culture of the Amish. I liked so much the freshness of  this idea that checked out the author’s other writings at the same site. They were equally impressive. Here are some quotes, relevant to this blog

Forget Right or Wrong – Why the National Day of Prayer is Obsolete

…social media sites have done more than increase the frequency with which Americans “use” the internet in the context of their faith lives. Digital social media have made it clear that the Internet is not a tool, but a place: a locale for religious seeking, expression, engagement, and other practices that are increasingly woven into the fabric of daily life by wireless technologies…

Medieval Multitasking: Did We Ever Focus?

my brain has been damaged by my affinity for digital media…almost every morning my friend Diane’s husband Hans “likes” the daily quote I post. Lots of people do, depending on the quote, though Hans is particularly attentive about it. It seems kind of like a spiritual practice. A little prayer….My mind might be going on the digital fritz, but, like my medieval exemplars, I’m saved by the fact that I don’t have to think alone.

The Pope and Social Media: A Digital Counter-Reformation?

…the Pope’s message, starting with the title, “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word,” made clear that the Vatican did not intend to engage in the sort of wide interactivity, distribution of authority, and mashing of diverse perspectives that is characteristic of the Web 2.0 world. The message makes clear that the task of proclaiming the Word of God belongs primarily to priests, and that they must be trained to be actively present on in the internet

Having read four incisive pieces I wanted to know more about the author. She “is a religion writer and scholar of Christian spiritualities who teaches at Santa Clara University.” What impressed me the most on her own site, elizabethdrescher.net–beyond her skills in critical thinking and knowledge of the topic, scholarly merits– is how she managed to combine left and right brain activities, how she can write from a whole person’s perspective:

As a person of faith in a pluralistic, post-Christian, and post-traditional world, I attempt to practice a spirituality of inclusiveness, critical reflection, and practical engagement with those in need.

I am looking forward for her upcoming book Tweet if U ♥ Jesus: Leadership, Communications, and Community for the Digital Reformation, to be released in Fall 2010.” Meanwhile I follow her on Twitter.

Gross: Promoting Interfaith Education Through ICT – A Case Study

The paper (hardcover) version of the fourth volume of the International Handbooks of Religion and Education is coming out next week. But the electronic edition is already available at Springer. The volume bears the title International Handbook of Inter-religious Education. In it you will find a case study by Dr. Zehavit Gross,

is a senior lecturer and the head of graduate program of social education in the School of Education, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.
Her main area of specialisation is Socialisation Processes (religious, secular, feminine and civic) among adolescents. Currently she is actively participating in four international projects: An international study in Jewish dayschools in Brussels, Paris and Geneva. A research study on Jewish dayschools in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. A research on Femininsm among modern orthodox women in Montrael and Toronto, Canada and a comparative research in Europe among 10 countries on Religiosity Worldviews and Values of Adolescents.

Her case study, “Promoting Interfaith Education Through ICT” abstract is below

Through a case study, this chapter analyzes how a Jewish teacher attempts to explain a Jewish religious concept to a Muslim university student, to illustrate how interfaith education can operate in practice. First, I will discuss interfaith education in general and its challenges; then I will describe the case and show how interfaith education can be taught through face-to-face lessons and through information and communication technology (ICT) and analyze different modes of learning. I will suggest a model for transmitting interfaith knowledge through ICT and then discuss the need for building a community of knowledge exchange in interfaith education.

2: Religious magazines, facebook, social web

Earlier this week I came across an announcement that Hinduism Today is on Facebook since August 5. The announcement made me wonder whether all religious magazines have Facebook pages. I did a quick search, limited to Hindu magazines in English, and found that according to Wikipedia there are two more Hindu magazines: Vedanta Kesari and Prabuddha Bharata. I checked and both has only “community pages” on Facebook, here and here respectively, meaning they were set up automatically by Facebook, copying Wikipedia content, and not by active people or organizations.

This week I happened to watch Seth Priebatsch’s TED talk “The game layer on top of the world.” In his introduction to his main points he said “There’s still a lot of people who are trying to figure out social… but the framework itself is done, and it’s called Facebook.” I also heard from other sources recently the opinion that Facebook is the de facto standard of social web and there is nothing we can do about it. I agree that with half a billion users Facebook is unavoidable for any individual or organization wanting to participate in the online social world. However I disagree with the idea that there is no chance that this situation would change in the future. Those who think so, forget the history of the internet. Most gamechanging companies/applications were not foreseen. Nobody saw half a year before Gooogle, MySpace, Twitter, or Facebook started to rise. We don’t know whether there is a company out there that is in the process of creating an application that may become even bigger than Facebook in terms of userbase. Who knows, it might be Priebatsch’s SCVNGR.

Furthermore we do know that Google is working on something social. Google invested heavily in a social gaming company (Zynga) in July, and just this month it purchased a virtual currency company (Jambool), a social app company (Slide), and separated its social update search (Realtime). These all point to the rumored “Google Me” social game. After the failed and dead Google Wave and the still living but unsuccessful Google Buzz they may come up with the wining formula.

Google may be the next big social game of the future. But I cannot stop thinking what of adherents of one of the biggest religions create and join a social network. That could instantly be as big as Facebook. Christianity has lots of denomination and even the Catholic church is not as undivided as some may want it to be. Similarly the world of Islam is full of fractions too. I know little bit less about divisions within Hinduism, but wanted to mention it as there are 900 million Hindus, close to twice as much as many Facebook users. Nevertheless of the above imagine if there would be a single social network site serving all Muslims, or all Hindus, or all Christians or all Catholics. Better yet, what if there would be a single site serving the interfaith community of adherents. I see a humongous potential in such a venture.

There are of course social networking sites for all the populations I mentioned above. But for one reason or another they are not as big as they could be. For the records here are some of them:

Christian

Catholic

Muslim

Hindu

  • hindu-network.com (by Chatter, who also has Christian, Buddhist and Muslim networking sites)
  • hinduyouth.net

To recap this post

  • Religious magazines are on Facebook,
  • which is the de facto social networking site now,
  • but maybe not be that forever.
  • E.g. if Google enters the field or
  • a successful religious site does.

1: Opening observations

I am still at the very beginning of this learning journey, but after having read a few dozen abstracts on “online religion” I have some observations to make.

First, in order to fully understand the topic I need to read beyond its immediate scope. For example a lot of the articles place the study in the tradition of studying the interaction of religion and media. In this context “religion and the internet” needs to be understood in a similar way to “religion and press,” “religion and radio” and “religion and television.” On one hand it makes perfect sense and I am sure there are plenty of lessons one can learn from those fields. On the other hand the internet is much more participatory so the previous models where individuals were mostly consumers of media have to be seriously modified if not fully rebuilt.

In the early days of the world wide web (say 1994-1997) there was a lot of idealism that this media will democratize the knowledge sphere and eventually all spheres of life. The idea was that individuals and small companies have equal footing with big corporations as the barrier of entry was so low. Anyone could build a website, while starting up a newspaper/radio/tv station was significantly costlier in terms of financial and technical capital. This promise did not played out to its full possible extent till the advent of Web 2.0, when the technical barrier went even lower: you don’t need any technical knowldge know to start a blogk, post your pictures or thoughts. (Even posting videos is getting less and less technical) Now that there are more sophisticated structures in place that allow not just building a website but spreading one’s message or idea on social web channels one really has a chance to crate fame and/or money with limited resources. (Check out the report and the earnings of TubeMogul’s list of top ten independent YouTube stars.)

My second point, also affecting the scope of my studies, comes directly from the first one: I need to go beyond how established offline religions (and their adherents) behave online and consider in what ways the internet enables the creation of the new religious movements*. As I pointed out above the internet has the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between media and the individual. This must have consequences in the are of religion. Two obvious examples: movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the “Invisible Pink Unicorn” would have remained much smaller in the pre-internet era.

* “New religious movements” is the term used by sociologists for what in every day use would be called sects or cults, as this term is value neutral, has no pejorative connotations.

This note leads to my third point: the various lenses “online religion” can be viewed. Reading the abstracts I encountered articles examining the phenomena from the social, educational, proselytism, spatial, generational, gender point of view, but didn’t find any yet about the financial and legal questions. The latter was brought to mind, by Heidi Campbell’s post from earlier today titled “Can an online community be a church ? IRS says “No”!” She pointed to a recent court case, ruling that

religious organization that primarily holds their worship services on the  Internet (or radio), did not meet the Internal Revenue Code’s definition of a “church.” (PDF) That means they are not eligible for tax-exempt status….
The full ruling it explains this online church failed meet a 14 criteria test set out by the IRS on the form/function of a church….
So to have validity the online will be forced to establish offline structures of accountability.

This was a “simple” US case, but if we consider the international nature of both the internet and organized religion the legal questions are even more complicated. E.g. Scientology is a legally accepted church in some countries are from being one in others.

To summarize, I will need to

  1. familiarize myself with the study of religion and (old) media,
  2. think of the two way nature of internet and religion (not just how offline religion plays out on the net, but the other way around too),
  3. be aware and systematically think through the numerous disciplines the topic can be viewed from.

Teusner on CMRC

Paul Teusner posted three entries on his blog reflecting on presentations at the Conference on Media, Religion and Culture 2010. In the first one he summarized two presentations on “religious videos and personalities,” one on Islam and the other on Christianity, titled respectively “Building Religious Authority in the Media Age” and “The Struggle for Religious Authority in Dynamic Web 2.0 Environments.” Teusner found “in both presentations a great comparison between “viewers” and “users” in the negotiation of religious text, meaning and authority in videos in both platforms.”

His second entry is less relevant for us as it was about “the struggle between church and media as meaning-making institutions in the context of [the] television program, Rescue Me.” But his third entry focused on a presentation about “a small conservative Christian community on the Atlantic side of Canada, who wanted to go live online, by video-streaming their services.” The most important sentence from this post for me was, “Going live online for them was a test where the search for new and distant friends and fellow congregants required the relinquishment of control over their own church environment.”

Thank you, Paul, for your notes that accompanied nicely the abstracts I read earlier.

You can “like” my posts now

I added the option to “like” the posts and pages of this blog via the popular Facebook application. Using the same button you can share the URL and comment on it on your own Facebook wall. I also edited the options for the “AddThis” box at the bottom of the posts. Instead of listing a dozen services, it only has the following seven: Twitter, Email, Google, Delicious, Blogger, MySpace, Digg. You cans till use all the the other services AddThis links to by clicking the box.

Apps for Ramadan

Yesterday I posted about an academic article on “Islamic applications for mobile devices.” As Ramadan starts today, I would like to point out out an NPR piece about apps for Ramadan:

Observing Ramadan? There’s An App For That

Cell phone applications such as “iPray” or “iQuran” offer a beeping reminder of requisite prayer times, while the “Find Mecca” and “mosque finder” programs help the Muslim traveler in an unfamiliar city find the nearest place to pray…

Bunt: Islamic Applications for Mobile Devices

Gary R. Bunt‘s article, “Surfing the App Souq: Islamic Applications for Mobile Devices” appeared in CyberOrient, Online Journal on the “Virtual Middle East” hosted by the website Digital Islam. I learned about it from Heidi Campbell’s blog. Here is the article’s abstract and conclusion.

Abstract

This article introduces issues associated with Islamic apps for mobile devices, and surveys some of the products that have emerged into the market. It considers the potential impact of mobile phone interfaces in relation to interpretations of Islam and the use of Islamic resources, given that mobile devices have widened potential audiences for online materials in various forms, especially in areas where other forms of digital access may be more problematic. The article also explores some of the religious and ethical concerns associated with mobile phone use.

Conclusions

The impact of increased and varied phone applications in the name of Islam is transformative, in that it offers wider access to Islamic resources (amongst a competitive marketplace) and digital access continue to increase. As 3G phone technology becomes more widely available, evolves (towards 4G) and is integrated into more phones, then the key providers of apps and other phone compatible services have the potential to be a significant channel of influence and authority. Islamic software products continue to develop at the cutting edge of technological innovation, so as new products for mobile phones enter the marketplace, one can expect developers and content providers to respond with Islamically ‘appropriate’ applications. The modes and communications dynamics of scholars, opinion providers and petitioners (or consumers) are shifting in response to technological developments, while perhaps maintaining the essence of long-held traditions of religious authority and interpretation. Following these trends will be a significant area for observers of Islam in the contemporary world.