Author(s): Stewart Hoover, Lynn Schofield Clark
Title: " Personal Religion Online"


*** This paper uses data from a survey conducted in collaboration with the Pew Internet and American Life Project on religion and the Internet. An ongoing discourse holds that the digital realm constitutes a significant context for emergent new spiritualities and religiosities. These data permit an investigation of the phenomenon Helland (2002) has called “online religion.” The findings contradict some firmly-held assumptions about these questions. There is evidence that the Internet permits new personal and autonomous religious seeking and practices, but the implications for the authority of conventional religious institutions may well be more subtle and complex than has been thought. Proposal: As the digital age has progressed, its implications for that set of social practices and relations that we know of as “religion,” and a wider range of practices and relations that “bear a family resemblance to religion” have continued to be a prominent theme. Scholars as well as lay observers and social commentators have speculated about the ways that digital and interactive media, and the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web, might be affecting and changing the world of religion. Among the most intriguing and provocative ideas has been the notion that these developments might be leading to a restructuring of religion through their seeming natural connection to new and emerging spiritual, religious, and quasi-religious sensibilities. A plethora of sites, lists, blogs, and bbs’s have emerged over the past five years, seemingly fueling emergent new patterns of religiosity and spirituality that are significant in their own terms and for their potential impact on “traditional” religion, its institutions and structures (Hadden and Cowan, 2000). At the same time, there is a vibrant and extensive discourse within conventional religion. Some of these voices stress the necessity to engage this new media context for traditional purposes of education, proselytization, or publicity (Wilson, 2000; Zukowski and Babin, 2003) other voices urge caution (Schultze, 2002; Underwood, 2004). The question has been put most influentially by Helland’s (2000) distinction between “religion online” and “online religion.” A critical issue is whether an emergent “online religion” (as described by such scholars as Brasher, 2001 and Zaleski, 1997) might be developing into a socially and culturally demarcated sphere where personalized practices of autonomous religious or spiritual seeking are coming to challenge, even threaten, the authority and structures of traditional religion. This paper presents data from the latest comprehensive national surveys conducted on questions of religion and the Internet: a pilot study conducted in the Spring of 2003 and a more substantive national study conducted in collaboration with the Pew Internet and American Life Project and released in March, 2004. Among the issues addressed by these data are: 1) the patterns of internet use among various categories of religiosity and spirituality; 2) the emergence of measurable cohorts identifiable according to their non-traditional religiosity and spirituality; 3) the nature of online religious and spiritual “seeking”; 4) the extent to which new internet-based spiritual practices may be emerging; and 5) the potential implications of such developments for the authority of traditional institutions and traditional spiritual and religious activities. The paper argues that there is evidence of an emergent spiritual religious sensibility and practice in the context of digital culture, one that is autonomous, personal, and motivated by a desire for a range of symbolic and meaningful resources. This personal religion does in some ways contest the authority and prominence of religious tradition and religious institutions. However, the evidence suggests that the important relations are not in this new, personal, extra- or anti- institutional, anti-traditional religiosity or spirituality based in digital media, but instead in the ways these practices continue to exist in relation to traditional religion and spirituality. The implications and changes may well be profound, but they should be seen as working from the “inside” more than the “outside.” The paper thus contests and contradicts some previously taken-for-granted ideas about the implications of the Internet for religion. It concludes by suggesting three distinct theoretical interpretations of the emerging relationship between religion and the Internet. Brasher, Brenda (2001). Give me that Online Religion. San Francisco: Wiley. Helland, Chrisopher (2000). “Online Religion/Religion Online and Virtual Communitas,” in Jeffery K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (eds.), Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises. New York: JAI Press. Quentin J. Schultze (2002). Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. Underwood, Doug (2002). From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Wilson, Walter (2000). The Internet Church: The Local Church Can’t be Just Local Anymore. Waco: Word. Zaleski, Jeffrey (1997). The Soul of Cyberspace: How new Technology is Changing our Spiritual Lives. Harper San Francisco. Zukowski, Angela Ann, and Pierre Babin (2003). The Gospel in Cyberspace: Nurturing Faith in the Internet Age. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

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