In a 2019 survey, it is found that the largest percentage of Americans claim to be of ‘no religion,’ with 23.1% compared to only 5% in 1972[i]. This increasing number at face value reflects what is known as the “secularization thesis,” which believes that processes of modernization (economic, technological, and social) spreading around the world would render religion to be socially and culturally irrelevant[ii]. Under this thesis, institutionalized religions will then fade into irrelevance in the face of modernization, although private or inidividual religious beliefs might still endure.
Digital technology is one element of modernization itself, where its adoption, adaptation, circulation, and distribution have reshaped and reformed the spheres of politics, culture, and religion. Thus if we adhere to secularization thesis, the hypothesis of the relationship between digital technology and religion would be a negative one.[iii] However, this commentary aims to explore more of the possible impacts brought by digital technology to how religiosity is practiced, highlight that the relationship between the two cannot be simplified into what has been predicted by secularization thesis.
Does Digital Technology Threaten or Benefit Organized Religions?
Armfield and Holbert argued—through their survey towards a nation-wide sample of Americans—that ‘the more religious an individual is, the less likely he or she will use the Internet[iv], to some extent showcasing the relationship between internet use and religiosity, the latter defined as belief and also involvement towards religious practices. Some scholars also believe that digital technology is separate from the realness of religious practice in real life: the less detached religion is from reality due to internet, the less it has what makes it a “religion” in the first place, which are “real places, real people, and a real sense of shared time and cultural memory that shape collective conscience and collective effervescence” according to Dawson[v]. This supports the argument of secularization, especially with findings that the explosion of internet use in early 1990s parallels the rise of ‘religious nones,’ or those who don’t identify with any religious strand[vi].
However, although the case of United States as presented beforehand is useful to pinpoint one way of how digital technology impacts religiosity, it is not a universal experience by any means. In many parts of the world, there are increase of organized religions’ influence in the recent era. This writing will not focus on the sociopolitical factors that shape this variety, but rather, we will now look into how digital technology, specifically internet, assists the growth of religiosity—and thus disputing the secularization thesis. In this case, digital technology might assist rather than impedes organized religions to gain influence and relevance.
Campbell (2005) argues that religious users often conceptualize and introduce the internet as suitable for spiritual purposes[vii]. One example would be Singapore, a country with one of the most technologically advanced societies and yet vibrant religiosity. Here, several religious leaders stressed how the tool-like nature of the internet can be a medium to reclaim net-based technologies for their religious practices[viii], for example by tapping into the power of internet and social medias to grow their congregations and as a tool of information and outreach. Not only there, one study shows that the vast majority of American church congregations also use websites and email to promote their message and attract potential converts[ix]. Internet also assists the activities of organized religions by helping to collect religious texts and other resources and making them available to believers, scholars, and the wider public through digital platforms. This might influence believers to further seek information on their religions, and more importantly facilitate religious proselytization which makes up a big part of the world’s major religions.
Opening Space for Forms of Religiosity
Despite the two opposing effects of digital technology that have been explained where one being secularization and the other facilitating the growth of organized religions, we cannot deny that there is a dimension of how internet influences the changing way people view organized religion and religiosity itself. First, internet makes it easier for individuals who spend lots of time online to inherit new ways of thinking and relating to others through the existence of online forums[x], to the point where the need for sense of belonging that is traditionally sought from organized religion membership diminishes. Thanks to internet, people easily access informations which facilitate their own interpretation of spiritual needs, thus transforming how religiosity is perceived. To some people, it is not impossible that the spiritual fulfillment that comes from organized religion and real-life communal practices is replaced, since digital technology also creates new spatial practices of spirituality.[xi] This is in line with the findings of several religion scholars which noted that people in North America increasingly prefers individual religious experiences to the trappings of institutional religion[xii]. In Indonesia, a survey done towards Indonesian youth shows a shift taking place among the younger generation that some of them increasingly disaffected with the organized religions, identifying as agnostics or atheists[xiii]. This brief glimpse into the changing nature of spirituality highlights how digital technology facilitates a freer interpretation of religiosity, and thus organized religions need to engage with people within the cyberspace to maintain its reach.
With the same logic, since internet provides platforms for dissemination of alternative teachings and spiritualism, the growth of digital technology actually opens up more speace for alternative faiths or minority religions to be heard. Minority communities and religions are able to build their cyber safe-space, a sphere where they can find and interact with likeminded people. In some cases, online platforms help minority religions to solidify their communal identity and existence, for example the case of Shia muslims in Indonesia. Shia or Shiite muslims in Indonesia has faced prosecutions and discriminations by the Sunni majority, labeled as a 'misguided' and 'false' strand of Islam. While most Shia followers in Indonesia choose to practice their faith in secret for their safety, online platforms offers a new space for Indonesian Shiite communities to make their existence known. Organizations and communities such as IJABI and Al-Muthahari Foundation make use of websites and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Path to publish their activities, as well as promoting pluralism in Islam to avoid Shia-Sunni clash as has been happening for years. As of 2016, there are about 23 different mediums, including but not limited to: magazines, bulletins, news online, FM radio stations, and online TV shows[xiv].
Despite of this growth, religious-based representation in the Indonesian cyberspace is imbalanced, where minority in the offline realm still tend to be a minority in the online realm as well. As for Shiite communities, some of their online publications are still monitored by the Department of Religious Affairs (Kemenag), as well as facing counter-narratives from majority Sunni medias to frame Shia as misguided and a threat to the nation that must be combated[xv]. Regarding this, it is important to remember that more often than not, what happens online reflect sociocultural realities, including in the matters of cyberreligions’ dynamics. While prosecution towards minorities in cyber platforms still persists and reflects its real life happenings, there is no denying that online platforms at least facillitate the existence sub-altern faiths, which in turn increases their exposure to achieve equal footing in society.
In conclusion, while internet and digital technology may undermine the exclusive truth of major organized religions, it can also be harnessed as a tool to complement their prosetylization and congregations, or even supports the growth of minority religions that struggle due to prosecution offline. In the end, the secularization tenet should not be taken at face value, especially when it comes to the impacts of digital technology: it is merely a tool and a sphere—its impact depends on what it is used for, who it is used by, combined with other factors at play.
Author: Heidira Witri Handayani (Research Assistant at CfDS)
Editor: Treviliana Eka Putri (Manager of Internal Research CfDS)
Read another articles written by Heidira Witri Handayani
[i] Monahan, N., & Ahmed, S. (2019, April 26). Survey: There are now as many Americans who claim no religion as there are evangelicals and Catholics. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/13/us/no-religion-largest-group-first-time-usa-trnd/index.html
[ii] Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[iii] Kluver, R., & Cheong, P. H. (2007). Technological Modernization, the Internet, and Religion in Singapore. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(3), 1122–1142. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00366.x
[v] Dawson, L. (2005). The mediation of religious experience in cyberspace. In M. Højsgaard &
M. Warburg (Eds.), Religion and Cyberspace (pp. 15–37). London: Routledge.
[vi] Baker, J. O., & Smith, B. G. (2009). The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated. Social Forces, 87(3), 1251–1263. doi: 10.1353/sof.0.0181
[vii] Campbell, H. (2005). Spiritualizing the Internet: Uncovering discourses and narratives of
religious Internet use. Online-Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, 1 (1). Retrieved from http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/volltextserver/volltexte/2005/5824/pdf/Campbell4a.pdf
[viii] Kluver, R., & Cheong, P. H. (2007)
[ix] Mcclure, P. K. (2017). Tinkering with Technology and Religion in the Digital Age: The Effects of Internet Use on Religious Belief, Behavior, and Belonging. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 56(3), 481–497. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12365
[xi] Shelton, T., Zook, M., & Graham, M. (2012). The Technology of Religion: Mapping Religious Cyberscapes. The Professional Geographer, 64(4), 602–617. doi: 10.1080/00330124.2011.614571
[xii] Mcclure, P. K. (2017).
[xiii] Epafras, L. (2016). Religious e-Xpression among the Youths in the Indonesian Cyberspace. Jurnal ILMU KOMUNIKASI, 13(1), 1. doi: 10.24002/jik.v13i1.596
[xiv] Ida, A. (2016). Cyberspace and Sectarianism in Indonesia: The Rise of Shia Media and Anti-Shia Online Movements. Jurnal Komunikasi Islam 6(2).