The internet allows for constant, somewhat instant access to a vast variety of communities, opinions, and—of course—religions. The massive flow of religious dialogues online has been compared to the invention of the Gutenberg press and Martin Luther’s mass-produced and mass-read works (Epstein 2008). But the question remains if cyberspace can be a true place of religious expression and religiosity, and, if the internet can create a place, how to represent religion in this new place.
When Dawson and Cowan wrote Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet almost fifteen years ago, they noted two social crises of using the internet as the space for religious practice: one of authority, and one of authenticity (Dawson & Cowan 2000: 2). Authority questions who is in charge if everyone can have a voice to be listened to. Rather than dealing with apparent “traditional” hierarchies, the internet upsets traditional hierarchies by giving everyone a chance to analyze, reinterpret, and place themselves as the prime authority. Authenticity, then, is the question of what can be considered traditional or religious, when everyone has a choice. What, then, can religions do to maintain their authority and authenticity?
Responses to these two apparent crises can come in many forms. Authenticity can be responded to, in religions with a figurehead, through an expanded internet presence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama maintains a very popular online presence via his Twitter feed (@DalaiLama), which combines 140-word spiritual guidance with news and links to webcasts. @DalaiLama is run by the Office of HHDL, but it retains the same popular authority as HHDL’s books or formally published work. As of this posting, @DalaiLama has over 8.5 million followers and over 1000 tweets, and even has a brand new Instagram account. The Vatican is also getting in on Twitter with @Pontifex (a total of 9 accounts, each in a different language), but also with an app available for both droid and iPhone called, fittingly, The Pope App.
While internet religious experiences diversify the audience from a single, local congregation to a global one, the internet allows for dissemination of information on scales never before seen. It places the worshipper within a religious “place”—not a physical one, but a virtual one (Brasher 2004). This can challenge the “authenticity” of the ritual: how can a person fully worship, when the ritual does not take place in a physical space? Scheifinger (2011) offers how performing puja (worship practices) online can still be a sacred experience through gazing at a deity and controlling processes with a mouse and keyboard. But while the computer screen can remove the feeling of in-place, worshippers can also recreate that same experience by cleaning the area around the computer, playing music, or burning incense (Scheifinger 2011: 125-6). This can create an “authentic” religious experience, one way to resolve the crisis proposed by Dawson and Cowan.
Finding an “authentic” and engaged religious experience online has never been easier than today. The transnational Shirdi Sai Baba community has the benefit of many such sites. Two professors from UCLA, Drs. Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, created the website shirdisaibabavirtualsaint.org (with the production assistance of Agnes Stauber) devoted to worship of Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918), a saint from Maharashtra in western India. Shirdi Sai Baba defied religious nationalism, mastered both Muslim (Sufi) and Hindu teachings, and welcomed worshipers of all castes and religions. The Robertses’ website emphasizes the proliferation of images and contemporary devotional expressions of veneration for this saint on the web. The website also demonstrates the ways that the saint is present through blogged narratives about his miracles and other influences on daily life. Entitled “Shirdi Sai Baba: Visual Practices/Global Devotions,” the site brings together visual images of the Saint, expressive YouTube videos created by devotees, social media worship practices, and online devotional sites, as well as a world map that links to Shirdi Sai Baba temples globally. Live Darshan (or the two-way gaze of a deity and a devotee) is streamed to allow worshippers to gaze into the saint’s eyes even as he gazes back at them, emphasizing one of this saint’s most prominent messages: “Look to me, and I will look to you.”
The Robertses have long been interested in the many ways that artists, adepts, and religious practitioners represent themselves, particularly in creating meaningful places in new spaces–refabulating the city to meet current devotional, political, and economic needs. This happens not only in the physical city, but the online community as well. The Robertses also study visual practices of Mouride Sufis of Senegal, and have created a lovely Flash-driven website entitled “Passport to Paradise: Visualizing Islam in West Africa and the Mouride Diaspora” (best viewed through html) to feature an exhibition they curated for the Fowler Museum at UCLA, “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal.” The exhibit traveled nationally from 2003-2008 and is accompanied by a book of the same title. While this site does not have the same space for religious practice as shirdisaibabavirtualsaint.org, it also offers a fascinating look into how the Mourides refabulated their religious spaces–and how that can then be translated in the virtual world.
Interested in more?
In addition to the Robertses’ websites, there is also an Android app for Shirdi Sai Baba live Darshan. (There’s also an Apple Store version for folks with iPhones.)
For more on the Dalai Lama’s online presence, University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion, and Culture’s Center Working Paper in 2012 includes an article on HHDL’s online presence, Piacenza’s “Third Spaces: the Twitter Feed of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Christopher Helland also has a really interesting article on studying internet religious participation (“Online Religion as Lived Religion: Methodological Issues in the Study of Religious Participation on the Internet”). The full bibliography is in the Works Referenced down below, but it’s worth a read for examining Christian religion online as well as providing an interesting way to be a participant-observer in “authentic” religious experiences online—if there can be such a researched topic.