MSc Culture and Society student Ido Nahari shares personal reflections on the relationship between traditional religion and its current metamorphosis to a symbol of individual growth through popular communication technologies.
The almost two thousand year old Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is not shy from its array of religious rituals that hold immense spiritual worth to those who practice them. The Church shelters within its ancient walls a broad coalition of different Christian denominations as well as a constant flocking of passionate pilgrims that travelled from near and far in order to connect with the Church’s centrepiece: An empty marble slab placed over a limestone burial bed that holds profound miraculous properties, as it is where Jesus’s body is believed to have lain to rest after his crucifixion. Countless pilgrims have carried personal prized possessions in order to sanctify them over the slab that is known as the Stone of Unction and subsequently enrich their spiritual worth. But over the years, wedding rings that were meant to last for a lifetime and prayer notes that hold a human value for eternity, were mingled by objects of temporary sentimental worth that are replaced whenever granted the chance to upgrade their value: Smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices that are now regularly and vigorously smeared on the Church’s sacred grounds.
It is easy to claim that all that is sacred is profaned through this exchange value and to see this as an opportunity to mourn not only the body of Christ, but also the corpus of Christianity and institutionalized religion as a whole. But the encounter between the immeasurable quality of divinity, with that of technological commodities that act as both material objects as well as totems of progress that hold measurable economic worth, does not extinguish the belief of the passionate pilgrims. Through its application in religious practices, technology offers new possibilities of religious rituals, ceremonies and traditions (Persico, 2009).
The commodification of religious experiences strikes deeper roots that go beyond its new bond with technology; it is a result of the all encompassing individualising culture of Neoliberalism (Carrette, King, 2004), that offers seemingly infinite personalized arenas of goods whilst rejecting the authority of archaic external institutions that have previously mediated the process of self fulfillment through them. As a result, New Age Spirituality, the belief system that transfers religious experiences from external institutions to the individual, has flourished in Neoliberalism as a popular and exciting system of pseudo religious belief that treasures individual agency over traditional religious communal obligations. But an eclectic sphere that offers seemingly endless possibilities of anti-hierarchical and groundbreaking interpretations that cater to the cult of individuality is not only an exponent of spirituality, it is also that of contemporary communication technologies, and specifically the Internet.
Like spirituality, the Internet largely functions as a personalized arena of curated forms of self expression that was deemed to possess transcendental qualities that were marked by early Cyber Utopian thought (Barlow, 1996). Unfortunately, the spiritual promises of technology that were visioned by Cyber Utopians in their boundless and anarchic vision of Cyberspace have sadly entrapped the self inside various modes of accelerated libertarian consumerist pragmatism (Nahari, 2018) that share, discuss and transgress information.
Appropriately, the Internet is currently brimming with forums, websites and posts that establish new information, ideas and modes of spiritual practice through it (Persico, 2009). Modes that transgress the physical bonds of community and are replaced with solitary practices of belief that stream religious services in front of the screen (Bennett, 2020). Modes that substitute weary traditions and ceremonies with an energetic entrepreneurial spirit that interprets the holy spirit using new blessings, benedictions and consecrations. Modes that replace classical practices of solitary meditation that were meant to transform human consciousness with the repetition of mantras by online Yoga instructors for the sublime purpose of self improvement in enduring the everyday perils of Capitalism (Vernon, 2011). As belief systems are being secularized by the forces of spiritual individualism that only reward a belief in the self, contemporary religion is reduced to a mirage of established spectacles and empty signifiers. In other words, if the role of the individual in traditional religion was merely to serve a god, in contemporary spirituality it is a god that needs to serve the individual.
It is since the Internet has been rendered as a secular cyberspace deprived of meaning and morals that a cascade of digital missionaries flock to it in the noble attempt of absolving it from its supposedly alienating technocratic properties, as well as coat it with mock traditional systems of authority (Weber, 1919). But a spiritual necessity to individualize, matched with a Capitalistic practice of exacerbating manufactured necessities, has created a flood of spiritual practices that has drowned the individual with endless contradictory questions of what is right and what is wrong, what is real and what is false. Questions, that would have been answered by the very same archaic external institutions that were avoided in the neoliberal digital private domains.
In its relationship to spirituality, technology is more than just an empty vessel with the potential to inflict meaning to its users wherever they wander through its broadband stream. It is also more than a contemporary totem of individual belief. It is since technology is regarded as a secular project (Caiazza, 2014), an enlightened triumph of reason over superstition, that the act of sanctifying Smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices on holy grounds is nothing short than the spiritual testimony to the omnipresence of God.
Persico, T. (2009) The Relationship Between the New Age and the Internet, Lola’at Ha’el. Available at: https://tomerpersico.com/2009/05/25/new-age-in-the-internet/
Carrette, J. and King, R. (2004) Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Psychology Press
Barlow, J. (1996) A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Bennett, G. (2020) Religion, technology, community, & connection: How religious communities are celebrating services virtually. Available at: https://csrc.asu.edu/content/religion-technology-community-connection-how-religious-communities-are-celebrating-services
Vernon, M. (2011) Buddhism is the new opium of the people. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/mar/22/western-buddhism
Caiazza, J. (2014) The Arrival of Techno-Secularism. Available at: https://isi.org/modern-age/the-arrival-of-techno-secularism/
Nahari, I. (2018) On the Gentrification of Cyber Space. BA Thesis at Bard College Berlin