Debate on Religion and Ritual in Cyberspace

In “Virtual Ritual, Real Faith: the Revirtualization of Religious Virtual in Cyberspace”, author Cheryl Casey asks the question of how religious rituals using the internet help us understand the social aspects of religion within a changing media. She especially looks at how using a virtual reality rather than a more traditional face to face social religious contact or other types of media contact may affect how we use rituals in religious practice. Casey believes that cyberspace is a great way of using religious ritual since the connection between cyberspace and ritual is great; they are both a virtual “reality”.

Casey sets up her article by defining cyberspace, religion and ritual so that the reader has an understanding of her discussion. Her definition of cyberspace involves primarily computer networks, and she makes a specific mention of sacred space in cyberspace, both the physical space of a religious organization’s homepage, and the spiritual space of the internet in general. She defines religion as a system of conceptualizing an order to our existence and providing ways of accounting for things in our world which are paradoxical. Religion does not need to only include an institution and its rules, but can be something in everyday life which guides our behavior. The definition of ritual in terms of religion is that of an act or symbol regarding something real which we cannot see which helps this virtual reality more real in our lives.

The first example of online ritual is that of an online Christian mass at St John’s Internet Church. One of the benefits of using the ritual of an online mass to interact with one’s religion is that the user is not limited by the typical institutional limitations of time of worship set by an authority who is necessary for the worship. The cyberspace version of the ritual is available anytime. Casey describes that in order to make use of a religious ritual, there must be a specific spatial zone which is considered fairly sacred, and she argues that cyberspace provides such as space since the space itself in not necessarily a physically space but is rather constructed by the person.

One aspect of ritual that Casey discusses is time; in general, when participating in religious ritual, an expected amount of time is used and expected to be used. However, when using a cyberspace mass, the user can skip parts of the ritual and spend more time on parts they consider more relevant, thus altering the traditional ritual to make it more meaningful for them personally. This is specifically relevant when one considers that an internet user can choose to ignore the Holy Communion part of the mass or not, whereas in traditional ritual mass, the Holy Communion is never skipped.

Another difference between traditional religious ritual practice and cyberspace religious ritual practice is that of community and social interactions. Religious rituals are typically ceremonial, and done in a community. Cyberspace religious rituals must be used with an imaginary participation by others. However, Casey also points out that there has been research into the relationships involved in online worship, and that many people join online religious organization particularly for the support and relationships there.

As Casey points out the differences involved in traditional and virtual participation in the ritual of a mass, she explores what might be advantages to a cyberspace mass ritual. Whereas in tratditional mass, the authority figure ins necessary for the ritual and there are specific roles for this authority vs. the participant, cyberspace shares the athoratiative role more with the participant, since the participant is not a passive recipient of what the authority says and does, but must rather choose to read the words of the authority on the screen, and must choose to understand the symbols of bread and wine as symbols rather than simply physical bread and wine presented to them. Requiring the participant to visualize and symbolize since concrete objects and people are not available is perhaps more conducive to using a ritual to enhance a religious ritual.

Casey ends her article with the question of how the media and its variations change how people perceive their world, especially social connections. This is relevant to religious practice since religion is really a social phenomenon. The idea is that access to the internet can change our views on religious practice, perhaps for the better since cyberspace will force us to think about the virtual piece of ritual more than the traditional method of ritual performance will.

Here is the site to St. John’s Internet Church: http://www.religionnet.com/

(Although the site only has on it its final posting after twelve years of operation)

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