written by: Aurora E. L. Turkenburg
On Thursday, March 12th of this year, the Dutch government advised to halt all venues with more than 100 people present in the face of increasing Covid-19 contagions. As I studied for an exam that would take place the day after, my email exploded with cancellations of venues, plans and university tests. While rummaging through a mountain of backlog the following week, I noticed an email from my hometown church. All services would be streamed online from March 15th onwards. The faithful could only visit God in the Cloud.
Visiting God or his emissaries via digital media, however, has been the norm for several religious groups even before the age of Covid-19.
But where do we find religion in the digital world? Just about everywhere.
The most used medium by religious groups is the simple, yet complicated Cloud. Livestreams, most of which end up on websites or Youtube include services from The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Lakewood Church (Charismatic Christianity), and Friday prayers for practitioners of Islam. While most of the services are free, some services are offered in subscription-packages. Interestingly, the increase of online services has led to me watching services across denominations and countries easily from home.
Some religions have made the move to the digital world long before Covid-19 forced them. Most religions can nowadays be found on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok. The Tibetan monk known as the Dalai Lama, as well as the Catholic Pope, for example, have been avid users of Facebook for years. The pages are managed not by the men themselves, but by a social media team. However, the channels host livestreams, and regular posts show interviews, photographs, summaries of events, and short sermons by both men. Of the two, the Dalai Lama has embraced online technology more fully, preaching online via livestreams and hosting online video-lectures on Tibetan Buddhism. His popularity can be seen in his followers-count, which has passed 14 million Facebook-users.
Next to the use of sites and digital media platforms that support real-life religion, a whole other type of religion exists. This type of religion can only be found digitally: the online-religion. The best known example of an online-religion is Jediism, a religion based in part on the Jedi characters from the Star Wars franchise. Their churches, usually referred to as Jedi-temples, appeared online after 2001. Several temples are located on the world wide web exclusively. While members may meet in person, most Jedi only ever meet online. The Temple of the Jedi Order, for example, hosts online initiation programs, text-only sermons, and facilitates teacher-student classes via videocalls and online chats. The ‘temple’ is active to this day.
In the age of Covid-19 my Sunday mornings, similar to my weekday mornings, now begin with a cup of tea and an opened laptop. This ‘new’ norm, the use of digital media to convey religion, however, is not as new as you might think. As we have seen, visiting God or his emissaries has been made possible through livestreams, social media, and online videocalls long before Covid-19 existed. The use of digital media has certainly made it easier to check in and check out other religious denominations and churches. I have to say I quite enjoy the idea of watching several sermons on Sundays and select the speaker I like best. If more people out there think the same, perhaps it will become a permanent norm before long – to visit God in the Cloud.
What is your take on digital religion? Tell me in the comments-section.