Interview: Dr Paul Teusner (RMIT)

Several years ago at an Internet Research conference in Brisbane, Australia, I met Paul Teusner. We were both in the moderately painful part of our PhD theses - not quite in the final throes, but close enough - and we spent a significant amount of time talking about our respective interests.

Paul was in the midst of his work on Emerging church bloggers in Australia: Prophets, priests and rulers in God’s virtual world. In his own words:

The emerging church movement is built on a postmodern critique of both contemporary expressions of traditional/mainstream Protestant Christian community, and modern forms of Evangelical Christianity that is found in the “mega-churches”. Its task is to seek a viable alternative to these apparently mutually exhaustive models of Christian community and practice. In the offline world, emerging church communities are small groups of people who are locally based and often not connected, in any formal sense, to any other emerging church group outside their traditional denomination. Online, bloggers converse over emerging church practices and criticisms of traditional and Evangelical theology to construct a global identity.

This research aims to uncover how blogging technology is used by those involved in the emerging church conversation to construct individual and communal religious identities.

He was the first person I thought to contact when I decided to tackle religion for Untangling the Web.

I asked Paul for an overview on the empirical work on religion and the web, the greatest controversies in this area over the past 20 years, what’s worked and what hasn’t when religion and the web mix, and how the web will transform faith in the future.

He did not disappoint.

What would you say are the main findings of research in this area over the past two decades?
While there were some good works out there in the 1990s, I believe it was only in the early years of the 21st century when some serious broad research into religion on the Internet was widely published, especially in religious studies journals. Back then scholars seemed intent on finding what was new or different about religion online: new religious movements, cyber-versions of pagan religions (like cyber-Wicca). As traditional religious institutions began to invest more intentionally in projects to create religious spaces online, researchers began to focus more on how people communicated and interacted with each other, concerning themselves with rituals, symbolic practices, patterns of behaviour, and how they may be similar or different to behaviours in the local church or mosque.

By the late noughties I think researchers came to a general conclusion that most of what we see online is not that different than the processes of change and evolution in the religious landscape of late modernity. The Internet has provided a vehicle for people to promote alternative religious ideas and practices, but in no greater way than radio or television did sixty and thirty years ago. Furthermore, the inequalities in access to information and resources that exist in wider Western culture are more or less mirrored on the Internet, despite the rhetoric. So educated, middle-class, middle-aged, white men are just as likely to be a more authoritative voice for their religious community in the blogosphere as they are in schools, temples and publishing houses.

Where are the greatest controversies in the theory and thinking in this area?
There are a lot of controversial things that catch our attention (check out “Priest’s racist rant posted on YouTube." from August 2007). Unfortunately I can’t offer any real controversies that appear among us. What I can say is that the penetration of mobile media devices, together with social media applications, have led many of us to consider that indeed nobody “goes” online anymore – that access to online information doesn’t require any discrete step or action, but on the periphery of our everyday social interactions – well, at least in the West. It has meant that researchers are turning their attention away from producers of religious content online and toward producers and everyday users of online resources. It’s shed light on a few blackspots in the tradition of scholarship, particularly of how women, young people, LGBTI people and cultural and linguistic minorities approach technology as a both a tool for the discernment of authentic religious living and as an intrinsic component of it. The goal of inquiry has also experienced a shift. Less are we concerned with the hows and whys of producing religious content for the Internet. More are we considering how the Internet allows for, constrains and shapes people’s discourses about religion as part of everyday living. (If you want more on this, go here (pdf))

Which traditional religious practices and thinking have best (and worst) adapted to the web?
Religious people, communities and organisations make pragmatic and economic decisions when thinking about using the Internet, and not just moral and religious ones. It is also important to note that the technology itself is not value-free, and is presented to religious societies wrapped with cultural values that complement, challenge or repel religious attitudes. Within Christianity, for example, even though the Vatican has named Cyberspace a more or less brand-new mission field that awaits full engagement with the church, many Christian communities fear its power to isolate individuals from “true communal living” by offering only virtual connections between people.
Early research into religion online (late 1990s through to around 2003) had a heavy focus on comparing different religions’ potential to reproduce or recreate authentic religious experiences online. Western traditions, such as Christianity and Judaism, whose rituals are based on materiality and touch (rituals around food, for example) were quick to claim that the Internet could only provide a “virtuality” of authentic religious expression and communion. On the other hand, rituals that were framed by visual and aural aesthetics could be more easily and comprehensively reproduced on a computer interface.

Which features/evolutions of web technology have affected our religious attitudes and behaviours the most?
It could be argued that the largest affect has come from the language we have used to talk about the technology. To talk of the Internet as a (cyber)space, as a simple example, conjures images of an “undiscovered country” where we can aim our aspirations for the exploration of a new world order, or share our dreams of what the real world could or should be like, seek intimate communications with others free from the constraints of bodies and their cultural wrappings. It’s only intuitive that religious aspirations, sentiments, and ultimately, language become attached to these.

It shouldn’t be discounted that the use of new web technologies like blogs and social media apps to create online personal networks has enabled people to seek connections where people can explore new forms of religious language, symbols and practices and discern how to live more “authentically”. This would be especially true for those who may feel marginalised in their own local religious communities. It presents a challenge to structures of authority that exist within organisations and long-standing institutions. The challenges are never new; they’ve always been there. The Internet has offered a new vehicle for it to happen, the ability to provide for the creation of global networks that is accessible to so many more people, relative to previous technologies.

The web has been accused by some researchers of being a balkanising force, making people more extreme because they are subject to information in an echo chamber. How is this evident (or not) in religious practice?
There has been research (see Barker, E. (2005). “Crossing the boundary: new challenges to religious authority and control as a consequence of access to the Internet”. Religion and Cyberspace (Google Books link). M. T. Højsgaard and M. Warburg. London, Routledge: 67-85) on the ability of people to use the Internet to gather people around extremist religious values and control dissent. I’ve seen the opposite in my own research: the use of Web 2.0 tools to confess non-mainstream views and seek open dialogue with others. Social media do, however, have their own constraints (authority and popularity rankings among blogs, for example) that give certain types of discourse and certain groups of people a greater voice than others. Though it is a valid reason for people to see online media as balkanising or isolating, they are constantly being negotiated and even thwarted by users. We have reason to be optimistic that such forces can be tempered by education and equality of access.

How will religious attitudes and practices change in the future?
Hang on a second while I consult the crystal ball app on my phone.

In the Christian West over the past sixty years we have seen how television has helped turn ecumenism into a political divide between liberalism and conservatism. I believe that as secularism is further challenged in the public sphere, what we know as “denominations” will continue to lose their power as labels by which we identify ourselves. Calling ourselves Anglican, Catholic or Baptist will matter less and less, as we find commonalities, make connections and share spaces with people from other denominations (and even faiths) and distance ourselves from others within the same traditions. Global movements, ideas and conversations that insert themselves into the networks we create around ourselves as individuals will perhaps have greater power in changing the language through which we talk about faith, constructing the symbols that we use to define ourselves. To oversimplify, and perhaps sensationalise, we could see entire religious communities formed by the fact we all hit the same “Like” button!