Data seems to pretty clearly indicate that Americans in particular are changing their relationship with religion. It has been commented upon and written about with increasing frequency. The most typical change reported is that religion is becoming more individual; people are picking and choosing their own beliefs and practices and forming hybrid combinations that represent individual feelings and emotions. Moreover, private and subjective spirituality is replacing what were once coherent religious beliefs rooted in history and social and intellectual development. Finally, we hear more and more about the abandonment of institutions and the community’s general distaste for long-standing religious institutional doctrine and practices. Somehow the accumulated wisdom that informs institutional practices is fading away to be replaced by private preferences.
Bryan Turner, writing in the Social Science Research Council, offers up some interesting insights into the relationship between communication and religion. Traditionally, the religious practice of communication was authoritative and hierarchical. It was a unitary system of beliefs influenced by clearly established sources of knowledge and wisdom (Popes, Priests, Imams, Rabbis). One receives messages and information from authoritative sources and the layperson’s communication was a node in a hierarchical chain with upward supplication and downward instruction.
New media – in the form of the Internet, Facebook, cell phones, etc. – has upset this traditional religious communication structure. In the new media environment communication is more horizontal than hierarchical and certainly more diverse and fragmented than unitary. User generated possibilities have changed messages because such messages have become more devolved from authoritative status sources and more subject to negotiation and multiple interpretations. Turner points out that in Islam there has been an inflation of authoritative sources such that any local mullah can turn himself into a source of authority. Knowledge about religion has been democratized such that the Internet and pamphlets are equally as authoritative as individuals. People feel less need to attend their collective religious service because their needs are met with individual preferences and online religion.
Again, in the case of Muslims, they are learning increasingly more from the Internet especially Muslims in the diaspora. There is a correlation between the electronic network and the social network. This correlation has altered various distinctions between types of contact. As I said above, pagers, videophones, email, websites, and cell phones have transformed social relations in religious communities (especially diaspora communities) and offered new ways to theorize those communities. Some authors have explained how communities of people with religions in common use the Internet to cultivate a cosmopolitan democracy that addresses broader issues.
In the future we will see the increasing frequency of new public spheres because electronic media will provide access to thousands of individuals who share interests. The mobilization qualities of new media will make it possible to quickly amass like-minded individuals into electronic communities. Perhaps, we will come full circle and reconstitute larger institutional organizations. Globalization will be very dependent on the Internet as a source of connection to other cultures, including one’s home culture, and the combination of new interpersonal networks with the broad and fragmented information on the Internet will serve to reinforce individualism. Individualism and religion is a two edge sword; it can be associated with rigid thinking and fundamentalism as well as creativity and expressiveness.
New media and horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones will result in a form of individualism consistent with the general commodification of culture. In other words, religious choices and consumption are becoming more important than informed absorption into an established religious system. People want religious “goods” not “gods.” And although established religions will maintain a fair amount of strength and presence, processes for deinstitutionalization are in play as individuals learn to defend their own subjective spirituality and participate more fully in horizontal relationships formed and sustained by new media.