New Media and Religion: Observations on Research

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

What proper metaphor might we draw of an academic area of inquiry that has developed at an enormous speed, yet in a disorganized and somewhat messy manner? The study of new media and religion constitutes such an area. Scholars apply a variety of theories to construct different paradigms, many of which do help in orienting further studies. Culturally speaking, the study of new media and religion is taken up in the West, the East, the Middle East, and Africa. Because of the pluralistic nature of the origins of new media and religion, it is difficult to point to a specific discipline, a set of methodologies, or theoretical rationales as the prime influence.

A fitting metaphor to describe the emergence of new media and religion comes from the story of the internet itself. From its beginnings as the government-sanctioned ARPANET [the United States Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Administration network] in the 1960s and its grassroots utility for university students in North Carolina, the internet has grown exponentially since the 1990s. It is not technically owned by anyone, yet it is utilized by one-sixth of the population of the world. We have only recently begun to bring ourselves up to speed on how to understand the internet and apply offline regulatory policies to it. Boyle's (2008) work, for instance, explores the realm of intellectual property and the public domain. The internet is employed for a variety of uses, from entertainment to research, from information dissemination to socialization. When one takes a step back to survey the impact of the internet, one cannot help but marvel at it, despite its disjointed and often messy development.

In a similar way, the study of new media and religion has developed from a range of disciplines. The resulting body of knowledge is not necessarily cohesive, but when one takes a step back to admire the large picture, it is both exciting and promising, nonetheless.

Another helpful way to understand the current landscape of new media and religion comes from a media researcher, Lynn Schofield Clark. Clark used the term protestantization to describe the state of research in media, religion, and culture (Clark, 2002). By this, she does not imply the propagatation of Protestant Christianity, but rather refers to

the values emergent with the Reformation. Those values specific to my argument include the rise of intellectual inquiry as an endeavor separated from religious aims and the cultural norm of religious tolerance and relativism in the content of a U.S. society that is increasingly pluralistic. (Clark, 2002, p. 8)

Protestantization refers to the state of scholarly research specifically. Clark identifies the interdisciplinary approach, as well as the willingness of both sectarian (religious) researchers and scholarly researchers to engage in dialogue. The hard distinction made here between religious and secular interests makes the point that researchers have different agendas for studying new media and religion, and that while some fit along this dichotomy, other scholars may have both interests at heart. The protestantization of new media and religion refers to the interdisciplinary approach, as well as the pluralistic attitude towards it. While Clark refers to the broader study of media, religion, and culture, for our purposes it is helpful to apply her term to the more narrow study of new media and religion.

The landscape of new media and religion as described may not seem reassuring if our goal is to find a harmonious middle ground. The point, however, is not to find a compromised position that provides a vintage snapshot of new media and religion. Rather, in keeping with the "protestantization" of the study, we want to expand and incorporate interdisciplinary methods. This review identifies several key trends for the purposes of orienting ourselves in the direction of fruitful research. …