Online Religion: Canaries Don’t Die, They Push the Button

Two stories about religion online have caught my eye today.

The first story deals with the claim by Daniel Dennett of  Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind that atheist clergy are the harbingers of an age to come when the innermost secrets of religions will be accessible by google search and therefore faith will fall away: Churches Can No Longer Hide The Truth: Daniel Dennett On The New Transparency.  From the article: ‘Our digital information age, he argues, is ushering in a “new world of universal transparency” where religious institutions can no longer hide the truth. To survive in an age of transparency, religions will need to come to terms with the facts.’ Of course, ‘Religion’ as a whole has had plenty of opportunities in the past to quote Twain and say “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (also commonly quoted as, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”).  Yes, secularization thesis, I’m looking at you.

I have a couple of issues with this claim.  First, the idea that the Internet provides a panopticonic gaze is misleading.  Even ignoring issues around accessibility, fluency and technological know-how, the assumption that everything is available online and ‘transparent’ is deeply flawed.  I briefly mentioned perception bias in my summary of Paolo Gerbaudo’s talk at the Researching (with) Social Media reading group: Big Data is Watching You: But Does It Understand You? The microscope with which we examine material online is of our own formation, and the so-called ‘secrets’ of religions could still be hidden from a gaze that does not know where to look for them.  Or that they even exist.

searching on the internet
Searching… searching…

Second, the assumption that such materials would be intact and whole is also open to dispute.  For example, in the case of the Church of Scientology this allegedly panoptic gaze was only directed towards documents about the Operating Thetan Levels when they were unearthed as a result of legal discovery during the 1990 libel case by the Church against Stephen Fishman.  But even then they were only available to interested parties like the Press when formal access requests to the clerk’s office were made, which members of the Church attempted to block by making multiple requests of their (see Urban, 2011).  That material was eventually leaked online, but it wasn’t until 2008 that a full, unedited version of the materials was hosted online by Wikileaks. Or perhaps we should say allegedly full and allegedly unedited.

Finally, let’s for moment assume that religious ‘facts’ such as the OT levels of Scientology might be present to a hypothetical panopticonic view… Does that mean ding dong the witch of religion is dead?

I think not.  Much of my research is on what I have sometimes called pragmatic religions, although ‘Hyper-real’ (Possamai, 2012) or ‘Invented’ (Cusack, 2010) are more frequently used terms within the Sociology of Religion.  I describe them as pragmatic because on the whole they are aware of the ‘facts’ of their origins and believe anyway.  So for example, the explosion of interest in Jediism after the UK and commonwealth censuses was not because members were convinced that there was truly a galaxy far far away where the events of Star Wars actually occurred and that the Jedi system that they were adopting was the same as Old Ben Kenobi’s.  The real world Jedi pragmatically accept the fictional origins of their religion, but adhere to it because it works for them.  Likewise, many Wiccans accepted sometime in the 1980s that Gerald Gardener was more likely mocking a local Women’s Institute doyenne when he made Dorothy Clutterbuck the head of his allegedly rediscovered Witches Coven in the New Forest.  The Old Religion as described by Margaret Murray and expounded  upon by Gardener was perhaps better described as a “Thing of spirit, not of heritage” as Gannon and Field characterised it in Quest Magazine in 1992.

Could the so-called ‘mainstream’  religions respond pragmatically to the revelation of their ‘facts’? Some Christians already do, in the light of the Historical-criticism turn in biblical studies, and seek metaphorical rather than literal truths in their texts. Of course biblical literalism has its contemporary adherents as well.  But it seems to me that Dennet is rather lumping all religions and their responses together to deduce the death of religion, with his atheist clergy as the “canaries in the coal mine”.  He does end the interview with a reframing of religion as a benevolent charitable endeavour that might survive if it can frankly acknowledge the mythic character of its creeds. Although he is doubtful whether that can be done, “but I hope it can” he says finally.

The second story is about a button.


The connection between these stories that I’m drawing out might not be immediately obvious, but first here’s what the button is.  On April’s Fools Day 2015 a single electronic button was added to the Reddit site that has a timer next to it, counting down from 60 seconds.   Every time someone (a member of Reddit whose account predates April 1st) presses the button this counter restarts from 60.  Depending on the number of seconds left on the counter the pusher receives a different colour of ‘flair’ next to their Reddit account name.  Those who have never pressed it have grey flair.  Those who pressed it between 60 and 52 seconds get purple flair, between 51 and 42 seconds get blue, between 41 and 32 get green.  Those pressing it under 32 seconds have so far received yellow flair, but there are rumours of orange and red flair for under 21 and 11 seconds respectively*.  It is not known what will happen if the timer is ever allowed to run out.

I am indebted to Nick Parke, Director of Inform, for bringing this story to my attention, and for our subsequent conversation via e-mail about how people choose to spend their free time online, and the competitive and reputational aspects of this button.  Like many activities that are taking place online the ‘newness’ of the media inclines people to see the activities as ‘new’ as well.  Whereas, I argue that the Internet is only providing new places in which to be human.  And if you don’t think humans haven’t enjoyed seemingly nonsensical competitions for reputation that only matter within small communities then you have never met a trainspotter before. I grew up with a trainspotting/train memorabilia collecting father so I speak from some experience.

However, after I had been discussing this story with Nick I came across a follow up article that makes the story even more relevant to my research: People Got So Into This Strange Internet Button They Made Up a Religion .  It seems that the different types of flair are now being translated into religious positions: “The Followers of the Shade” who deliberately won’t press the button because they want to see what happens when the timer runs out. The “Redguard” are intent on only clicking when the clock is about to run out. “The Hitchhikers” tried to press the button at 42 seconds as a tribute to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” The button is providing the hook for some ideological and metaphysical positions and claims are being made for religious status, including the creation of prayers for the different factions, such as the Prayer for the Followers of the Shade:

“Non-pressers we shall be, For Thee, my Shade, for Thee. The Grey hath descended forth from Thy hand, That our flair shall be testament of Thy command So we shall flow a river forth to Thee, And teeming with violet shall it ever be. In nomine Patris, et umbra, et sanctum cinereo.”

Button image 1
Image from Reddit

Again, the different ‘denominations’ of the button religion (‘Buttonism’? ‘Buttonianity’?) are well aware of the origin and facts of the button. The article asks whether this is a case of role-playing rather than religion, a question that has also been raised of Jediism which can overlap with both the Star Wars fandom and it’s live, game and table top role playing adherents.  The article refers to what it terms online micro-religions such as Kopimism, on which I saw a fascinating paper presented at AAR 2014 by Shannon Schorey, which is less fandom based.   But it also cites Bronies and other groups that might be moving across the permeable membrane between fandom and religion.  The typological lines between these groups are very hard to draw.

Where these pragmatic religions go next is unclear and I am loathe to offer predictions. But, returning to the first story, the effect of the Internet on religion as a while might not be as simply destructive as Dennett argues. Instead we can see it as a potential space for religious creativity, and yes, even for religious play.

*Reddit members have now achieved orange and red flair

Cusack, C. (2010) Invented Religions Imagination, Fiction and Faith, UK: Ashgate

Possamai, A. (2012) (ed.) The Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions, Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion

Urban, H. (2011) The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, USA: Princeton University Press