The Democratization of Religion: (ir)Religious Innovation in a Technological Age

Below you’ll find an excerpt from a paper I wrote recently as part of my final research paper for my Senior Seminar in Religion. It is a bit of a lengthy essay so I will be posting in in two parts. The paper attempts to explore the connections between religious innovation and technological innovation, or more specifically the growing numbers moving toward irreligion in Millennials as a kind of religious innovation and the possible relations to advances in information and communication technologies. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

 

The very nature of change is permanence (Slobodkin, 5). Not a permanence in the way of concrete fixity, nor finality but, rather permanent as in permanent unidirectional change; change that moves one-way. Technology futurist, Daniel Burrus, describes this kind of permanent change as “linear change”, explaining that “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back” (Burrus). Burrus elaborates further, stating,

Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences (Burrus).

In this regard, although this linear-orientated change is vast, far-reaching, drastic, dramatic, at times, seemingly unprecedented, and though it’s consequences are indeed profound, ‘change’, itself, is neither good nor bad, “neither wise nor benign nor malicious” (Slobodkin, 11).  Change “simply is” (5). Change occurs and continues to occur, permanently altering not only ourselves but, also the world around us. The world is not the same as it once was, we are not the same as we once were and just as the world can never go back to being the way it had once been before, neither can we ever return to our previous manifestations. Ours is an age marked by increased and ever-expanding technological and social change. We are living in an era in which change is both rapid and ever-present. Simon Mainwaring writes that “The Internet, social media, and smartphones are giving people the opportunity to connect, communicate, and share values on a scale that before was unimaginable” (80). Information of any and every kind has become increasingly ‘open-sourced’ and or ‘crowd-sourced’. Networks abound and immense connectivity, or inter-connectivity is simply part and parcel of our present day context. As a result culture, itself, is becoming increasingly participatory and collaborative. The authority of formal institutions and the experts are not only waning but, are becoming more and more decentralized. In short, every aspect of society is becoming progressively democratized. Religion, then, is certainly no exception. Statistically speaking, attendance and confidence in traditional religious institutions are definitely on a downward decline, and quite possibly the fasting growing segment of the population is decidedly claiming no religious affiliation.  It seems that the religious sphere, too, has become a site of collaborative and participatory, experimental innovation. Does this signal the end of religion? Are we preparing entrance into an utterly religion-less world? Or is a negation simply a moment in the life of a deeper affirmation, a dialectical negation (Raulet, 77). Thus, it is the intention of this paper to explore the effects of the intersections of religion and information technology, in which irreligion and secularization are in all actuality dialectical methods of religious innovation.

It should be stated from the outset, however, as Derek Davis and Barry Hankins make clear, that although “We humans have tendency to think that we are living in unique times, and often we are disinclined to look at our pats as a help in understanding the present” it should be recognized that “Religious innovation and the controversy surrounding it goes as far back as history can see” (9). These statements may seem to imply connotation of something seemingly cyclical but, to be sure, this fact does more to emphasize the consistent continuation of permanent unidirectional change and its cultural and societal consequences then it does to refute it. While the specific changes experienced by a particular society are indeed unique to their culture, what is irrefutably undeniable is the irrevocability of the alterations presented there within, each of which found building upon the previous and moving forward in a singularly linear fashion. In other words, every culture at one time or another has been consummately transformed by its technological innovations. Indeed, these occurrences in and of themselves serve as a kind of historical, sociological, anthropological, and calendrical marking or place-holder, defining that particular age or era in its entirety. As a result, in each instance religion has been as equally as innovatively affected.

With this in mind, author Doug Pagitt proposes that culture has moved through “three distinct ages – the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information age” (4). The Agrarian age, occurring as a result the Agricultural Revolution which was initiated by the invention and implementation of technological advances in farming aids and tools, allowing for the manipulation of nature, saw a development of a culture that was highly “localized, organic, [and] almost-tribal like” (Pagitt, 15). Religion in the Agrarian Age was, then, a perfect mirrored reflection of this rural and pastoral way of life. Here, geography was of greater importance than theology, and religious leaders were the quintessential shepherds; the word pastor, itself, meaning “shepherd” (Pagitt, 15-16).

Likewise, the Industrial Age was brought on by technological progress, in this case, the mechanized manufacturing innovations of the Industrial Revolution, each of which emphasized efficiency, repetition, and replication (Pagitt, 19). With this age came increases in the density of populations residing in smaller areas of land and with it the beginnings of urbanization. Around every corner “life-changing innovation” was arriving; “the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane” (Pagitt, 19). Religion too, followed suit on all fronts. New religions were being produced with an innovative factory-like precision; “Mormonism, Christian Science,” and a wealth of others (Pagitt, 20). If in the Agrarian Age religious leaders were likened to shepherds then, in the Industrial Age the figureheads of religious communities became “factory foreman”, seeking to efficiently replicate congregants in an effort to build or manufacture a religious brand (Pagitt, 20).

The Industrial Age subtly transitioned to the Information Age (Pagitt, 21). The Information Age is just that, an age defined by the prevalent accentuation of information and the ever-increasing outlets for its prevailing predominance. Because of the mass-production of the Industrial Age the availability of books expanded greatly and as a result this period saw a tremendous increase in literacy and a profound emphasis was placed upon education, especially as it provided a pathway out of the factory (Pagitt, 22). In this way, the cultural values shifted from production to knowledge, what one knew was considered to be drastically more important then what one could manufacture of produce (Pagitt, 22). The Information Age also witnessed the iconic emergence of the television, a technological advancement that allowed for an even wider distribution of information which rivaled many of its predecessors (Pagitt, 23). And just as it had in the previous eras, these trends carried over into the realm of religion, which echoed this new premium placed upon the essentiality of information and knowledgeability. Likewise, religious authorities emphasized their roles as educators, arbiters of knowledge, and CEOs, religious communities becoming organizationally patterned epicenters of learning and information (Pagitt, 23-24).

Yet, the forward motion of change is both constant and persistent. Just as the Agrarian Age gave way to the Industrial Age, and the Industrial yielded to the Information Age, Pagitt assesses the current context of culture well when he proposes that a fourth age has dawned; the Inventive Age

 

To be continued…

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