The Democratization of Religion pt. 2

 

Below is the second part to a paper I wrote for my Undergraduate Senior Seminar which seeks to explore the deeper connections between religion and technology, each of their innovative processes, and their potentiality for catalyzing a kind of emancipatory democratization. Please let me know what you think! Enjoy!

 

James Gleick writes that “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought” (12). This has proven true with the emergence of each of the three previous ages that Pagitt proposes but, perhaps, this medium-transformative shift in “the nature of human thought,” which Gleick describes, proves to be an even more accurate assertion in this the present global setting that Pagitt terms the Inventive Age. The Internet, Social Media, smartphones, and countless other advances in information and communication technologies have drastically altered the cultural landscape, providing whole new ways of experiencing and engaging with the world, and bringing about striking and immeasurable changes to social values. The limitations of locality and geographical borders and boundaries have been daringly transcended. Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that “the worldwide web of information…means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere” (xiii). This creates a kind of globalized cosmopolitanism, a citizenry (politēs) not merely exclusive to nationality but, of the world (cosmos) (xiv). Here, as well, knowledge and information retain all of their importance, esteem, and regard but only in so far it leads to discovery and innovation (Pagitt, 30). Thus, as Pagitt concludes, the impetus of the Inventive Age is focused entirely upon “inclusion, participation, collaboration,” and creativity (30). The parameters of the Inventive Age is precisely what media scholar Henry Jenkins et al, defines as Participatory Culture.

Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy, James Paul Gee, highlights that “We live in…an age of convergent media, production, participation, fluid group formation, cognitive, social, and linguistic complexity-all embedded in contemporary popular culture” (14). As such, Jenkins et al defines Participatory Culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices” (xi). In this regard, as Jenkins et al goes on to explain, “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from individual expression to community involvement” (6). This, then, is not a matter of “individual accomplishment but rather the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media” (4). Participatory Culture is highly responsive and extremely reactive, especially in that it is a bold and outright rejection of the largely passive and inactive orientation of consumer culture. Participatory Culture centers itself upon inter-activity and occurs, as Jenkins et al explains, as a result of the absorption of “new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways” (8). Here, Jonathan Fitzgerald rightly surmises that “the meeting of the digital world of social media and the physical world show that what were once thought to be frivolous wastes of time – sites like Facebook and Twitter – actually have the power to change the world” (Fitzgerald).

Indeed, as Jenkins et al explains, “Participatory culture,” with its technological advances in communication, creation, and information, “is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate” (10). Barry Taylor makes clear that “New technologies have shifted the balance of power in the realm of information,” leading to the full and unabashed democratization of information and culture (12). Taylor adamantly expresses that “Democratization is the key dynamic of our times” (17) as it “seems to be at work in virtually every area of life today” (12), and as a result everyday culture is imminently witnessing both “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (Howe) and “The Rise of the Amateur” (Rushkoff). As a consequence, the ‘experts’, those vested with centralized hierarchical authority, those to whom Dana Ardi refers to as the Alphas (1), and “institutions no longer have the last word or hold the authoritative sway they once had” (Taylor, 11). In many cases the wide-spread and sprawling confederation of Networked individuals are proving that the cumulative and culminating knowledge of the crowd can surpass that of the solitary specialist. Thus, Taylor states emphatically that “The collapse or loss of faith in traditional forms of leadership and structure combined with virtually unlimited access to information has resulted in an empowering of the masses that is transforming culture” (18).

Clearly the religious implications are also overwhelming. Just as in the periods Pagitt describes as the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age, religion in the Inventive age precisely parallels the principles of the time. In 2012 the Pew Research Center released a report demonstrating that in the United States 1 in 5 adults say that they are religiously unaffiliated and a full one-third of those below the age of thirty claim to have no religious affiliation (Taylor, 8). This represents an increase of over 5%, a rise that began at just above 15% in 2007 up to 20% by 2012 (Taylor, 127). Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center, Paul Taylor, writes that not only are the ‘nones’ (the name given to demographic answering ‘none’ to the question of religious affiliation) disassociated from traditional religious engagement “they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them” either (127). Taylor also goes on to say that “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics” (127). Similarly, a Gallup poll has shown that two-thirds of American adults believe that religious influence is declining (Saad). Likewise, a 2012 Gallup poll revealed that only 44% of the U.S. population maintains a high level of confidence in organized religion, a jarring low point, and the result of a progressive downward trend since 1975 (Saad). Many would suggest that the process of secularization is finally winning out as predicted by many philosophical and sociological thinkers, thereby proposing that these figures are indicative of the ending reign of religion. However, this would seem to be only partially correct. 68% of the religious unaffiliated still retain a belief in God; 37% are spiritual; and 21%p pray daily (Taylor, 127). Only the most marginal and miniscule faction of the ‘nones’ are atheists. If the collaborative decentralization witnessed in the other areas of culture exhibit anything it is that something else is occurring in the religious sphere.

Just as the values of the participatory culture have dramatically shifted from the hierarchy of institutions, so “Religion has also shifted” and “is no longer found in the institutions and public locations – the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other buildings of wood and stone that have traditionally housed the sacred” (Taylor, 100). Religion, too, is being democratized and entering into a whole “new evolutionary phase in which the power and influence of religious formation” is being taken away from the mediating exclusivity of the clerical class and redistributed to the masses “for whom the task of fashioning a connection with the divine is an intensely personal and creative venture” (Taylor,170). This is a new form of religiosity. This is the beginnings of what Barry Taylor calls “Participatory Theology” (201). It seems that the very same technologies that have set the precedent of the Inventive Age have divested the religious establishment of its monopoly on religious truth and meaning. The creative free-flow of collaborative information has forced the traditional institutions of religion to relinquish their corner on the market, rejecting the inactive passivity of religious consumerism, and bringing about an age of participatory customization.

As technology has advanced so has culture and, as result, religion has as well. Each advancement has ushered in a new era, a new age, a new evolutionary phase, each “completely revaluating and revisiting virtually every aspect of the human condition” (Taylor, 14). The democratizing effects of information and communication technologies such as the Internet, Social Media, and smartphones, etc. have aided in creating a post-religious and a post-secular age. That which at first glance appeared to be an indication of irreligion has proven to be the initiating phases of a new kind of religious innovation. This is a dialectical movement in which as Thomas Altizer writes that “the deepest negation embodies the deepest affirmation” (56). What seems to be an outright negation of religiosity is in fact an affirmation of religion. The black and white binary that dichotomously divides the sacred and the profane, the thesis of religion and the antithesis of secularity are dialectically merging into the synthesis of something far more innovative.

 

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J. New Gospel of Christian Atheism. Aurora: The Davies Group Publishers, 2002. Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Ardi, Dana. The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence – and Lead. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Print.

Burrus, Daniel. “Predicting the Future.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Davis, Derek and Barry Hankins. New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, 2nd ed. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003. Print.

Fitzgerald, Jonathan D. Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Colorado: Bondfire Books, 2012. Print.

Gee, James Paul. New Digital Media and Learning as an Emergent Area and “Worked Examples”as One Way Forward. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Random House, 2012.Print.

Howe, Jeff. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired. Wired Magazine, June 2006. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Pagitt, Doug. Church in the Inventive Age. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. Print

Raulet, Gerard. “Critique Of Religion And Religion As Critique: The Secularized Hope Of Ernst Bloch.” New German Critique 9 (1976): 71. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “The Rise of the Amateur.” MPI Web. Meeting Professionals International, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.” Gallup. Gallup Inc., 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.

Slobodkin, Lawrence B. A Citizen’s Guide to Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Taylor, Barry. Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. Print.

Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2014. Print.

 

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