Authority Online: Construction and Implications

"Buddhist religious authority online is an area which needs further exploration, so that we can truly understand how the internet is providing an opportunity for new forms of religious authority and leadership to develop, while at the same time establishing traditional religious authority. It will also help us to answer questions, such as who has the “true legitimate voice for a particular religious tradition or community” (Campbell 2012, p.76)."

By Louise Connelly

Louise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV

Louise Connelly

Louise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV

In response to:

Religious Authority and Social Media

"Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study... Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgement of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority..."

Authority Online: Construction and Implications

By Louise Connelly, University of Edinburgh, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 2 October 2013, in response to Pauline Hope Cheong’s interview on Religious Authority and Social Media (30 September 2013).

Pauline Hope Cheong is Associate Professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. She has written extensively on the subject of digital religion and specifically the subject of religious authority. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, she provides an insight into her research on the subject of religious authority online and focuses the discussion to include: how authority manifests online, strategic arbitration, constructing tradition, performance, and this emerging research area.  In this review, I highlight some of the key points from the interview, as well as discussing Buddhist authority online.

Strategic Arbitration & Performance

Cheong argues that there is strategic arbitration by the clergy (religious leaders), as they are often having to select and interpret competing online texts, as well as negotiate texts presented by their congregation. Strategically arbitrating texts instils a responsibility and element of labour in which the religious leader needs to address both the impact of technology and the cultural shift in how people engage with technology. Consequently, the clergy need to manage this situation in order to maintain legitimacy within the organisation.

Cheong argues that some religious leaders may embrace the use of digital media, rather than shy away from it, as there are many advantages to being ‘connected’ online. An example given in the interview is the use of the micro-blogging platform known as Twitter and how tweets (140 characters or less) might serve as micro sacred texts to followers. Thus, the clergy can potentially engage with a much wider and more diverse audience (geographically and culturally) than would be possible in the face-to-face environment. Cheong refers to a forthcoming article on ‘top clergy tweeters’ and the possible explanation for their success. She argues that their success may be attributed to their willingness to share personal aspects of their life via Twitter and therefore building a more intimate relationship with their followers. Nonetheless, they often only share what is ‘culturally acceptable’. By constructing tweets which intentionally select topics and shy away from ‘less favourable’ topics, it could be argued that this is a type of online public/private performance.

New and evolving research

There are a number of disciplines which have taken an interest in the emerging area of religion online, including religious studies, media studies, and cultural studies;  to name but a few. Cheong highlights that “in the digital age, adherents, audiences, listeners, communities of shared practice and shared memory, and various ‘publics’ are now active in the production, circulation, imbrication, selection , and re-making of ‘the religious’ and ‘the spiritual’” (Cheong et al., 2012, p.xii). However, understanding how authority manifests online and is negotiated offline is an area needing further attention. Cheong proposes that future research could include an examination of religious apps and how authority is communicated through such apps (see Wagner, who proposes six categories of religious apps, 2012, p.102-105); as well as an exploration of religious authority and other cultures and languages (not just North America) use of online media. The latter would provide a comparative analysis of authority, which is a research area also proposed by Dawson and Cowan (2004, p.10-11).

Cheong’s interview provides a valuable insight into how different media platforms are being used by religious individuals and organisations. Understanding the relationship between religion, media and culture enables us to gain a greater awareness of the potential implications for religion due to cultural changes and technological developments in the twenty-first century.

Virtual Buddhism and Authority

I would now like to continue the discussion of authority on the internet by providing some examples of how Buddhist authority is manifesting online. The examination of Buddhism on the internet is an emerging area and includes a small number of studies which have addressed the issue of Buddhist authority online (see Cheong et al. 2011; Baffelli et al. 2011; Connelly, 2012). Cheong et al. focus on how Buddhist clergy use new and old media, whereas Baffelli et al. examine Japanese New Religious Movements and their use of video sharing sites as a means to instill authority.  Other research examines Buddhist ritual in the online virtual world known as Second Life and questions whether online Buddhism, or ‘Virtual Buddhism’ could result in changes to Buddhist authority, community, identity and ritual – both online and offline (Connelly, 2010; 2012).

Buddhism in Second Life can be found in a number of locations, such as the Buddha Center (http://secondlife.com/, in-world address, 137, 130, 21). It is here that avatars (online personas) can participate in virtual meditation, spin prayer-wheels, or visit the temple or Deer Garden. The virtual activities, artefacts and locations at the Buddha Center often replicate those found offline, thus providing a sense of authenticity (Connelly, 2010, p.19). Many of the meditation sessions or talks are led by ordained Buddhist monks or nuns and therefore, could be said to legitimate their sense of authority online. On the other hand, the Buddha Center is not affiliated with one specific school of Buddhism and includes Zen, Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist practices and artifacts  One of the founders of the Center, Delani Gabardini (in-world name) maintains that this creates a type of “universal Buddhism” (Connelly, 2010, p.15). Examples of virtual locations, activities and individuals such as those found at the Buddha Center enable us to examine how Buddhist identity, community, ritual and authority manifests online and the possible challenges and implications which may arise, for Buddhism, both online and offline (Connelly 2012, p.134).

Buddhist religious authority online is an area which needs further exploration, so that we can truly understand how the internet is providing an opportunity for new forms of religious authority and leadership to develop, while at the same time establishing traditional religious authority. It will also help us to answer questions, such as who has the “true legitimate voice for a particular religious tradition or community” (Campbell 2012, p.76).

Additional Resources

P.H. Cheong website http://paulinehopecheong.com/

Virtual Buddhism blog http://virtualbuddhism.blogspot.co.uk/

References

  • Baffelli, E., Reader, I. & Staemmler, B. (2011). Japanese religions on the internet: innovation, representation, and authority. Routledge.
  • Campbell, H. (ed.). (2012). Digital religion: understanding religious practice in new media worlds. London: Routledge.
  • Cheong, Fisher-Nieleen, Gelgren & Ess (2012). Digital religion, social media and culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S. & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). “Cultivating Online and Offline Pathways to Enlightenment”. Information, Communication & Society, 14:8, 1160-1180.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • ________. (2012). “Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist Ritual in Second Life” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, H. Campbell (ed.), pp. 128-135. London: Routledge.
  • Dawson, L. L. & Cowan, D. (eds.) (2004). Religion Online. London, Routledge.
  • Wagner, R. (2012). Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. New York: Routledge. 

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Editors’ Picks 4: The Secularisation Thesis

Podcast

In this, the penultimate Editors' Pick, David tells us why he chose his interview with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation thesis as his favourite. The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century.
Religion and Cultural Production

Podcast

"It is a truth generally acknowledged that religions have been the earliest and perhaps the chief progenitors of cultural products in human societies..." Clearly there is no shortage of data for scholars wishing to delve into this broad topic. But what do we actually mean by ‘cultural product’? How can we claim that ‘religion’ is producing these things in any meaningful way?
Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

Podcast

Science and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a 'Muslim view' on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.
Astrology

Podcast

If statistics are to be believed, close to 100% of people in the UK know their astrological sun-sign. But what is astrology, exactly? Is it merely a “survival” from the medieval worldview, and what is its relationship to modernity and scientific thought? Most pertinently, does it have something profound to tell us about the nature of popular belief, or vernacular religion?
Children in New Religious Movements

Podcast

In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself.
LDS Garments and Agency

Podcast

A candid discussion with Nancy Ross about Mormon women's experiences with wearing LDS garments. From the paper "LDS Garments and Agency: A Qualitative Study of Meaning" by Nancy Ross and Jessica Finnigan: "The form of LDS garments has changed over time, from wrist-to-ankle, single-piece long underwear, to versions that included short sleeves and legs, to the two-piece styles that are common today. One of the most difficult aspects of studying garments is that talking about them is a transgressive act." This is that boundary pushing discussion.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).