Human Existence, Religions and the Digital World

World Interfaith Harmony Week – a United Nations Observance – takes place in the first week of February, each year. The University of Melbourne Chaplaincy and Religions for Peace Victoria conducted a free lecture: Human Existence, Religions and the Digital World at Melbourne University on Tuesday 2nd February 2016. The Lecture was given by by Professor Peter Horsfield, Professor of Communication, RMIT University. Here, we provide a summary selection from this lecture and provide a download of the full lecture and slides.

In his talk, Peter Horsfield considered several questions:

  • Thinking about Media and Religion
  • The Digital Shift
  • Religion, Media and Violence
  • Religion in the Digital Age


How should we think about the relationship between religion and media?

What we think about the interaction of religion with media is heavily influenced by our attitudes towards the media. In any analysis, therefore, it is important to make explicit the presumptions we bring to the analysis. Let me look at three frameworks that have been influential in thinking about the relation of media and religion.

The instrumentalist paradigm

This paradigm, that was dominant through much of the twentieth century, conceived of media primarily as tools to be used to communicate our messages. From within this paradigm, a vast amount of research was done and is still; being done on media uses, media influence, and media effects.

The Mediatization of Religion

A second perspective on media that has become influential today is diagonally opposite from this, a theory of mediatization.

In this view, which builds on media perspectives that emerged in the 1950’s, media are seen as being so ubiquitous and so functionally integrated that they have become a powerful and highly independent institution that is transforming, even determining, the character of everyday practices, social relations, cultural values and institutions in line with its own media logics, technological demands and economic requirements.

Religions as mediated phenomena

For these reasons, a more nuanced view is necessary, one that sees religious faiths not as unmediated or media-neutral practices, but as taking form in particular cultures of communication which, as well as providing the means for communicating the ideas of the religion, have also shaped the religion’s development and become part of the religion’s identity and values.

Because how we communicate is such an unconscious part of our being, this contribution made by media to the identity and values of religion is largely invisible. Who was it that said, the fish doesn’t see the water it swims in.

I would argue, therefore, that the way to understand what is happening today is not that people’s use of new media are undermining genuine religion, nor that religion is becoming mediatized and reduced to banality. What we are seeing, yet again, is a shift taking place in inherited religious identities and values that were formed within and sustained by particular media practices and values; to something new under the impact of new media technologies and practices and the reshaping of the communication web of our cultures.

The digital shift

Let’s flesh this out a bit. What are some of the key elements of change being brought by transition to a digital world, and in what ways are they challenging inherited religious perspectives and traditions.

The Jesuit scholar, Walter Ong, has proposed that the influence media change exerts on social identities, structures and traditions is due to three key characteristics of media: how they handle information, the sort of social relationships they require or enable; and the way in which they address and engage our physical senses.


Different ways of communicating are interested in different sorts of information and handle information differently. Because the selection, processing, storage and reproduction of information is central to the construction of social thought and social understanding, changes in media have a ripple effect across a society, and impact on such things as patterns of religious thinking, how religious meaning is constructed, and how religious thought is engaged with. How meaning is created and passed on in peasant or working class cultures, for example, are quite different from literate cultures, and are becoming quite different again in digital cultures.

One of those changes is in the volume of information that is now being produced and is accessible no matter where you are. We no longer live in an environment from which we draw information – we are living in an environment that is competitively informational and fast. This has created the necessity for all of us to develop new methods for survival and prospering in this informational flood. It is necessary to establish your own criteria for deciding what information is important to you or not, placing yourself in the flow of information to ensure you remain aware of what’s going on, and skimming that information flow for relevance rather than giving all information considered attention.

Furthermore, everything that enters the digital domain can be difficult to remove and can be searched and discovered. Political, social and religious reputations and authority that are built on controlling information to present a particular public persona are becoming difficult to maintain.

These changes are having significant impacts on religious organisations that are built on the control and stability of text. …

The power that religious organisations were able to exert in the past through in-house secrecy and control of information to cover-up sexual abuse by religious leaders, has been subverted by the redistribution of informational power that Google, Facebook and Twitter has made available to the common person to put their case.


The second way in which religions are being challenged by digital technologies is in the transformations they are making to the concept and formation of social relationships and, by extension, to the structures and practices of social institutions, social authority, and political order.

I don’t need to make you aware of this – you are dealing with it already. Our closest work relationships are not with the person in the office beside us, but with networks of colleagues scattered around the world. The people most people have most interaction with, and seek recognition and advice from, are not people they meet face-to-face, but their Facebook friends. It is largely accepted, though also challenged, that it is okay to interrupt a coffee with friends to check your texts, emails, or Facebook posts when your smartphone beeps.

Sensory experience

The third major change being brought by digital media is in its sensory qualities. In difference from previous writing and printing-based media practices, digital media bring a sensory experience that is more visual, more auditory, more physically interactive and immersive. As a simple example, libraries are quiet, because reading books is a quiet experience (well it is now, it wasn’t always). Put a desk of video games in a library and you will change the sensory environment immediately.

Significant work has now been done on how the sensory experiences and connections a person has within a religious environment are crucial in the meaning the person gains from the religion, and the connections they make between the religious ideas and rituals and their daily lives. Change the sensory nature of the environment people live in, however, and you will begin to change the meaning or relevance they draw from the sensory environment provided by the religion and the meaning people draw from that environment.

Media and religious violence

One thing we need to keep in mind in thinking about media and religious violence is that media reporting of violence is selective and disproportionate. Novel forms of violence, spectacular violence, or violence that fits current newsworthiness, is much more likely to be reported by news media than other types of violence.

It is valuable therefore, to keep the representation of religious terrorism in perspective. Certainly the suffering by people in the regions of current conflict is horrific. In Australia, though, the greater terrorism we face is not terrorism from Islamist groups such as ISIL or Al-Qaeda, it is terrorism perpetrated by Australian men against Australian women.

More than one woman a week in Australia is murdered, not by a Muslim terrorist, but by an Australian man, the vast majority of them Christian. Many more than that number of women are terrorized and beaten on a daily basis. The corollary for social policy is that the greater threat of recruitment for terrorist purposes we face as a society, is not recruitment of disaffected young people to overseas terrorist groups, it is the recruitment of young Australian males to the attitude that they can terrorize or if necessary murder women with whom they cannot get their way.

The effectiveness of religion-based groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda is due to their recognising these operative news criteria, and being prepared to stage a number of spectacular media events that caught that media attention and thrust their existence into global public consciousness. To this point it has been a very effective media strategy. I share the view expressed by others that the more media coverage and disproportionate political response given to them, the more their aims are achieved.

Religion in the Digital Age

What then are the prospects for religion in the Digital Age?

From an institutional perspective, the digital age is bringing a pluralization of religious options and significant decline in attendance and involvement in formal religion. Religious institutions are decreasingly seen as being necessary for information about religion, for social networking, or for the practice of spirituality. The sensory experiences that were offered by traditional religions are not competitive with the alternative sensory experiences available within the wider culture. The freer circulation of information has also increased a perception among many that religions are self-interested organisations, and the cause of much of the violence in the world.

Those religious movements or institutions that are doing well or growing at the moment are those that have adapted their religious message and style to the ethos, culture, and economic requirements of the digital age. They generally reflect a charismatic rather than formal style of leadership, they present an image of being dynamic and successful, link the communication of religious meaning with strongly audio-visual stimulation, and present themselves as being relevant to the practical issues of people’s lives. If your interest is in preserving religious institutions, there are models of this sort of movement in most religions you can draw on and imitate.

Download the full lecture by Peter Horsfield