Four Books on Digital Religion

By Alessandra Vitullo

After almost thirty years of research investigating the phenomenon of religions online, the study of digital religion is now recognized as a prominent and important area of inquiry within religious studies. It is an area marked by interdisciplinarity, and it has seen notable growth over the last five years as scholars have sought to document and analyze how the Covid-19 pandemic led to a swift increase in digital religious practices and implementations. This trend has also allowed this field of study to solidify its place as a subfield that intersects not only with social and religious sciences but also history, media, and communication studies.

The books chosen for this short review aim to highlight precisely how digital religion scholarship has gained prominence and popularity in such a short period, becoming an area of study that can easily enter into dialogue with some of the most profound questions related to the study of contemporary religious phenomena. The theme that links these publications is the approach and concept of seeing digital religion as a “third space,” a new social and cultural place where religion is engaged through digital platforms and experiences. This concept offers researchers a way to observe religion from a unique perspective, as a space that accommodates new and alternative forms of religious expression.

Digital Religion: The Basics, by Heidi A. Campbell and Wendi Bellar (Routledge, 2023)

Heidi Campbell and Wendi Bellar’s book Digital Religion: The Basics offers a systematic reconstruction of digital religion studies, outlining the crucial milestones achieved in this field so far and further open questions. The volume is open and accessible, especially for a general audience. It offers students an entry point into the study of digital religion, and will be useful in the numerous courses that have arisen in recent years around this topic. The third space of digital religion, according to Campbell and Bellar, is a religious space that recombines new tools, languages, ​​​​and platforms afforded by the internet. The transformation process that religions undergo once they are online facilitates the creation of new “convergent religious practices,” which clearly challenge some of the core assets of religious traditions, such as the categories of authority, community, and truth.

The Third Spaces of Digital Religion, Edited by Nabil Echchaibi and Stewart M. Hoover (Routledge, 2023)

Nabil Echchaibi and Stewart M. Hoover’s The Third Spaces of Digital Religion explicitly examines how people make meaning in the “third space” of digital media. This media ecosystem is seen as a new space in which alternative or new religious and spiritual expressions can be visualized and experienced. The authors offer, for the first time, a systematic reflection on the definition and application of this concept of “third space” as it is enacted in a digital religious context. Here, the third space is where the digital religion discipline deploys new theoretical and empirical tools. It is also a space created (collectively or individually) by alternative forms of religiosity, which are the object of intense debate about the transformations of religion in postmodern and postsecular societies.

Unruly Souls: The Digital Activism of Muslim and Christian Feminists, By Kristin M. Peterson (Rutgers University Press, 2022)

The third space is also occupied by the “unruly souls” described by Kristen M. Peterson in her book Unruly Souls: The Digital Activism of Muslim and Christian Feminists. In the third space, religious activists who feel “outcast” or like “misfits” within the mainstream narratives proposed by their institutions are enabled to create their own space online to freely reconcile their religion with their identity. Through podcasts, YouTube channels, and blogs, young Muslims and Evangelical Christians find a way to experience their religion without conflict, guilt, and patriarchal domination, according to Peterson. For her, the third space of digital religion becomes a new listening space where religious individuals can find and create new forms of support.

People of the Screen: How Evangelicals Created the Digital Bible and How It Shapes Their Reading of Scripture, by John Dyer (Oxford University Press, 2023)

My last book selection may seem dissonant with the previous three, because John Dyer’s People of the Screen: How Evangelicals Created the Digital Bible and How It Shapes Their Reading of Scripture presents a solid structure and focus on the media practices of the Protestant Evangelical tradition. However, Dyer’s book also tells a nuanced story (the other books discuss non-institutional religious traditions), one that describes how the fragmentation and the multitasking solutions offered by technological devices can lead users to a progressively personalized and privatized religious experience. The use and creation of the digital Bible apps made by Evangelical Christians, and described in this book, demonstrate how sacred time and spaces are amplified and diffused throughout the flow of our daily lives. As the author notes, mobile apps empower us to read the Bible in short bursts wherever we are—while queuing at Starbucks, waiting for the bus, or playing with our children. In this way, the digital creates a third space (and time) allowing us to customize our religious experience. While this ability to personalize our experience clearly echoes what has already been described by secularization theories, it can also be seen as contributing to a move away from religion. But Dyer suggests that this technological privatization, instead of leading to a decline in religious engagement, actually expands the time and space dedicated to it.

Each of these contributions offer different perspectives and responses to some of the most interesting research questions about the transformation of contemporary religious phenomena. Approaching religion through the third space, and a digital one at that, reveals how, nowadays, the study of religious traditions can no longer be separated from our online experience.

Alessandra Vitullo is an assistant professor at Sapienza University of Rome (Italy).