Religion in the Age of Digitalization

From New Media to Spiritual Machines

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Editor(s): 
Giulia Isetti, Elisa Innerhofer, Harald Pechlaner, Michael de Rachewiltz
Routledge Research in Religion, Media and Culture
  • New York: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2020.
     208 pages.
     $160.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780367408190.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Religion in the Age of Digitalization: From New Media to Spiritual Machines is a timely entry into the Routledge Media, Religion and Culture series. Having been released in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this volume comes at a point in global history when the investigation of our relationship with digital media has never been more relevant or urgently examined. Tapping into this pertinent theme and levying contributions from an international and interdisciplinary pool of scholars, this book has two principal aims: “to provide a panorama of the latest developments taking place in five major world religions and their engagement with digitalization” and to introduce new insights into the “relationship between technology and spirituality” (2–3).

As the editors explain in their introduction, this volume emerged as the product of two different conferences that they facilitated: one examining “Digital Religion” in 2018 and another examining “Digitalization, Spirituality and Democracy” in 2019 (4). This bipartite origin is clearly reflected in the final product. Religion in the Age of Digitalization is separated into two distinct parts: “Religious Practices in the Age of Digitalization” (11–96) and “Religious and Spiritual Hopes in the Digital Turn” (97–180). The former largely presents a series of sociological studies that examine the developments in different world religions that have been occasioned by the ongoing rise of new media and artificial intelligence. The latter is more dialectic in character, introducing contributions from a variety of fields and disciplines that investigate “more speculative phenomena surrounding the future of the spiritual mind, conscious machines, artificial intelligence and the new transhumanist ideology” (3). These two parts examine different subject matter and research questions, and, although wedded under the title of Religion in the Age of Digitalization, could very well be separated into two distinct volumes.

This heterogeneity persists within each of these two sections. Though each of the contributions in part 1 of the volume is loosely structured around examining how a world religion has responded to developments in new media and artificial intelligence, the approaches, subject matter, and scope of these chapters vary. Some offer case studies of specific developments affecting one group of practitioners within a single world religion. Others examine trends occurring across the entire gamut of religious practice and use examples from a variety of different world religions to illustrate their points. Part 2 is similarly diverse, with some chapters seeking to answer specific questions, others offering general thoughts on a broad topic, and one even taking the form of a transcript of a dialogue that occurred at one of the conferences whence this volume emerged.

All these manifold contributions are left untouched by the editors, whose hand is felt only lightly throughout the volume. To some extent, this variety is a tremendous boon to the volume. This is especially true of the second part, which aims to use “the multifaceted lenses of different academic disciplines” to examine the relationship between technology and religion. The incredible variety of voices, disciplines, and approaches represented in this volume certainly supports this objective, and the editors deserve credit for being able to bring so many diverse contributions together in a single volume.

Yet, in other ways, this heterogeneity is a limitation, especially in the volume’s first part. The stated goal of this section examining “religious practices in the age of digitalization” is to provide a “panorama” of the latest developments occurring across religious practice. A panorama is an unbroken view of a broad subject. These chapters certainly cover a wide breadth of material. But with little work done to connect them, they instead resemble a series of disparate snapshots rather than a panorama.

Where this first part is strongest is in chapters such as Ruqayya Yasmine Khan and Ashley Kyong Aytes’ “Islam and New Media: Islam Has Entered the Chat.” Khan and Aytes directly engage with the challenge of “generaliz[ing] findings given the impossibility of canvassing the entire digital world” (14). They make a concerted effort to ensure that the individual case studies that they introduce are adequately contextualized within the broader context of Islam’s relationship to new media, using quantitative data of Google search terms to illustrate these macro-scale developments. This has the effect of ensuring that the material is simultaneously novel to the specialist who may be unfamiliar with the specific case studies presented, but also accessible to the layman who is given the necessary contextual information to intelligently approach the material.

Readers are also able to examine Khan and Aytes’ contribution alongside other chapters that take a similar approach, such as Augustine Pamplony’s “Hinduism and New Media: Identities Being Deconstructed and Constructed,” and begin to generate conclusions spanning the wider world of religious practice in the age of digitalization. As it stands, chapters such as these are the exception, and many of the contributions within this first part are incredibly broad or highly focused in their scope. This does not undermine the individual value of each of these chapters, but does limit the extent to which this first part of the volume can be used to generate a holistic view of developments in religious practice.

Taken as a whole though, it cannot be denied that this volume represents a valuable contribution to the field. While the volume’s heterogeneity simultaneously benefits and detracts from its stated aims, the quality of the individual contributions within remains consistently strong throughout the entire volume. Anyone interested in either digitalized religion specifically or the future of digitalization more broadly will likely find at least one chapter to pique their interest and, as such, would do well to investigate further Religion in the Age of Digitalization.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gary F. Fisher is a lecturer in Education Studies at Lincoln College, Lincoln (UK).

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giulia Isetti is senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research (Bolzano, Italy). She holds a doctoral degree in Classics with a focus on Greek Literature from the University of Genoa (Italy) and an MBA’s degree from MIB School of Management (Trieste, Italy). She has participated in national and international conferences and has authored articles and book chapters on various research topics such as tourism and sustainability.

Elisa Innerhofer is senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research (Bolzano, Italy). She holds a Ph.D. from the Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (Germany). She edited several books, including Spiritualität & Tourismus - Schnittstellen und Perspektiven (Athesia, 2016), Destination Resilience - Challenges and Opportunities for Destination Management and Governance (Routledge, 2018), and Overtourism – Tourism Management and Solutions (Routledge, 2020).

Harald Pechlaner is full professor for tourism at the Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (Germany) and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies at Eurac Research (Bolzano, Italy). Furthermore he is adjunct research professor at the School of Marketing, Curtin Business School (Australia). His latest research interests include (digital) transformation and impacts of digitalization on the society.

Michael de Rachewiltz is currently a doctoral student at the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research (Bolzano, Italy). His research interests are in the areas of Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Science and Environmental Ethics.

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