ENIAC, the first modern computer, was a room-sized machine. Built in the 1940s by IBM, it required specially conditioned air to function and could perform only simple mathematical calculations. By the late 1990s, computers with capacities far exceeding those of ENIAC had no special environmental requirements, could easily fit on a desktop, and had portable counterparts that fit inside a briefcase.
One of the most fascinating uses to which the rapidly evolving computer was put was communicating with other computers via a protocol across telephone lines through a modem. Begun as a strategic defense initiative by the U.S. Department of Defense, the first computer network, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), was established in 1969 to provide an assault-proof communications network for key strategic defense installations. As of the early 1980s, computer communication networks had spread to institutions of higher education and business corporations, and from there to the general populace. A major criticism of this expansion was that the general populace who had access these networks was not truly general, but geographically clustered in first world, industrial, and postindustrial nation-states that possessed sufficient infrastructure and economic excess to support their development.
The Internet is the term used for this conglomeration of interconnected computer networks, with a similar stand-alone network called the Intranet. The initial uses of the Internet included electronic mail (or e-mail), transferring files (via ftp protocols), bulletin boards and newsgroups (Usenet), and obtaining remote computer access (via Telnet). In 1989, two graduate students—Tim Burners-Lee and Mark Andreeson—independently devised the idea of the World Wide Web (WWW), a globally interconnected set of web pages readable from any computer in the world that is hooked into the Internet, and a software program to access them known as a browser. Within two years the WWW became the most active aspect of computer-mediated communications.
Introduced by science fiction author William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the term "cyberspace" refers to the part-imaginative/part-concrete experience of place people have when they are engaged in computer-facilitated electronic communications. At its most basic, cyber religion refers to the presence of religious organizations and religious activities in this semi-imaginative place.
Traditional and alternative religious groups have almost unanimously concurred that cyberspace is a place where they will be active; consequently there are thousands of religious Usenet groups and electronic mail discussion lists, a host of religious Intranets, and official web sites on the WWW for almost every major world religion along with web sites detailing the doctrines of countless new religious groups. In a typical religious organization's web site, web surfers (as people who explore the WWW came to be commonly called) can find an introduction to the religion that describes its official history, its major beliefs and rituals, and its sacred texts, and a directory for local groups.
One significant effect of the move into cyberspace by an incredibly diverse collection of religious groups is the appearance of new instances of convergence and cooperation among them. It is not at all rare for the web site of a Christian group espousing strong millennial beliefs to be linked to a Jewish Zionist web site, for example. Cyberspace also has become a place where a significant amount of popular religious expression takes place. By the late 1990s it was common for people who had novel religious experiences at large parachurch events to congregate afterward in cyberspace to confirm the experiences and to support each other. It also became commonplace for religious groups experiencing considerable tension with society to use the WWW to communicate their stance on issues to the wider world. One of the more infamous such uses of the web by a religious group occurred with the alternative religious community Heaven's Gate. Shortly after thirty-nine members of the group were found dead on March 25, 1997, it was discovered that Heaven's Gate had posted a farewell statement to the world on its web site. Another significant consequence of cyber religion has been the gradual emergence of new, electronically inspired religious practices and ideas. As religious groups grew accustomed to maintaining a presence in cyberspace, they developed innovative uses of computer-mediated communications for spiritual practices. These included online global prayer chains, e-prayer wheels, and even online multiuser religious rituals. In a more mundane vein, they also included a plethora of online religious instruction and cyberspace-linked social justice activism.
Among the more provocative developments to arise from the intersection of cyberspace and religion were repeated attempts by some to launch pure cyber religions—that is, religions whose sole existence was in cyberspace. To many, these attempts raised problematic questions regarding the value of face-to-face human contact. Equally innovative and no less controversial was the onset of various hybrids, as people associated with traditional religions attempted to relate their faith to and through the new medium. One early innovator was Jacque Gaillot, a Roman Catholic bishop. Finding himself reassigned from the French diocese of Évreux to the diocese of Partenia, an obscure, largely nonexistent site located somewhere in the Sahara, after criticizing on French television orthodox Roman Catholic positions on subjects such as priestly marriage, Gaillot declared himself bishop of cyberspace and ministered to those who contacted him via a Partenia web page.
With cyberspace still in its infancy, many important questions about the character and import of cyber religion remain unanswered. It is unclear whether cyber religions attract new people to religion or religious practice or merely provide a new means of communicating with or supporting those already involved. It is also uncertain whether the phenomenon of cyber religion intrinsically contains the potential to alter the character of the religious traditions that have rushed to embrace it—akin to the dramatic manner in which the printing press made possible serious challenges to the traditional authority structure of Christianity in the Latin West.
Brasher, Brenda E. Give Me That Online Religion. 2000.
Cobb, Jennifer. Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. 1998.
Zaleski, Jeff. The Soul of Cyberspace: How New TechnologyIs Changing Our Lives. 1997.
Brenda E. Brasher