Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Possibilities of Digital Religion


source: Tumblr Staff

A few days ago the staff of Tumblr (you still have a Tumblr, right? We do.) promoted a post announcing “emoji spells” were “having a moment”. I couldn’t help but think about how unique this idea is, and at the same time, really isn’t. Emoji spells are a series of emojis put together with a similar intent to that of casting traditional spells. They’re popular with technopagans and operate under principles similar to traditional spellcraft, combining specific intentions with sending the spell out into the world multiple times. Instead of saying the words aloud thrice, likes and reblogs (or other forms of sharing specific to a digital platform) charge and cast the spell. Witches have used sigils, or symbols, that are experimental and unique to a specific spell. They turn an intention into a magic image, so emojis are the perfect vehicle for digital witchcraft. The more the emojis are shared, the greater charge they get and the more powerful they become, just as many voices are more powerful than one.

The reason emoji spells get so many reblogs and likes isn’t because there are an overwhelming number of Wiccans and magic-users on Tumblr (although there is a thriving community). It’s because people hope they work, it takes next to no effort to pass on today’s version of the chain letter, and if they don’t work, no one actually thinks any harm will come of it. That’s the key: we aren’t really sure if digital manifestations of religion really count in the same way “real-world” religious rituals and practice do. Even in the Wiccan, witchcraft, and pagan communities, practitioners of techno magic are looked down on. One way to start this conversation is to look at geek culture, and the way geeks have been encountering some of the most important fundamental elements of religion since the dawn of the internet.

Probably the most tired and popular examples of the conflict between the digital world and the “real” world is The Matrix. Neo, our hero, learns that the world he knows is a lie, nothing more than an oversized computer simulation, and in choosing to break free from the program he becomes the chosen one with special powers to take down the evil overlords enslaving humanity. The message of the first movie is clear: the real world, filled with scarcity and suffering, is preferable to the simulated world where humans are really living in vats. Digital realities weren’t real realities. It’s important to remember that this movie premiered in 1999, right at the beginning of the Internet boom. Then and in the years that followed, the internet was only “serious business” in that it was never meant to be taken seriously, and if you did, people had a right to mock you.


Fast forward about fifteen years with Mad Max: Fury Road, and we get another post-apocalyptic movie with a very similar message, particularly when it comes to religion. As I’ve written beforeFury Road has two dueling religions. The religion of the V8, practiced by the Half-Life boys with Immortan Joe at its head, is a false religion based entirely on Immortan Joe’s sadistic desires to control everyone in his path. It’s not based on anything that’s real. The religion of the Green Place, however, is based on stories of a place from Furiosa’s early childhood, living in a literal green place with water and vegetation. When the women realize the place doesn’t exist, they adapt by endeavoring to turn Immortan Joe’s citadel into a new green place. The Green Place religion is based on real life experiences; the V8 faith is built solely on ideas and dreams. We see that the Green Place religion is good because it promotes generosity, nourishment, and self-sacrifice. The V8 religion promotes selfishness, subjugation, and disease. Again, the message here is that good religious practice comes from lived experience, and religion cannot be good if it only exists in the practitioners’ collective imagination. The Matrix tells us that something must be real for it to be truly good. Fury Road tells us that religion must be based on reality for it to be good, and that reality must be defined in someone’s tangible experience of goodness.

It would seem, then, that experiencing religion must happen in “real life”, not digitally, for it to be real (and thus, good). Most religious groups would seem to agree. Gathering as a community in person is an important component of all kinds of religions in the East and West. In my own Catholic Church, leaders have decided that confession doesn’t work properly over the phone or internet, not because the secrecy of the act might be compromised, but chiefly because it isn’t happening in person. Many Christians are encouraged to watch a church service on television (or livestreamed online) if they are stuck at home, but Catholics and Orthodox leaders acknowledge that this doesn’t fulfill the obligation to go to church on Sundays (instead, the obligation is simply dispensed with when one cannot travel to church).

In lieu of using an example of a real person with a serious medical condition, here's Harvey Dent to give you the idea.

In lieu of using an example of a real person with a serious medical condition, here’s Harvey Dent to give you the idea. source.

On the other hand, we can’t ignore the fact that most religious leaders who are members of our grandparents’ generation aren’t very tech-savvy. More often than not it’s members of our parents’ generation that seem to be sharing those (annoying, incessant) “1 Like = 1 Prayer” memes. And it’s our own generation that takes digital religion one step further by crafting emoji spells. While it’s not completely clear how the spells work, there’s a difference between them and the “1 Like = 1 Prayer” Memes. The likes could be a simple signal that the user has prayed, or the very act of liking could be a prayer. The emoji spells can function similarly in that the actions associated with them (liking and reblogging to charge and cast) are a lot like the actions associated with “Like Prayers” (the act of liking being a prayer). However, the main difference is that with Like Prayers, the object being liked is just a symbol for something else, the real thing or person being prayed for. The meme is just a vehicle, or a proxy for the act of praying. With emoji spells, the actual emoji pictures themselves function as a magical sigil. They aren’t a proxy, not in the same way Like Prayer memes are. So in short, we’ve moved from the act of engaging in social media being a potentially religious action to the piece of social media itself being a powerful religious object. These emoji spells are catching on quickly because of how easy they are to engage with—literally two or three clicks and you’re done. It seems like we’re experiencing a cultural shift from rejecting the reality of digital experience, to using it as a means to actually conduct authentic religious practice, to transforming social media into a religious object to be used with consequences in the physical world. Emoji spells are the latest manifestation of this growing trend.

Yet, we’re still left with the question of whether or not digital religion is just as real as practical, in-person religious practice and experience. Emoji spells are becoming more popular, but they’re far from mainstream acceptance within pagan communities. There’s not currently a way to measure if they actually work, any more than there is a way to measure if traditional prayers really work. Whether or not digital practices of religion “count” is going to be one of the next important questions theologians of all backgrounds must face, and it’s going to take more of a response than encouraging your faith community to get its own app. Defaulting to the position that digital reality is no reality or an inauthentic reality just doesn’t make sense anymore, not in an age where so much of our lives happen in front of a computer or on our phones.

But while theologians and philosophers are doing their thing in journals and conferences, we’re going to need new ways to think about and talk about these questions in the public square. Geeky media has already shown itself to be a fantastic way to talk about these ideas, such as in movies like The Matrix and Fury Road. They’ve given us a way to talk about the old argument, that digital reality is no substitute for physical reality. As the most boundary-bashing genre, science fiction is best equipped to handle these concepts and tell compelling stories that give us ways to talk about our changing relationship with digital media. Maybe we’ll see practitioners of techno magic using spells crafted on their cell phones to fight evil. Maybe we’ll see delightfully campy episodes of Supernatural or Doctor Who featuring a digital demon needing a digital exorcism. Supernatural has already done something similar with their Ghostfacers episodes. In Season 9’s “#thinman”, Dean accuses the Ghostfacers of creating a Tulpa online. A Tulpa is an entitty formed by meditating on it hard enough, and with enough people sharing stories of Thinman online, it seems that the viral nature of the idea is making it manifest in reality. While it’s unlikely that traditional communal experiences of religious practice will ever be entirely replaced, digital platforms connect people in more ways than ever before, and those connections form real relationships. Religion is often chiefly concerned with relationships between you and others, the divine, and the natural world. If digital platforms can create real relationships, then, in some ways, digital religion must be real.

from birdywitch

from the birdywitch

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1 thought on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Possibilities of Digital Religion

  1. Interesting idea…but, I don’t know if it will or does work.

    One of the big differences in what you mentioned with Catholicism is that it is a very practical religion, i.e. it is based on practice to a much larger extent than Protestant forms of Christianity. It isn’t just “being in church” that is important, which is why Protestant (and particularly evangelical) church attendance can take place by watching television, because the purpose of that is understood to be listening to a preacher. For Catholics, it’s that when you’re there in church, you are able to physically participate in the sacrament of Eucharist. There is no virtual version of that, and there never will be (unless 3D printing technology becomes able to do consumable foods, a la replicators in Star Trek, and even then, I suspect Catholicism will be a late adopter).

    As someone who has been deeply involved with paganism and polytheism online, I know what the medium is good for: sharing information, communicating with one another (except when it isn’t, which is more often than not these days), and that’s about it. I had an online shrine on a website at one point, and it was the part of the website that got used the least and had the fewest page views, and while technology has improved now and what might be possible with such online shrines might be better currently, it would be little more than a video game at best to make these better, and be just as applicable to real life in most respects. There are too many people in paganism and polytheism who mistake looking at Tumblr for three hours and then reblogging things from it–and we’re not even talking emoji spells here–as their religious practice, rather than actually praying, making offerings, meditating, doing rituals, etc.

    It’s the difference between the kid who says they’ve been kayaking before, goes out in a kayak with someone, and then a hundred yards from shore says “Well, I’ve done it on the Wii–that’s the same, isn’t it?” and actually knowing how to kayak–which is why, in the 1980s, we didn’t give driver’s licenses to all the kids and adults who only ever played Pole Position. Or, an even more provocative comparison, it’s the difference between people who only ever go in chatrooms and date online, and perhaps wank to porn or while chatting, but never actually meet people in-person and have sex. Yes, there is a “reality” to the experience, but it’s a virtual reality (and a limited one at that) which is not the same as actually feeling the water around the kayak and on one’s oar, driving on the actual road in a car with other cars going by, etc. There’s a safety in the virtual reality, yes, but there’s also a complacency in it, because there is never any real risk involved. All of this applies just as much to relationships, and to religion as well.

    (Or, at least I think so!)

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