DIY Digital Religious Studies

14 Jan

I raised the question–is there such a thing as digital religious studies?–so you’ll forgive me if I continue to try to find an answer. I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark. There’s already backlash against digital humanities (see the Dark Side of Digital Humanities at this year’s MLA). And yet we plod on, stumbling and fumbling because we’re not even sure what’s so digital about digital humanities or what digital humanities even offers and so forth. What a quagmire, right?

Let me start simply: Religious studies as a discipline justifies itself because it takes religion seriously, on its own without explicit reliance on history, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology, psychology, or any other field. That’s my perspective at least. Why are we not history? Because our primary aim is not to explain the past. Or if we follow William Cronon’s definition of history because our primary responsibility is not relative to documents. Why are we not sociology? Because the analysis of society isn’t our goal. And so on.

In religious studies we care about the difficult-to-define object we call religion. We fight, constantly, about what religion means and the (often serious) consequences of the biases in our definitions. Beware using Marx to argue “religion is the sigh of the oppressed people… the opiate of the masses.” Or A. N. Whitehead’s idea that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Or Freud’s contention that “religion is an illusion.” These are not un-baiased perspectives and each carries not only the weight of understanding their context (marxism, rational-scientific atheism, psychology) but the restrictions they place on religion as an object.

This is the classic problem of categorization, right? If birds are always egg-laying animals that fly, what do you do with Ostrich, Emu and long-dead dodo? If religion is about solitariness, then what is to be made of mass prayer movements or megachurches? If religion is an illusion then is there nothing “really real” behind it? Why would “the masses” continue to let themselves be oppressed by religion? Doesn’t it offer anything for them that isn’t a haze of good feelings?

So I have two concerns about digital religious studies. One is shared with all digital humanities: what is so digital about them? The other is shared with religious studies: how does the digital help us to define/explain/clarify/explore/narrate religion and religious things, people, experiences, and events.

When I see geographers using digital methods like highly data-driven map visualizations, I see obvious advantages: easy assembly of huge data-sets, powerful interpretive/analytic tools, broad audiences enabled by curating theses items in the public sphere, and so on. What’s the equivalent move for religious studies? In history, if we follow Cronon on documents, it’s the digital space for archiving and interacting with documents that would otherwise be non-digital and trapped in archives, lacking interface with textual analysis, etc. In religious studies what would that mean?

No answers today, just fumbling. But before I end I want to make one point very clearly: In religious studies there is a subfield that studies “digital religion.” This is not at all the same as digital religious studies. Digital religion as a field looks at religion on the internet. This ranges from analyses of Second Life to folks that use Twitter as a prayer journal. It’s a thriving subfield that finds religion on the internet, not necessarily a methodological shift that says digital technologies offer new modes of analysis or presentation.

To a degree this is nitpicking–digital religion often must rely on digital religious studies for its work–but the idea that the digital enhances our ability to study religion makes the two non-synonymous.  The difference is, to use an academic religious studies phrase from J. Z. Smith, a difference that makes a difference.

So we’re flying by the seat of our pants here: Discipline that struggles to define itself. Method that struggles to define itself. Troublesome, right? Guess there’s nothing to be done but to do it ourselves. That’s the way of things–in both fields! In religious studies we continuously re-define religion because we are continually expanding the things we are studying as religion and the way we are studying religion. It’s who we are.

Digital humanities seems to be the same way, which is why we’ve had, perhaps, more trouble than we should have adopting it as the next wave of theory. We’re still stuck (in a good way) in the spatial turn of the 1990s. Yes, I know, for philosophy (and most other fields) that spatial turn happened in the 1980s (or earlier). But we’re still making progress with that new analysis–I’ve even made it a speciality of mine because it is still so powerful. If the next wave is coming, let it be the digital humanities of this past decade and not some other scholarly turn from the 1990s. But if we want it to happen we’ll have to take the lead and do it ourselves.

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