Sex became virtual. Religion didn't.
Only one seems to require human contact.
A few weeks ago, I started reading Samantha Cole’s new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex. Cole makes a compelling case that dating, sex, and pornography have not only been a constant online presence, but that the internet itself also changed to accommodate user interest. This is not because the architects of the internet had sex in mind when they designed it (though sometimes they did), but because grassroots demand to use the internet to discuss, have, and solicit sex (including LGBT sex, near the height of the AIDS epidemic) was always very high. Basic internet infrastructure, like online credit card payments, was pioneered in these contexts. So were webcams, secure browsing—and, arguably, so was Facebook. The relationship between the internet and this use case has long between two directional.
Obviously, the internet has similar two-way relationships with other activities, like commerce and entertainment. For my purposes, however, Cole’s example is particularly useful because whereas (say) online commerce was shaped in major ways by corporate interests, the relationship between sex and the internet emerged largely from its users, despite corporate indifference or hostility. This happened because the internet isn’t just a place where people want to talk about sex; it’s a place where people actually have sex—and because of this interest, the internet changed.
The virtualization of sexual activity is perhaps so obvious that it’s not worth stating, but I’m stating it here because not all human activities have virtualized successfully. One area that has proved extremely resistant to virtualization? Religious worship.
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You may think that religious worship virtualized, and in a few select cases it has. Yes, many synagogues and churches do broadcast their services, and many more started to do so during the pandemic. But fully virtual churches are an extreme rarity, which you can tell because news sites keep writing the same breathless article about the same VR church, despite the fact that it is clearly the exception that proves the rule. It is true that there are people whose entire experience of religious worship is now through Zoom, but those Zoom services are almost always grounded in physical locations, and those locations are seen as preferable to their virtual counterparts. Despite the fact that religious worship is typically a less physical activity than sex, it is worship that has proven far more resistant to virtualization.
Now, this is not to deny that the internet has had a profound effect on religion and religious communities. It most certainly has, and the shape of those effects is probably worth a separate email (or maybe a book!). But because there was never a strong desire to virtualize religious worship itself, religious worshippers never demanded that the internet grow to fit their desired experiences. The internet did change religion in major ways, but those ways are pretty generic: it providing spaces for people with particular interests to talk to each other and broadcast information. None of this has had an impact on the shape of the internet itself. From the perspective of the internet, religious communities are just run-of-the-mill affinity groups. Anime fans, football enthusiasts, Jews—they’re all the same.
As to why religious worship never virtualized—well, there are basically two possibilities. One is that religious worship requires a much higher level of functionality than sexual activity, and the current internet is still so primitive that people have not yet taken it seriously as a religious space; virtualized sex requires little more than text (the first widely reported online assault happened in a text-only forum), but maybe religious worship requires a level of immersion that the current internet does not yet provide.
The other, more interesting possibility is that religious worship simply cannot be virtualized, that there is something about it which requires being in a physical space, usually around other human beings. If this is the case, then the divide between religious worship and other human activities will only continue to grow as more and more of our lives end up online. Even if there is a version of the internet that can accommodate religious worship, it’s possible that we’ll never see it—precisely because religious worshippers don’t think it is something worth pushing for.
For religious leaders, the resistance to virtualization needs to be noted and talked about, because somebody is going to control the narrative about what it means, and because religious communities no longer have a monopoly on religious narratives (see last week’s post about religious A.I. discourse). People with a distaste for religion may well see it as a sign of faith’s overall obsolescence (“look, these people can’t even get online properly!”) But religious leaders ought to tell a very different story: in a world where people are leading extremely virtualized lives, where more and more interactions are mediated by screens, leaving us with a dull taste in our mouths, religion has emerged as a staunchly physical phenomenon, an experience that can tether you to reality. This affinity for reality may well become one of religion’s defining features in the 21st century.
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