"I was wandering in cyberspace for 40 hours and 40 minutes, when lightning struck": The Problems of Finding Religion in Cyberspace

Paper presented to the British Middle Eastern Studies Conference, Birmingham, 7 July 1998.

Dr Michael Fraser
CTI Textual Studies


 It is unsurprising that religion should have a prominent place on the Internet and within cyberculture in general, given the frequent requirement that it be widely communicated in some form. There are many ways in which religion is communicated on the Internet. The technical means employed include World Wide Web sites, electronic mail discussion groups, newsgroups, and Internet chat lines. The type of religious communication can vary from the official Web sites of established religions and faiths to those of local religious groups (launched within a global network); from active, virtual worship and meetings, to information resources about, rather than for, religious practice.

This presentation will a) briefly trace the development of religion in cyberspace; and b) highlight examples of the different types of religious communication which currently takes place in Cyberspace. Much of the presentation will draw on my own experience over the past five years of creating and maintaining an information gateway for theology and religion resources on the Internet.

Part One

Finding religion in cyberspace

The title of this paper is taken from a message which I was sent as a result of someone filling out the feedback form on my World Wide Web page. I have been involved in the provision of religion on the Internet in some form since 1991. I am by no means the oldest religion-gateway provider in town (by number of years on the Internet, obviously), but I do seem to have picked up a reputation which has been difficult to shrug off. And one day someone, a stranger to me, was surfing through my page of annotated links, and left me that message. Did my page of annotated hypertext links intended for scholarly consumption, have an effect on the personal beliefs of an individual? Impossible to say but one thing is fairly certain about religious studies on the Internet and that is, if you are a provider of religious information, then the majority of your readers or visitors will be drawn not from the Universities but from the interested laity, the practising and non-practising, the fundamentalists, the liberals, from the mainstream religions and denominations, to obscure rural communities. And invariably from North America.

[Click: Theology on the Internet]

I should declare my own allegiance (or non-allegiance). I currently maintain a list of annotated links to resources pertaining to the academic study of mainly Christian theology. The Web site developed out of my own interests and research whilst a postgraduate at the University of Durham. It is now uncomfortably subsumed into the work of the CTI Centre for Textual Studies which I now manage at the University of Oxford. The Centre itself is funded by the HE funding bodies to support the use of computers in the teaching of text-based humanities disciplines like theology and religious studies but also literary studies, philosophy, classics, drama, and curiously film studies. The leaflet explains more and I would encourage you to visit our Web site.

The first religious text which was made available over the internet was probably the King James Bible in 1989, being the first text of the Online Book Initiative. The Gutenberg Project, a similar venture to digitize and disseminate works of literature, deliberately chose not to make its first text the bible (unlike Gutenberg) but opted for the American Declaration of Independence instead - somehow a declaration that no single religion should have sole authority in the digital world.

One of the first gateways to religion resources was probably my own Shortlist of email discussion lists for the study of theology and associated disciplines. I no longer have a copy of the first edition of this document (such is the ease by which electronic documents can be updated) but a later edition dated August 1993, documents about one list per major religion of the world (and at that time I was trying to be fairly inclusive) and about three lists dealing with religion in general. There are now a myriad of lists for both the academic, popular, and devotional study of religion, religions, and religion-related topics.

The Shortlist was part of a wider effort undertaken by me at the University of Durham to provide easier access to Internet resources as they were in the pre-Web days. I remember that my first gateway, first an internal menu system and later part of the University's gopher, included links through to library catalogues, a small number of electronic texts, and catalogue of academic software which I had to compile myself. The Web opened up many more opportunities. The Department of Theology in Durham was the first such department on the Web (unknown at the time to the vast majority of staff) and one of the first proper gateways for religion  resources on the Web was John Gresham's Finding God in Cyberspace, converted from a plain text version previously circulated by email. There was not a vast amount of web-based resources to link to then (beginning of 1994) but certainly one of the most impressive was the Library of Congress online exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls which included colour images of the scroll fragments and numerous pictures of other associated exhibits as well as commentary etc. But it was in the area of presonal home pages where the Web really took off. I created my own home page with an awful photograph of myself, an abstract of my not-yet-completed thesis, and then went off into the realms of hypertext linking full texts and images to parts of the abstract (the blue links give little indication of what lies underneath). The current page of annotated theology links grew out of my bookmark file which in those days you could maintain as an online web resource in its own right. When I left Durham for the CTI centre in Oxford, I took most of it with me and the rest I left to rot on a server in Durham which no longer exists. Now I am overwhelmed with the quantity of material available on the Web, not only for theology and religious studies, but also for those other subject areas supported by the CTI Centre. If there is only one gatekeeper then the subject has to be narrow, if the subject is wide then it now requires a team effort to locate and evaluate new resources, and to keep track of the movable links. Increasingly subject gateways are moving to a database format encouraging users to search rather than to idly browse. A database makes it easier to maintain a site and gives added value in the form of keyword classification and other meta-information. One might have thought the users of subject gateways preferred this format to single or multiple pages of links. Apparently not, if the survey from my own page is anything to go by, where the majority of votes have been cast for 'like it as it is'. Interestingly, the vast majority of votes have been cast by non-academic users (or at least users without .edu or .ac.uk in their email address).

Perspectives on Religion in Cyberspace

Religion, like politics, has at its centre some means of communication. Communication from above, if you like, but also communication on a vertical axis. Communication between members of a religion, and communication between members and those outside the boundaries. Some religions are more proactive than others in their attempts to communicate with non-members. The Internet, like the printing press, is all about communication. Whereas the printing press communicated in one particular way, through the publishing of defined physical objects with a fixed content, designed to be read by one person alone or out loud to others, the Internet often appears to be in a continuous state of flux. Electronic mail, the oldest application on the Internet, is somewhere between a conversation and a letter. One email message sent to an email list might be distributed to 5,000 other people. Just like that. Junk email, telling us to make money fast, goes to perhaps millions of email addresses. The World Wide Web offers the possibility of instant publication with not only text but also colour images, video, audio. Once a book is published one can't simply change it and if one goes to the bother of publishing a new edition this does not delete the previous edition. Not so with the Web where the author has more control over the publication than the hypertext theorists would have us believe, where subtle and not so subtle changes can be made to a publication from the comfort of an author's desktop, noticed and unnoticed by the readership. Here today, gone next month is a particular problem associated with the Web. Printed books give a sense of fixed, unchangeable entities. Web pages, email, anything digital infact give us only a sense of flowing impermanence. CD-ROMs might be physical and definable, their data literally burnt onto thin aluminum, but their readability depends on the available technology which itself is always changing.

Almost instant publishing means, in effect, anyone can publish. And anyone does. The problems of using the Web as a source of scholarly information are well known. An electronic text available for download is later, perhaps too much later, found to omit chapters 45 through to 52 because the one who converted the text to digital form had no use for them. This happened to me recently. I downloaded the complete Canterbury Tales. Happily demonstrated what a computer-based concordance could do to it; and only recently discovered that in the midst of the this hefty electronic text were the words, "Here would be the Miller's Tale. Here would be the Reeve's tale". An editor, at some point, had decided, probably for reasons of decency, had chosen to omit the text of these infamous tales. The Internet is pretty much enculturated into popular culture. Email addresses and Web URLs abound on promotional literature, within the media, on business cards. Increasingly, the Internet is being employed as a serious tool for doing business, for doing education. "The truth is out there" could be an appropriate motto for cyberspace. And there is a double-edged sword associated with the Internet. On the one hand there if it's not on the Internet (whatever IT is), it's not worth bothering with, but on the other hand if it IS on the Internet, how do we know it's true?


These cursory observations have implications for finding religion in cyberspace. Texts or books are central to many of the world's religions and the book is both a primary means of communication, especially vertically, and a source of communication (via interpretation) horizontally. The text considered as the inspired divine word is immutable and the book form symbolizes its permanence. The book is the medium of the message. Jim O'Donnell,a professor of Late-Antiquity at UPENN, once wrote that he viewed Christianity as the high-tech religion of late antiquity. For it used the written word from the outset to create a community extending across time and space, where Graeco-Roman religion tended to be local and particularist. Biblical and liturgical books adorned with gold, jewels, and illuminations symbolize the sacred nature of the text. In electronic form, however, the text gives us the impression of being anything but immutable; it can be copied and pasted, it can be run through a concordance, sliced, and reassembled in a different order. It can be easily changed, re-distributed. Thus the measure of the text in electronic form remains the authorised book in paper form.

However, the many texts now considered fixed and sacred, were formed in a culture of fluid transmission before the arrival of the printing press. There is certainly much which can be made from a comparison between the transmission of texts in the electronic age and the transmission of manuscripts pre-Gutenburg, however it would be inappropriate to go into any further detail at this point. However, electronic texts are inherently different in many ways apart from the mere fact of being in digital form. Electronic texts on the Internet not only offer the possibility of distributing multiple copies, in fact, not copies, but always originals or always copies and never originals, they also offer the possibility of multiple interpretations not available to texts in printed form. Suppose one converts the Quran to digital form or takes one of the many editions or translations available already on the Internet. It would be possible to create a collaborative commentary on the text with the equivalent of marginal annotations, essays etc linked from the text itself. Hypertext links themselves make explicit a theory of interpretation by indicating the significance of a text through the mere presence of a hypertext link, and of course by that to which the link leads. Increasingly I find myself browsing texts online, paying less attention to the content of the text than I do to the text which appears in blue and to what it might lead. The hypertext becomes more significant than the text itself. Blue ink is more visible than black ink. (what is the blue equivalent of rubrics?).

Hypertext, of course, cannot assume the same starting point for everyone. It is entirely possible, that the casual browser will be dumped into a middle of a text by the presence of a hypertext link somewhere quite different. This is particularly true of Internet search engines which index the contents of directories holding texts but do not pay much heed to their relationship to one another within that directory and beyond. Whilst still at my previous university, a recently appointed lecturer was looking at what the department (i.e. me) had made available through the University's Campus Information System. Somehow he ended up in a chapter of a text whose identity was unknown to him. He assumed it was an online thesis (how forward thinking of him to assume so!) and wanted to know whose thesis it was and why it was there. I asked him what he thought of the so-called thesis. He responded by email:

Date: Thu, 21 Jul 1994 16:57:15 +0100 (BST)
Subject: Re: UCIS
To: Michael Fraser

Surely you don't expect me to say what I think of the `thesis' on UCIS?  If I say it's brilliant, you will tell me that it is the work of some nutter who we rejected for the B.A. in 1964; if I say it's [rubbish], you will tell me that it's by [the Head of Department] or someone.  In any case, I would be obliged to read some [more] of it, and I have no inclination whatsover to do that.  So please please please just tell me what it's all about.....

In fact the 'thesis' was, appropriately enough, the papal encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.


The question, but is it true? Takes on a different perspective within the religious context. On the one hand one might ask this question in much the same sense as asking it within the overall context of the Internet - i.e. is what I am seeing on the screen in front of me true to its original source, or is it factually true, leading on to by what authority does it say these things. Within a multi-religious society the question is less important, perhaps. But still, to ask the question, 'is it true?' of a Web page promulgating content of a religious nature has a different resonance to asking the same question of a site dealing in scientific data. If nothing else, the Internet with its diversity of individual and organisational belief systems forces us to reconsider how we judge the relative value or otherwise of a set of beliefs.

In the world of English literature the Internet is often heralded as the Great Disseminator or the Wonderful Access-Giver. The Internet offers the opportunity to subvert the traditional canon of English Literature with the publication of those works which publishers have not seen fit to print in paper form; works by women authors, works by African-Americans, works which simply fell through a hole in some forgotten past when the canon itself was fossilizing. In the world of religion the Internet offers the possibility of subverting religious authority. It holds the possibility of publishing uncanonical texts but more significantly it offers a better opportunity to register an objection to the teachings of a religious authority. Such acts of protest come from within and without the religious group who is the subject of the objections.

The Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to research popular religion and attitudes toward religion by the computer literate. That which may have been confined to conversation, pamphlets, local religious newspapers, and other grey literature. Now, what was local is writ large for the global Internet community so long as one knows how to market the site, how to get search engines to index it, and how to get gateway-providers to make a link to it.


Date: Thu, 2 Dec 1993 19:38:02 +0000 (GMT)
From: Michael Fraser
Subject: Computers and Religious Studies
To: "Jeffrey A.Shandler"

Dear Jeffrey,

Please accept my apologies for the late reply to your series of questions.  I thought it best first to finish a compilation of software relevant to religious studies before proceeding to complete the questionnaire.  Unfortunately, the former took longer to complete than anticipated.

Questions I have been sent in the past have invariably tended towards factual information regarding software.  I was (pleasantly) surprised to receive a questionnaire that moved the discussion away from the 'what' of software towards a consideration of the objectives and consequences of computer assisted learning.

I have attempted to provide as best I can a coherent response to your questions but I fear that I am not as qualified as I would like to be to present academic arguments for (or against) the application of computers in religious studies.

Robert Kraft edits the OFFLINE column of Religious Studies News which compiles the latest news on computer projects on and off the Internet.   Archives of the OffLine column are available from the CCAT gopher (gopher ccat.sas.upenn.edu).

My answers will be with reference to computers in a university environment.  I have little experience of the application of computers in schools.

1.  Disciplines in the humanities employ computers in order to assist rather than to replace traditional methods of teaching.  The application of computers in any field will ultimately depend on utilitarian principles.  Thus computing in the humanities will rarely be an end in itself and questions of how computers may be brought to a certain area of teaching will generally belong at research level rather than in the class room.  The obvious similarity between the application of computers in religious studies and their use in other disciplines is in the general perception that computers can genuinely aid the presentation of information. In addition one can make the following observations:

a) Religious studies is an academic discipline like any other and so can be expected to approach all teaching methods in a similar manner.  The use of computers is thus another means available to teachers to "get the point across."

b) In common with other disciplines, therefore, computers are utilised for the display and searching of text databases, the teaching of language (Hebrew and Greek), and the presentation of multimedia packages.

Further, there is little difference between the Jewish material which I have encountered and material pertaining to other religions.  I have in mind textbanks such as The Judaic Classics Library and The Computerised Torah Treasure which can be compared to CETEDOC and TLG.  However, whereas the latter two databases take as their starting point Latin or Greek literature from and until a certain date in which there happens to be a certain amount of Christian literature, to apply the same principle to the Hebrew language results in a body of literature which is almost exclusively both Jewish and religious.  If this is true, then Christian literature, by appearing on a CD-ROM with secular literature, perhaps gives a greater sense of its original context and allows for a comparative approach to the texts.

Purely Christian databases tend towards presenting purely biblical material (and I mean Christian translation and interpretation of the texts) or the work of a single author (Augustine or Thomas Aquinas to name two current projects).  I have yet to find a database which attempts seriously to compile sacred texts from across religions whilst retaining the original language of the community to which they belong.

2. The ability of the multimedia package to present a wealth of different types of data to the student  is one new experience in computer-based learning.  Sitting at one screen the subject can be presented as text, as graphics and as sound.  The only sense not yet catered for are touch and smell.  The advent of 'virtual reality' technology will no doubt correct these omissions.  In religious studies a multimedia presentation would include the Master Search Bible which included not only the usual texts and commentaries but also a biblical encyclopedia and atlas.

Although they make claims to be interactive, such packages predefine the limits of the interaction.  The inclusion of one piece of information to the exclusion of another still ensures that there are boundaries to the learning of the subject it presents.  The traditional tutorial or seminar are more truly interactive in the flexibility of agenda which arises from the input of both student and teacher.

A combination of human interaction and technology presents itself in the form of the electronic mail discussion group.  The international and academic nature of such groups has widened the educational experience.  The terms 'student' and 'teacher' are almost obliterated in the process.  New technology will ensure that graphics and sound will be sent over the networks as easily as text enabling a truly interactive and multimedia experience.

3.  [I will have to think a bit harder about this one]

4. This is an interesting question.  I have not witnessed any objection to sacred texts being freely available as electronic media.  Recently, however, a discussion took place on the Classics list regarding the provision of on-line classical texts.  Indeed the same questions posed by the question arose in this discussion, i.e. the ease at which a text could be edited and re-displayed as the authentic edition.  The general response was that the electronic text is still far from replacing the printed book.  The printed work will thus remain the standard by which the electronic text is judged.  This too applies to sacred texts.

Objectives on more theological grounds to electronic sacred texts is part of a far wider debate concerning attitudes towards the text itself.  On the whole, sacred texts which can be easily deleted or edited exist on the academic network and their purpose there is purely for research purposes.  To object to texts handled in this way implies that there is something intrinsically sacred about the text (printed or otherwise) itself.  In both the Jewish and Christian liturgy the adornment of the scrolls or books of sacred writings and the rituals that accompany them seem to suggest that this is the case.  In each case though, it is the symbolic value of the text that sacred rather than the paper and ink, the _spoken_ word rather than the _written_ word (respect is paid to the writings in liturgy usually just prior to their proclamation).  The text exists not only in a liturgical context but also in works designed for personal (and informal) use.  Study editions of biblical material usually include copious footnotes and study aids for academic research.  It into the latter group, not the former, that the electronic texts fall.  To some degree the context in which the text is employed determines its sacred character.

5. My collection of data has only been over the past twelve months.  In that period personal computers have continued to expand in their capabilities to store and present information.  We have seen a similar growth in the production of CD-ROMs for educational use.  The rapid expansion in the use of the academic networks by both institutions and individuals to make available research in progress and software has been most encouraging.  The CCAT gopher, to name but one service, continues to add on-line searchable texts to its menu enabling scholars from all over the world to search tagged versions of the Septuagint and Hebrew canon.  In addition electronic mail discussion groups are now treated as a serious research forum by academics in both the United States and Europe. Religious studies, with classics, philosophy and history, makes a rapidly increasing use of this facility.

The greater use of the electronic mail group as a potential multimedia conference is one of my predictions for the future.  For the personal computer user I see the production of self-contained modules on CD-ROM which are in effect computer-based courses on some aspect of religious studies which include narrative, links to pictures and other non-textual data, excerpts from primary sources, and user-upgradable bibliographies.  Such a project exists for classicists in the form of the Perseus Project (Harvard) which itself is moving towards multi-CD-ROM storage.  A similar project could commence on the world of first century Judaism and Christianity.  Finally, I believe the future holds applications which permit teachers in religious studies to write their own learning packages without requiring knowledge of computer programming.  Such utilities have their seeds in HyperCard and ToolBook.

6. The potential of computer technology in religious studies never ceases to surprise me!  One successful example is the exhibition concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Library of Congress.  With appropriate software (and a powerful machine on which to run it) it is possible to view the images of the exhibition (with descriptive text) from any Internet connected machine in the world.  Such an application could be freely used as an introduction to the subject (it nearly was in Durham) and avoids the expense of similar data available on CD-ROM or the large amount of storage required for the exhibition.  The images are of high quality and with some software it si possible to annotate each image or section of text with the user's own commentary.  In this manner a hypertext style teaching resource can be inexpensively constructed.

Electronic mail knows no distinctions of class, race or religion.  As a result the academic community has been brought closer together with little of the traditional hierarchy.  Having said that, electronic discussion groups can tend towards the dehumanization of research.  One responds to the message than to the individual and the personal contact so important in tutorials and seminars is lost.