[Blog Series] Angels and the Digital Afterlife: Studying Nonreligion Online

One of the key findings of research in the field of digital death studies has been that the bereaved talk to the dead online. Visit almost any memorial page on Facebook, and you’ll see this in action (...) These kinds of cases point to ways in which
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    NSRN Online Posted on May 18, 2016   July 6, 2016  !  by yosakabe  !  Methods and Methodologies   , NSRN Blog [Blog Series] Angels and the Digital Afterlife:Studying Nonreligion Online In the second instalment of the SSNB/NSRN methods blog, Tim Hutchings argues that thescope and signiÞcance of digital methodologies for the study of Ð and beyond Ð ÔnonreligionÕ ismuch broader and more promising than is often perceived.(https://nonreligionandsecularity.Þ In some areas of the internet, the line between religion and nonreligion could not be clearer.Christians and Atheists battle through forums and video blogs, form rival groups on social media,and share satirical memes mocking one anotherÕs failings and inconsistencies. This kind of skirmishing has been widely discussed; see, for example, Christopher Smith and Richard CiminoÕs2012 study of secularist activism( in Americanblogs and YouTube videos, or Stephen PihlajaÕs 2014 analysis of the rhetoric of YouTube ßamewars ( Social mediacan play a crucial role in the Òde-privatizationÓ of anti-religious identities,[i] providing space forindividuals to articulate their opposition to religion and its public inßuence.Elsewhere online, the boundary between religion and nonreligion becomes much harder to trace.If we only pay attention to the most explicit forms of anti-religion, we risk missing some of themore subtle and interesting negotiations of what it actually means to be (or not to be) ÒreligiousÓ.e can also miss whole areas of activity in which the boundary doesnÕt seem to mean very muchat all. As Dusty Hoesly argues in a recent article in Secularism and Nonreligion (    , Ôreligious, spiritual, secular, andnonreligious identities are not stable, unitary formationsÕ, but performances, Ôdiscursive, relationalconstructions contingently articulated in particular locations at speciÞc times for particularpurposesÕ. Researchers interested in digital nonreligion need to look out for those performances,and to develop methodologies that are sensitive to their transient contexts and implications.  Hoesly is writing about weddings, but my own research applies that same insight to the study of death. Working with a team of colleagues at Stockholm University (    , I amexploring digital media as an Òexistential terrainÓ, a landscape in which users encounter and try tomake meaning out of experiences of vulnerability.[ii] Our research includes case studies of end-of-life blogs, online support forums, harassment, gendered mourning cultures and the digitalafterlife.One of the key Þndings of research in the Þeld of digital death studies has been that the bereavedtalk to the dead online. Visit almost any memorial page on Facebook, and youÕll see this in action.Grieving friends and family members keep in touch with the dead by sending them messages, andthese messages share a largely consistent vision of what happens after death. According to thesemessages, the dead live on in a world parallel to our own, close enough to hear us. They are oftenspoken of as angels, particularly if they died as children. Their world is still much like ours, full of vibrant social activity, music and parties. Crucially, that other world is accessible: we will all bereunited there when we die.These kinds of cases point to ways in which the analytical boundary between religion andnonreligion is blurred in everyday life. The question is: is there anything religious about thismythology of a digitally connected heaven? And if so, how can we tell?Only a few scholars have tried to analyse the religious aspects of the digital afterlife, and so fartheir responses have been divided. We can divide their arguments into three broad camps: thedigital afterlife is unproblematically religious; it is transforming religion; or it is not religious at all.e Þnd the Þrst and simplest approach in the work of HCI researchers Jed Brubaker and JanetVertesi (2010), who see talking to the dead online as an inherently religious act, a ÒtechnospiritualpracticeÓ, because the idea that the dead live on in heaven is part of the Christian worldview. It isreligious, because it shares the symbolic content of religion.The second approach is rather more dramatic. According to Elizabeth Drescher, a researcher of spiritual practices among the ÒnonesÓ, the mythology of the digital afterlife might actually changereligion itself ( (2012).hen a Christian dies, their friends continue to speak to them online, and Drescher sees this assomething new: digital media have broken down the barriers between life and death and givenrise to a new shared theology.[iii] The digital afterlife is still religious, but the content and practiceof religion is changing.The third approach is more dismissive. Christian theologian Erinn Staley (2014) argues that weshould not take these practices literally. No one expects the dead of Facebook to talk back to them,so they canÕt really be alive. Talking to the dead is not religious, because it is not motivated by theright kind of belief.In the wider Þeld of studies of death and nonreligion, we Þnd plenty of grounds for caution aboutall three approaches. Abby Day found in her interviews that Ôeven atheists sense ghostsÕ, butrefuses to categorise their experiences as ÒreligiousÓ (2011). Instead, she argues, we should seetheir stories of ghostly experiences as Ôa performative strategyÕ, an attempt to continue to belong ina social network. Her interviewees were Ôcreating and sustainingÕ their belief in a continuingrelationship with the dead by ÔperformingÕ that belief through the telling of stories. Experiencingand communicating with the dead is not (necessarily) religious, because it is not (always)embedded in a worldview that connects the individual to gods and divinities. To put that another  way, talking to the dead is motivated by belief, but belief itself is not religious. If so, then thetheology of the digital afterlife is actually much less interesting than its performances and theirsocial functions.So where does this leave us?Online, there is a vast landscape of activity revolving around death, grief, bereavement andmemory, within which a consistent worldview and set of practices have emerged. This worldviewshares certain themes and symbols with Christian ideas of heaven, but does not seem to be limitedto (or universally shared within) Christian communities. Indeed, theologically there seem to beconsiderable divergences between this view of the afterlife and the historic and currentmainstreams of Christian theology (see McDannell and Lang 1988). Researchers of digital deathhave tended to assume that any reference to heaven must be religious, or that religion involves aspecial kind of belief, but we are still waiting for nuanced studies of the boundary betweenreligion and nonreligion in digital death.In this area, as elsewhere, sensitivity to a broader domain of nonreligious identiÞcation and belief points to the possibility and potential of much more diverse Ð and therefore methodologicallychallenging Ð empirical studies. I will end this post with two calls to action.First, we urgently need a much wider range of cross-cultural studies of death and grief online (asof other forms of religious/nonreligious existential experience), to balance the current wealth of case studies from the English-speaking (particularly North American) world.Second, we must remember the insights proposed by Dusty Hoesly and Abby Day, and approachcommitments to ÒreligionÓ, ÒnonreligionÓ and ÒbeliefÓ as unstable and temporary performances,embedded in social contexts and articulated for speciÞc purposes. Instead of studying the digitalafterlife as a worldview borrowed from religion, it will be considerable more interesting to analysethe practices used to engage with the afterlife, paying attention to the social functions of ritual andthe identities and relationships constructed by talk.e know that atheists can sense ghosts Ð but what does it mean when they become angels? Notes [i] See Ribberink, Achterberg and Houtman (2013)[ii] For another existential approach to death and nonreligion, see Lois Lee (2015), especiallychapter 7.[iii] For another transformationist view, see Tony Walter (2011) Tim Hutchings  received his PhD in the sociology of religion from Durham University (2010). Heis a sociologist and ethnographer of digital religion, and his research explores new digital forms of authority, community and ritual. He has conducted postdoctoral work at UmeŒ University(Sweden), The Open University and Durham University, and he has now joined the Institute forMedia Studies at Stockholm University. His new research with the Existential Terrains project( ( focuses on death, bereavement and digital media. His Þrstmonograph will be published later this year, and a full list of his publications can be found online  at ( Dr Hutchingsis also the Editor of the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture ( References Brubaker, J. and Vertesi, J. (2010). Death and the social network. Paper presented at the CHI 2010orkshop on ÒHCI at the End of Life: Understanding Death, Dying, and the DigitalÓ, Atlanta, GA,USA. Available online at (, A. (2011). Believing in belonging . Oxford University Press: Oxford.Drescher, E. (2012). Pixels perpetual shine: The mediation of illness, dying, and death in the digitalage. CrossCurrents  62(2), 204-218. 00230.x(, D. (2015). ÒNeed a minister? How about your brother?Ó The Universal Life Churchbetween religion and non-religion. Secularism and Nonreligion 4(1), art.12., L. (2015). Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford University Press:Oxford.McDannell, C. and Lang, B. (1988). Heaven: A History . Yale University Press: New Haven.Pihlaja, S. (2014). Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse. Bloomsbury: London.Ribberink, E., Achterberg, P. and Houtman, D. (2013). Deprivatization of disbelief? Non-religiosityand anti-religiosity in 14 western European countries. Politics and Religion 6(1), p.101-120. (, C. and Cimino, R. (2012). Atheisms unbound: The role of new media in the formation of asecularist identity. Secularism and Nonreligion  1, 17-31., E. (2014). Messaging the dead: Social network sites and theologies of afterlife. In: Lewis, A.and Moreman, C. (eds.), Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age . Praeger: SantaBarbara. 9-22.alter, T. Hourizi, R., Moncur, W., and Pitsillides, S. (2011). Does the internet change how we dieand mourn? An overview. Omega  64(4), 275-302.  Create a free website or blog at
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