off the cuff:

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere

posted by The Editors
 
The religion blogosphere in abstracto|IssueCrawler by Govcom.org, Amsterdam (click to enlarge) 

It’s no longer news that digital media are changing how knowledge is produced and disseminated, and how people relate to one another more broadly. This is so in the case of religion as much as any other. As older forms of communication begin to cede their exclusive hold on the public’s attention, it becomes all the more urgent to ask what newer forms stand to offer and what challenges they pose, not least because these burgeoning media are modifying and adapting themselves at unprecedented rates. In this context, a newly released SSRC report explores the “new landscape of the religion blogosphere,” mapping out its contours, presenting the voices of some of its bloggers, and asking what new possibilities blogging might represent for public and academic conversations about religion. In conjunction with the release of this report, we’ve asked a number of bloggers, journalists and scholars: how are blogs and new media changing both academic and public discussions of religion?

Our respondents are:

Richard Bartholomew, Blogger, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion

Joe Carter, Web Editor, First Things

Frederick Clarkson, Author, Co-founder of Talk to Action

David Gibson, Columnist, PoliticsDaily.com

Scott Korb, Author, Documentary Editor, and Professor

Paul Levinson, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

William McKenzie, Columnist, Dallas Morning News

John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

Mark Silk, Director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and Associate Professor of the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College

Chuck Tryon, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, Fayetteville State University

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Richard Bartholomew Richard Bartholomew, Blogger, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion

I called my blog “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” because one of its main purposes is to serve as a notebook, preserving clippings from news reports or religious websites, and then synthesizing them in ways which (I hope) are original. It also acts as a kind of research diary, in which observations about areas of interest can take shape over time and over a number of entries. That’s different from academic and journalistic reports, where usually you are expected to put a reasonably finished product in the public domain—with a blog you can be quite open about doubts and loose ends, invite others to take up the baton, and consider criticisms as you go along (although “considering criticisms” and “writing a blog” don’t often go together in practice).

Further, anyone who researches needs a niche, and blogging allows me to explore crevices that have been overlooked or ignored by academics and journalists; in a few cases I’ve gone down rabbit holes on incredible journeys (to mix literary references) that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.

Another fairly obvious point is that the democratization of knowledge and online publishing means that we can all engage productively in opposing much of the obvious nonsense that appears online and elsewhere. For instance, I’ve deconstructed various crank theories about the Bible, despite having no pretensions to being a Bible scholar myself. Some academics perhaps eschew responding to stuff that’s beneath serious consideration, but when you’ve seen a YouTube video of a crowd cheering a presentation on why the Bible predicts a Muslim Anti-Christ, someone has to step up, and the informality of a blog allows both scholars and informed laypersons to do just that.

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Joe CarterJoe Carter, Web Editor, First Things

The average pastor in America has sixty people who will hear their sermon on a Sunday morning. In contrast, a blogger who writes about religion can expect from two to one thousand times as many visitors will read their thoughts over the course of a week. The result is that thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Christians are more influenced by their favorite blogger than by their local pastor. Academic bloggers, particularly those who are also pastors or teach on religious subjects, can expect to have an especially outsized influence, one than often dwarfs the impact they have on their own peers and students.

Despite their importance, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. But should these bloggers be able to teach large audiences without oversight from a higher-level polity? If a professor and ordained minister at a Presbyterian college writes regularly on issues about religion and theology, should her writing be exempt from denominational authority? Or what if a Lutheran layman and a Catholic priest hold a regular open debate? Should they not be held to account as if they were writing in a denominational magazine or journal?

I suspect that most religion bloggers will argue that their blogging should not be overseen or scrutinized by their college, local church, or other ecclesiastical body.  They would claim that since their blogs are neither churches nor parachurch ministries, they should be free from congregational supervision—even when they are writing about issues concerning their denomination’s view of doctrine. If this view is widely held—and my own experience convinces me it is—it marks a peculiar shift in the decentralization of ecclesiastical authority. Whether they are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, when it comes to religious discussions online, all bloggers act like Baptists.

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Frederick ClarksonFrederick Clarkson, Author, Co-founder of Talk to Action

I would like to offer two additional perspectives about the religion blogosphere: one literary, the other editorial.

First, I invite everyone to consider the possibility that blogs may be one of the greatest gifts to writing and to writers in the history of the world. Most of us who have been active in the medium are therefore bemused by the endless scapegoating and hand-wringing about blogs and bloggers from various establishments. Without seeking to pick yet another fight, allow me to briefly tell a different story.

Speaking from my own experience, in 2004 I added a blog to my personal web site. I soon found myself writing just about every day. I am happy to say that my experience was not unlike that of daily newspaper reporters who learn that the more they write, the better they become at the craft. I have seen other writers develop their skills in this way, and, more importantly, find their voice. In this sense, blogging about religion is the same as blogging about anything else. (I hasten to add, as I told a writers conference, that some traditional book publishers go talent scouting in the blogosphere.)

Yet even as the relative accessibility of the ever more user friendly blogosphere provides unprecedented opportunities for mass self-publishing, it also provides new challenges for those who struggle to find the courage to write. For some, it is the constellation of fears that afflict those concerned about what their blogging might mean for their prospects of tenure. For others, it is the glowing PC monitor equivalent of the proverbial blank page. (Or both). In any case, it can take vast courage to write and to publish alone. But those who overcome the personal hurdles may eventually find themselves in a supportive and like-minded blog community, or set of related blog communities of the sort discussed in the SSRC’s study of the religion blogosphere.

Secondly, there is a distinctive editorial feature of Talk to Action (the group blog I co-founded with Bruce Wilson) that I want to highlight as well. Our featured writers come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds and represent a range of progressive political perspectives. But we all write from the standpoint of recognizing the importance, as well as the historic and constitutional significance, of religious pluralism and the separation of church and state. It is this unity of perspective about the nature of the threat to these values from the Religious Right that animates our conversation and gives structure to how we learn from one another. A healthy mix of advocates, activists, scholars, and journalists posting on the site, allows us to avoid the reportorial and conversational pitfalls of parochialism.

Even as we think and write critically about the Religious Right, we seek to do so without resorting to unfair labeling and demonization tactics. In this way, we seek to model effective civic—and civil—discourse. We embrace a common understanding that we all share the same rights, but that the religious supremacism of most elements of the Religious Right is a threat to the rights of all.

 

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David GibsonDavid Gibson, Columnist, PoliticsDaily.com

The observation that “religion is good for religious people” seems especially true of religion blogs. Whether that is a good thing for either religion or the blogosphere, or for the spiritual and secular “communion” that both ought to foster in society, is less clear.

Speaking for myself, new media and the blogosphere have been an enormous boon to my own reporting and researching and, for what it is worth, to the dissemination of the articles born of that research. Having spent much of my career in “old media,” mainly daily newspapers, I now cover religion full-time for PoliticsDaily.com, a leading news site that attracts more than three million unique visitors a month. The creation of such a position is a rare thing in an age when the religion beat is everywhere being downsized, and it may give some hope for the future of religion writing and religion on the Internet.

I have also blogged at Beliefnet.com, and I am one of a stable of posters at the blog of Commonweal magazine, which is cited in the report as one of the most popular religion blogs, and rightly so, as I think that its stable of diverse contributors is a model of its kind. The religion blogosphere has also greatly enhanced my personal spiritual knowledge, and, I would hope, my spiritual development.

But blogs and new media also present serious challenges. One apparent difficulty is that much of the religious blogosphere, like modern religion, is organized by self-selecting cohorts. You shop around, find the congregation you like, one that reflects and confirms the beliefs that feel right for you, and you visit on a regular basis, taking in the daily offerings and getting to know some of your fellow communicants even as they come to know you.

The resulting fragmentation might be called Peter Berger’s “heretical imperative” 2.0, with choice and schism the default modes of communal and individual behavior. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, such “blog-gregationalism” could be perfectly irenic except that, as the report notes, the preference for self-selection tends to confirm and even amplify errors of fact, while suppressing the virtues of ambiguity or subtlety.

Moreover, while inveterate blog surfers (like myself) do visit sites that provide alternate points of view, such visits are often reconnaissance missions to see what the enemy is up to, and perhaps engage in some quick skirmishing in the comments section, rather than lingering and surrendering oneself to the possibility of conversion. So even as the religion blogosphere creates communities, it also gins up antipathies. The ancient odium theologicum has nothing on the comboxes of a post about religion, or, more likely, about a social issue related to religion, like abortion, homosexuality, or partisan politics. While religion is, in the ideal, supposed to emphasize our common humanity and the inherent dignity of each person, history shows that too often it has not.

For all its great benefits for religiously-oriented and interested readers, the religious blogosphere often seems to ape or amplify that tendency to interpersonal conflict. Posters or commenters can flame each other, even fellow believers, thanks to the dehumanizing distancing of the Internet; or, worse, they can use the cloak of anonymity that blogs provide to demean opponents without fear of consequence.

Another challenge for the public and academic discussion of religion is that the two spheres—the public and academic—are too often non-overlapping conversations. This raises questions about authority and expertise. To rephrase the classic New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a god. The leveling aspect of web-based writing can make the expert indistinguishable from the casual poster of thoughts they had in the shower that morning. (Though the shower is a wonderful incubator of great ideas, and many “amateur” blogs can host sophisticated discussions.)

Yes, as the report notes, the religion blogosphere boasts a “considerable breadth of views that one can access relatively easily.” But perhaps what is needed, and may be emerging, is an older religious model for the religion blogosphere, or a more ecumenical model—one in which professionals (I hesitate to say a priesthood) help aggregate the varied manifestations of religious belief and behavior in the blogosphere and offer an interpretation for discussion and, inevitably, refutation. Such professionals could also provide a modicum of moderation over comments and interactions, hopefully encouraging a measure of comity as well as communion.

As discomfiting as it is to note, such professionals would also require a financial platform to do such work. Academics often have that base (as long as they have tenure). But should new media be the exlcusive purview of either scholars or hobbyists? Anyone else, for the foreseeable future, will depend on generating the “clicks” that are the metric for generating revenue, such as it is. That means a preferential option for lighter fare, for writing about Lindsay Lohan’s latest conversion or the image of the Virgin Mary discovered in a pancake. Religion in America has been successful in part by operating like a business. Perhaps the religion blogosphere must follow that model as well.

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Scott KorbScott Korb, Author, Documentary Editor, and Professor

 

Normally, when I teach religion, I stick to readings that are digestible and most likely to stir up some debate among my freshmen students—Armstrong, Baldwin, Hitchens, Manji, Niebuhr, Marilynne Robinson. This semester, though, I was asked to oversee an independent study in post-modern theology, something I hadn’t really thought about since graduate school, which happens to be when the first book on our syllabus, Mark Taylor’s About Religion: Economies of Faith in a Virtual Culture (1999), was a brand new book and the term “blog” was only just starting to stick. It was a time when academics could say things like “cyberspace is a sci-fi projection of what our near future holds.” This was a time before we could make fun of people who spoke of “the Internets.” Indeed, many of us were just getting familiar with the plain old singular Internet (or as is commonplace today, “internet”).

And yet, as indigestible and fogeyish as About Religion can be, at times the book seems prophetic. (Which suggests the question, Which prophets haven’t been, very often, indigestible old fogies?) Taylor describes the potential of the then-burgeoning internet in terms of its divine “all-at-onceness.”

The dream of this New Age … is not only the achievement of omnipresence and omniscience but the realization of the omnipresence that immortality brings. To enjoy omnipresence is not to be nowhere but to be everywhere at once.

Our dream fulfilled, what this suggests about today’s public discussions of religion is that where divinity is concerned, it may not matter at all what anyone’s saying, whether you believe in God or not, or even what Google Analytics says about how many hits you’ve gotten. If Taylor’s right, God truly is in the machine, and every one of our lives on the web is religious. We’ve all attained immortality, as Taylor says, “by being transformed into the divine.”

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Paul LevinsonPaul Levinson, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

Religion arises from a need that every human being feels to understand what we are doing here in this universe. Sometimes we welcome traditional teachings on this subject, sometimes we reject them, sometimes we contribute insights of our own. In all cases, communication plays a crucial role in our intake of traditional views and in our desire to tell the rest of the world about our own realizations. We can wait to communicate if we choose, but we now have the option to speak to the world on a moment’s notice.

Originally, all communication, except that which took place in our immediate physical surroundings, came with delays. Then, in the twentieth century, first radio and then television permitted instant receipt of information from others far away, but gave us no way to immediately communicate with them. Now, in the twenty-first century, the advent of  “new new media”—media that allow us not only to consume but to easily produce information—has given us the ability to communicate our thoughts to the rest of the world almost at the speed of thought.

Blogging, in its longer forms and 140-character form on Twitter, is a perfect medium for communicating profound insights. This is because realizations about who we are in the universe can occur to us at any time. Previously, we had to hold these thoughts until we found a place to record them. Today, we can not only record but commend them to the world via the smartphones that we carry in our pockets.

Some people worry that this may flood the world with triviality. But if we believe that the human mind is the source, or at least conduit, of our deepest knowledge, then we should celebrate the beginning of an age in which every mind can contribute.

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William McKenzieWilliam McKenzie, Columnist, Dallas Morning News

The blogosphere has made religion—and religious topics—more accessible to readers. And I don’t mean in just easy distribution through the Internet. The blogosphere’s emphasis on readability has made writers explore these topics with less jargon and fewer heavy-duty theological terms. That is a very healthy—and overdue—phenomenon.

I participated in a panel at Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry a couple of years back where we talked about the need for theologians to communicate better with folks beyond academia. I came away realizing that most theologians, like most other academics, are trained to write for those who read academic journals and papers. That’s fine, but that approach limits their reach. Most people don’t know what they are talking about.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, opens up their reach, if they would take advantage of it. It presents a chance to bring issues of faith home to people in an understandable way. I hope theologians do take advantage of this tool because religion influences so much of our world, from popular culture, to domestic politics, to international relations.

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John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

The shift from print to blogs promises to shake up religious intellectual life in America.  One only has to consider the shift from a couple decades ago to feel the change.

In 1974 Charles Kadushin drew a comprehensive map of the American intellectual elite, focusing on such outlets as Harper’s, Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books.  Some of these magazines no longer exist.  Others face declining circulations and plunging ad revenues.  The same situation confronts religious magazines of ideas.

In some ways, Nathan Schneider’s map of the religion blogosphere is a lot like Kadushin’s American intellectual elite. For starters, many magazines have made the transition from print to digital. While the Forward, and Commonweal maintain a vibrant presence in cyberspace, the Atlantic is a hub for cultural and political debate.

And yet things are not the same. Significantly, the vast majority of players are not digitized print publications but complete newcomers.  Already it is difficult to imagine the religion blogosphere without Religion Dispatches and The Immanent Frame.

Another striking difference is the collapse of the boundaries between “elite” and “popular” discourse.  In the old days, a “little magazine” talked to a relatively limited audience.  Comments about the “Bible Belt” were unlikely to reach an evangelical public.

A recent incident on the Religion in American History blog makes it clear this is no longer the case.  Discussing the rhetoric of conservative Protestants, historian Randall Stephens (a faculty member at an evangelical institution) made a snarky reference to creationist leader Ken Ham.  As happens frequently in the world of cyberspace, Ham responded, accusing him of “emotive cutting language.”

This exchange is a reminder that the boundaries between communities of discourse have become more porous.  Though the blogosphere may result in the niching of religious discourse, Mr. Ham’s rejoinder suggests that scholars will also be hearing from a whole new set of conversation partners.

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Mark SilkMark Silk, Director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and Associate Professor of the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College

It’s a pleasure to be included in the SSRC’s religion blogosphere, even though, as the report admits, the very idea of such a thing “is in some respects a construction of this report.” From my own experience, there is a religion blogosphere; I am familiar with most of the blogs listed, and can feel the difference between being in the conversational stream and (if I go off the grid for a few days, say) being out of it. Overall, the report provides a good portrait of this world as it exists today, striking a reasonable balance between meaningful generalization and caution.

Analytically, what seems to me missing from most accounts of blogging, including this one, is how much it is like serving on the editorial board of a metropolitan newspaper. (There aren’t a lot of people with that experience; I had it for a few years in Atlanta.) What an editorial writer does ranges from short, easy takes—shooting fish in a barrel—to careful, fully researched analyses of public issues. On a good editorial page, the writing ranges from sharp and light to serious and sober. And you’ve always got to feed the beast. It seems to me that what can reasonably be hoped for in the religion blogosphere is more of the carefully reported and nuanced kind of opinion writing—posts that are actually meant to convince, rather than simply snap the wet towel. A good editorial can better and much more quickly orient a reader than an extended take-out by a reporter; but too often, bloggers don’t think they’re accomplishing anything unless they act as hanging judge.

Given that The Immanent Frame is ground zero for online academic cogitation about religion in public life, I was struck with the relative paucity of religion blogs featuring one or more card-carrying professors—15 or so out of the list of the featured 93. Part of the explanation is, no doubt, that most academics don’t have the time or energy during the school year to keep up with religion news and comment on it. But my experience with the professors whom I originally signed up to contribute to Spiritual Politics was that turnaround time and writing style were the bigger hurdles. Academics tend to want more space for reflection and careful exposition than newsy blogs can afford, if people are going to read past the headline.

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Chuck TryonChuck Tryon, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, Fayetteville State University

The authors of the report have provided a valuable overview of the ecosystem of the religious blogosphere, while also raising some important questions about the social, political, and religious implications of emerging new media tools. Especially crucial, from my point of view, was the expansive definition of the religious blogosphere to include atheist and agnostic bloggers such as P.Z. Myers and political bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan who occasionally discuss their religious beliefs. Many of these bloggers have transformed how we discuss religion and have reshaped the way religious belief informs political dialogue, a change that can be measured in the increased visibility of religious progressives after the 2004 election.

But I also think it’s important to interrogate some of the key terms that are used to define blogs and the people who contribute to them. First, it’s potentially misleading to suggest that blogs necessarily “privilege the immediate over the reflective” or that they emphasize “opinion over original research.” To be sure, many bloggers publish spontaneously, but even rapidly written items can draw from years of research, reflection, and investigation into a topic, often in order to comment on current events. This emphasis on immediacy of publication can obscure other possible blogging practices and can devalue the role of blogs in facilitating informed dialogue online about religion (or other topics as well).

More crucially, blogs function as a form of collective, processual knowledge-building and allow for the kinds of engagement that more hierarchical, institutional forms of knowledge-building typically prevent.  In this sense, if we are witnessing the rise of a “new kind of public intellectual,” as the report’s authors suggest, they balance between more traditional research and the implications of the scholarship in the present moment.

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2 Responses to “The new landscape of the religion blogosphere”

  1. avatar Anna Cadwallader says:

    In my opinion, religion is such a personal topic that it’s curious that people would broadcast their religious musings and sets of beliefs on a blog for the world to see. As a religion major, when I turn in a paper to a professor, regardless of the topic and the fact that I go to a non-denominational university, I still feel somewhat vulnerable submitting an argument about religion because it obviously reflects some of my personal opinions. For example, I once turned in a research essay advocating that the Bible does not refute homosexuality. In doing so, I had the inkling that despite writing from an objective perspective using research, my professor might not agree with my argument because this was such a controversial topic, which could lead to an awkward relationship in class. Based on that alone, I could not imagine posting these beliefs and assertions online with my name exposed to the online community. But I’m sure my feelings are also influenced by the fact that I am generally not a fan of blogs or blogging.

    Although I personally would never post religious opinions or musings on a blog, I agree with some of the authors that it does allow for thoughtful and open discussion about religious beliefs. A blog can serve as a platform for challenging beliefs and learning about religions different from one’s own, which aids in spiritual development and personal growth. Because these blogs allow for instantaneous communication, it can be beneficial for having thoughtful discourse. These blogs put everyone on a level playing field—as there is not an ultimate governance of bloggers—and give everyone an opportunity to contribute because people may be less inclined to do so in a more public setting. Moreover, religion is generally such a serious and academic topic that it is an interesting juxtaposition to see religion being discussed in such an informal setting. However, given the informal platform for discussing such a loaded subject, blogs can also be detrimental to having sincere conversations about faith. Unfortunately, people are able to abuse blogs and hide behind online identities, allowing them to throw around slurs, slander, and discriminatory beliefs. So although these blogs can be personally beneficial, they can also give an open platform to malicious bloggers who are intolerant and hateful.

  2. avatar Sara Steinfeld says:

    Despite understanding the validity of personal opinions, I can’t help but think that blogs might not be the best place for any sort of religious discussion. This is not to say that I think debates over belief are unimportant, but I do believe that the blogosphere lends itself to the uneducated and blindly opinionated.

    Let me explain with a simple comparison. If you go to the comment section on just about any YouTube video, you’ll find people getting into what can only be described as baseless and downright stupid arguments that ultimately result in name-calling or virtually any other topic other than what the “fight” was originally about. Now, if people can get into such arguments over cat videos, imagine what happens when something as personal as religion finds its way onto the Internet. It’s one thing to have an educated debate with someone, even if both debaters stick to their own opinions without really achieving anything in the end, but it is entirely different to post just about anything at any time, potentially without any real authority or understanding of particular topic.

    Granted, the problem I have with religion in the blogosphere lies more in the blogosphere itself rather than the dissemination of religion through new media, but my problem still remains. Sure, as some of the authors stated, posting religious beliefs and dissenting opinions on blogs can give way to thoughtful discussions and connect people from all walks of life, but it is more likely than not that people who choose to comment on blogs are doing so from a place of hate or intolerance rather than intellectual curiosity.

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