Old technology for a religious spectacle

The use of smoke to signal the election of a new pope from the sequestered conclave of electors is deliberately anachronistic, like so much of the Vatican and the papacy. But then, the point is not to change. Benedict XVI made a point a couple of months ago to appear with an iPad. A flock of cardinals was tweeting the election. And the Vatican has endorsed all kinds of new media over the years for evangelism and teaching. But when it comes to the highly ritualistic matter of representing the institution, the Vatican remains spectacularly conservative. That is because change implies loss of permanence. And Catholicism is a religion devoted to the claim of unbroken succession back to St. Peter, and from him to Jesus. With this view of authority, innovation risks breaking continuity. Inertia means connection to the source.

So it makes sense to use something as primordial as smoke to signal the election of the new leader of the Church, the first ever non-European, because it situates the novel against a background that is very old. And nothing performs Tradition like anachronism.

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David Morgan, Professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, USA.

Do atheists know better about religion?

Yes. At least this was the result of a Pew Research Center’s survey (2010) of religious knowledge. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge while Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. 

 

Video

“Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.”

Robert McCauley (William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor and director of Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture) talks about his new book, “Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not” (Oxford University Press, 2011). His main point is that our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry. Religion has existed for many thousands of years in every society because the kinds of explanations it provides are precisely the kinds that come naturally to human minds. Science, on the other hand, is a much more recent and rare development because it reaches radical conclusions and requires a kind of abstract thinking that only arises consistently under very specific social conditions. Religion makes intuitive sense to us, while science requires a lot of work. The naturalness of religion, he suggests, means that science poses no real threat to it, while the unnaturalness of science puts it in a surprisingly precarious position.

When religion shapes political ideology

The Utah-based artist Jon McNaughton has received a lot of attention from both the press and political pundits. Much of this attention has been negative, deriding his interpretation of American history as simplistic and the art itself as heavy-handed.

The Religion and Politics online journalasked art historian and Duke University professor of religion, David Morgan, to analyze McNaughton’s work. In McNaughton, Morgan finds something old: a jeremiad against the current American political establishment. He also finds something new: a coalition of evangelical Christians and conservative Mormons, a union that could prove highly influential in the 2012 presidential contest.

Full article 

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“One Nation Under God.”

Graphic design on atheist billboards

A mini-debate is underway in atheist circles as to the usefulness of graphic design in billboard ads.

Friendly Atheist is probably the most popular atheist blog out there and Nonprophet Status is a newer atheist blog that promotes interfaith dialogue and attempts to distance itself from the combative rhetoric of folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The debate is split along these lines, pitting a “new atheist” perspective against a more inclusive approach.

 

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Billboard in Austin, Texas, 2010.

(Post suggested by Marcus Mann, Master’s student in the Religion Department at Duke University, NC, USA)

 

In the battle for faith: technical words vs. technical images

If, as argued by Elizabeth Eisenstein, the fathers of the Protestant Reformation used the technological device of the printing press to disseminate and widely distribute their ideas, the Counter-Reformation also needed a technological device in order “to arm” the old religion and combat the new one. Their solution: technological images.

The Jesuits proposed a “theater of illusion for all five senses and a reading practice for readers who did not stick to the letter but rather experienced its meanings immediately as sensual hallucination” (Kittler, 2010, p. 78).

In the words of one of the Society’s members, Athanasius Kircher, polymath and inventor:

“The images and shadows presented in dark room are much more frightening that those made by the sun. Through this art, godless people could easily be prevented from committing many vices / if the devil’s image is cast onto the mirror and projected into a dark place” (Athanasius Kircher, 1602-1680, German Jesuit scholar, who defended the use of lanterna magica during the Counter-Reformation – quotation extracted from Optical Media, Friedrich Kittler, 2010, p.80).

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The “lanterna magica.”

On Spirit Writing

The latest article by Webb Keane, “On Spirit Writing: materialities of language and the religious work of transduction,” might be of interest in the study of religion and media. Keane discusses, quite specifically, the materialization of spirit in language in script, and practices of semiotic transduction: “Semiotic transduction focuses on movement, from invisible to visible, from immaterial to material, and from intelligible to sensible (or, in each pair, the reverse).” He treats several of the issues: the relationship of the analyst to the religious practices she/he analyzes; and what is entailed in making comparisons across religious communities and practices. Most significant is his solution to the problem of technological or media determinism: linguistic or semiotic ideologies (roughly, practitioners’ own beliefs about signification, which mediates how semiotic technologies can be taken-up). This is well worth a read.

This article is best paired with Keane’s more programmatic articles. First, his version of semiotic analysis, and second, his approach to materiality and the senses in religious practice:

Semiotics and the Social Analysis of Material Things.” Language & Communication 23, no. 3 (2003): 409-425.

(Post generously sent by Tim Elfenbein, graduate student in Information Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA.

Religious and Political Netwar

Back in 1992, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt coined the term netwar. Different from the concept of cyberwar, netwar was characterized by a form of informational-age conflict, favored by the rise of digital technology and network forms of organization, doctrine, and also important, strategies. Through netwar, “numerous dispersed small groups using the latest communications technologies could act conjointly across great distances (Networks and Netwars, 2001: 2).

Operations, coordination of actions,  ideology campaigns, fund raising, fear, and sympathy are organized through the digital network without a clear and precise central command.

Internet, computers, and mobile devices became an intrinsic and fundamental part of a new form of decentralized conflict. Religious fundamentalism and  political claims intermingle on the webs of cyberspace in a hybrid way

The image below reveals how marginalized groups are modifying their structures in order to take advantage of the network design and rhizomatic flow of information.

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“Soon, website AlQassam, with a new appearance.” Alqassam Martyrs Brigade website (Hamas armed wing) launching their new website in 2008.