By comparing three sets of interviews with Christians, Muslims, and Jews, we can begin to see the how discussions of authority differ based on the religious community under study.
A thematic qualitative analysis was applied to three sets of interviews with members of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faith communities. First, a set of seven interviews was analyzed from a research study of membership in online Christian communities (see Campbell, 2005). Interviewees were members of two email-based communities; four were members of an online community linked to the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, and three were affiliated with a Charismatic/Evangelical Christian group focused on the spiritual gift of prophecy. Interviews were conducted between 1999 and 2000, and questions explored how online engagement influenced members’ perceptions of and involvement in their offline faith communities.
The second set analyzed involved seven interviews conducted in 2004 with Muslim students at Al Qasemi College, a Sufi Muslim college in Baqa al Garbia, Israel. These interviews focus on how student perceptions of their Muslim faith influenced their use and understanding of technology, especially the Internet. The third set of interviews involved seven Jewish students and faculty from the University of Haifa in Israel engaged in research or study related to the intersection of Judaism and technology. These interviews, also conducted in 2004, ask questions about how Jewish culture and religious faith guides personal and corporate responses to media technologies.
Each set of interviews was coded for instances when interviewees commented on the following: the influence of the Internet on religious hierarchy (roles or perceptions of recognized religious or community leaders), religious structures (community structures, patterns of practice, or official organizations), religious ideology (commonly held beliefs, ideas of faith, or shared identity) or religious texts (recognized teachings or official religious books such as the Koran, Torah, or Bible). Specifically, coding involved identifying comments directly related to these four layers of authority.
As each set of interviews involves a different set of questions, a direct statistical correlation and comparison of the analysis is not possible. However, through performing a qualitative analysis on interviews with overlapping areas of questioning, it is possible to identify some common clustering of themes related to authority and the Internet. Together, the three sets of interviews provide an interesting comparison of how people from different religions respond to the potential and actual influence of Internet technology on their tradition. Through highlighting the dominant findings of the three interviews, we see that within each religious tradition, different layers emerged as central areas of concern. The findings of these interviews can be linked to current and previous research and help set an agenda for areas that need to be explored further.
Christianity and Authority
In interviews with Christian online community members, remarks dealing with all four areas of religious authority were found. Comments on religious hierarchy pinpointed members’ opinions of their offline church pastor and their use of the Internet. In two instances, pastors were described as ambivalent towards the Internet and members’ religious engagement online, and in three cases, ministers were described as interested, yet too busy to become personally involved in online interactions. As a homemaker member of the Charismatic/Evangelical online community stated:
Our pastor has e-mail…. But he doesn’t have the time to really search out fellowship or information online. But he says he really appreciates me forwarding him different things that are happening in other parts of the church online, or even different words (of prophecy) that I feel are appropriate for the (local) body. (Personal interview, June 6, 1999)
In reference to religious structure members compared the character or behavioral patterns of their online community with their offline local church. Online community, in four interviews, provided a way to critique interpersonal patterns or relationships and the function of organizational structures such as vestries or ministry teams within local faith communities. As a lawyer and Charismatic/Evangelical community member stated:
We’re a pretty small fellowship and for me it’s been difficult relationship-wise… because I don’t have a family here. So I have really felt…what I was getting online from the other email posts was such an encouragement and such a different perspective than what we are seeing here locally. (Personal interview, June 18, 1999)
In three other interviews, online community was described as a bridge or helpmate to the normal patterns of local church life. A librarian and member of an online Anglican community stated:
I think the online community adds to it (local church). I mean for people who don’t understand church structure at all. It’s a wonderful way to begin to understand how the parts and pieces of the church fit together. (Personal interview, August 31, 1999)
Frustrations and the perceived limitations of organizational structures elicited comments on religious ideology. These spotlight how the Internet facilitates and encourages a globally shared Christian identity. Members described gaining a greater understanding of the “global body of Christ”—which includes both online community and local church—as one of the most significant benefits of religious involvement online.
Finally, while only two interviewees made references to religious texts, both noted that the Bible performs functions similar to email, providing a forum for Christians to communicate words of encouragement with others in ways that transcend time and space. A nurse and online Anglican member noted:
They (people in the Bible) wrote letters to people who lived over a wide space and were diverse. And now 2000 years later you sit at a community, at a computer, and you write letters to other people and again it comes back to the word…the word made flesh…Christ with us. (Personal interview, September 6, 2006)
In these interviews a wide range of issues related to authority was highlighted. The Internet was described as a tool providing information and links to help the local church understand the shared history and common practices of the global Christian church. Thus the Internet becomes a resource for facilitating or transforming users’ understanding about the global networked faith community that may both affirm or challenge traditional ideas of religious structures and ideology. The Internet may create a new, even preferred, outlet for spiritual or social interaction. This is especially true for evangelical Christians who often advocate relationship networks over church structures, especially when the local church is seen as limited in some way. Freedom, control, and new opportunities for ministry were values highlighted by these users. Yet the Internet also provides tools for affirming traditional structures. Anglicans described the online environment as a space that encourages both personal and corporate reflection on issues important to the Anglican Communion and that aids and facilitates church structures such as vestry meetings and prayer lists. Thus the Internet was characterized as providing support for traditional structures, while also creating a space for critique of offline churches, often evaluated on the basis of members’ experience within online Christian community.
One important issue that emerged in these interviews is that online religious ideology is seen as global, rather than local. Experiences online bring members awareness of the greater “body of Christ” or “Church with a capital C.” Members felt that the local church often holds a limited view of the Church, and as one homemaker stated, that online community “gives you a perspective that you can’t have as local church… gives you a worldwide perspective” (personal interview, June 18, 1999). Individuals described themselves as a “go-between” or “bridge” between their online communities and offline church, helping to create greater awareness of the nuances of Christendom. Belonging to and membership in this global community is based on perceived relationship and personal connections more than official affiliations. This obviously challenges traditional definitions of Church membership and community.
Islam and Authority
In the interviews with Muslim students from Al Qasemi College, comments about authority and the Internet were linked to references to religious texts or talk of hierarchy, and specifically to responses of religious leaders to the Internet. All the students stressed a very positive view of the Koran, affirming the role of the text as a source of religious authority for Muslims. The Koran was described as a “support” or platform from which all knowledge and “life” proceeds. Students expressed the notion that the Koran explicitly encourages them to engage with technology and consequently the Internet. As a first-year computer science student stated, “The Koran teaches us that we have to be the best in this world, so we must learn and use technology which is part of our world” (personal interview, May 21, 2004).
Students cited seven different suras (verses) from the Koran that they felt justified use of, and learning about, media technology. The first verse in the Koran was referenced three times, with interviewees noting the first word “iqraa” which means “learn.” They took this as a command to provide both support for the study and use of technology and proof that Islam is not against learning about science and technology. As a student and manager of the college computer lab comments: “Islam is highly supportive of technology and development…This is not my speech; this is the speech of the Koran” (personal interview, May 21, 2004). Thus the Muslim students affirmed and relied on textual authority to support their engagement with media technology, especially the Internet.
References to religious hierarchy came either from examples of religious leaders condemning the “bad” use of the Internet or from leaders providing instruction about how the Internet might be positively used for the purpose of Islam. In both instances, religious teachers and leaders were described with respect; their opinions about the Internet are valued and viewed as offering wisdom to the community.
Two students cited examples of sermons they had heard in local mosques warning against the “negative side of the Internet.” Interestingly, this was defined as “the access to bad sites, those which are sexual or anti-Islamic sites” (personal interview, May 21, 2004). In the two instances referring to specific sermons, bad use of the Internet refers not only to that which exposes Muslims to negative moral influences but also anything which presents a negative view of Islam to online audiences. These examples highlight a concern of local religious authorities about the potential spread of negative publicity about Islam. This concern was not questioned but was affirmed by the students. As a first-year student studying religion stated: “I think teens and the youth should be careful of the media…because it can give a disadvantaged image or idea of religion” (personal interview, May 21, 2004). Religious hierarchy thus provides what is perceived to be a valued and correct insight into the possible influence of the Internet.
Two of the students interviewed were hoping to become Sufi clerics, so they provided unique insight into the role that religious authority figures may play in guiding opinions about the Internet. A fourth-year student studying religion described how, as a future religious leader, he would advise others about media technology:
I have reservations about all technology I use… The guidance (I would give) would depend on the age of the person. I wouldn’t give a young person just a verse (from the Koran) and explain it and how it relates to the media. I would just choose the program or web sites they can or should watch. For adults I would try and prove to them from the Koran why the program or site is bad. (Personal interview, May 21, 2004)
Yet this same student, who called for religious authorities to set more strict boundaries regarding technology use, also spoke very positively about using the Internet to “convert or communicate about Islam.” He stated, “If I had more time in my studies, I would be happy to be involved in doing this online.” Others also stated that while most religious leaders highlight warnings about the Internet, some encourage the use of the Internet for proselytizing. A fourth-year education student stated, “The main point made is the bad use of the Internet. But I have heard some (Muslim) teachers talk and encourage others to use the Internet to make good points about Islam and to make opinions change about Islam through communication about what is right and good” (personal interview, May 19, 2004).
These findings raise interesting issues for further exploration, such as identifying what rhetorical devices religious authorities use for making appeals about religion and technology. It seems important to consider the local context of the user community and how teachings of the local religious leaders direct or influence the choices of Internet users. In traditionally hierarchical religious communities, is it a given that certain offline religious authorities or texts will retain their roles or a measure of influence, even in the fluid boundaries of online engagement? Further reflection is needed on the role of offline hierarchy and text for Muslim Internet users.
Judaism and Authority
The interviews with Jewish students and faculty at the University of Haifa focused on religious and community teachings about technology. The interviewees represented a cross-section of the Israeli Jewish population; four described themselves as non-religious or non-observant Jews (the most dominant group in Israel), two as “Modern” Orthodox (approximately one-third of the population) and one as Ultra Orthodox (about 6% of the population). All four “secular” Jews were involved in research projects exploring Internet use among religious Jews and so provided important insights about religious belief related to the Internet.
Comments on authority were primarily linked to religious structure, specifically the role religious community plays in creating and maintaining certain systems and discourses. Religious communities in turn guide beliefs about technology. Discussion of the Internet and Judaism focused first on religious obligations and official restrictions related to technology. The Mitzvot (religious rules) affiliated with Shabbat (the sacred day of the week, lasting from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), the use of electricity, and certain technologies are highlighted on five occasions as examples of how Jewish law guides use of technology. “Of the 613 Mitzvot half deal with what to do, and the other half what not to do. They are commands and comments on ritual between man and his friends and man and his God,” explains a Ph.D. student in sociology (personal interview, June 2, 2004). These commands are recognized as guidelines for how the community should act in a variety of contexts. The Internet is described as a technology that sets new challenges for interpreting how its use relates to recognized codes of practice for religious Jews.
Notably, interviewees placed emphasis not on religious authority figures as the decision-makers or evaluators of the Internet; rather they framed the discussion in community terms. This was evident through collective statements such as “religious Jews are not allowed…,”“the Ultra Orthodox community will say …,” and “we Orthodox would avoid….” The community supports a system of historical precedents, religious codes, and an implied community consensus. Religious structure could be defined as religiously informed discourse that becomes a channel to transport official positions and teaching on technology use to the community. Interviewees made the distinction that different religious groups (Sephardic Orthodox, Ashkenazi Orthodox, Haredi/Ultra Orthodox, etc.) are unique communities, distinguishable by their ethnic roots. Yet they also stressed that groups share similar levels of religious adherence or strictness, confirming the idea that all “religious Jews” share certain beliefs and practices. This provides cohesion for individuals and helps frame a single conceptual community.
Five of the interviewees focused their comments on authority on the Ultra Orthodox community, the most conservative sect of Judaism. This group is characterized by their rejection of many aspects of modernity, a strict rule of life, and wearing the dress coverings of their ancestors from 18th century Europe. “Religion is so dominant in the Ultra orthodox community that personal or gender identity is often second to religious identity,” stated a communication master’s degree student researching Ultra Orthodox discourse about the Internet (personal interview, May 19, 2004). Because religious ideology takes precedence over other forms of identification, religion can serve as a driving force, presenting Ultra Orthodox Jews as a “community of one voice.”
Thus, for many, the Internet is a problematic technology because it encourages multiple voices and personal freedom. Initially, some rabbis within the Ultra Orthodox community banned Internet use, but its advantages in terms of allowing women to work at home made it “a ban that the public simply cannot obey” (personal interview, May 19, 2004). Yet even though the perceived value of the community won out, debate over the Internet did not go away. “No one in the Ultra Orthodox community will say the Net is ‘good’ or describe it as having advantages… If there were advantages, they would be described as personal, but not for the community” (personal interview, May 19, 2004). Therefore, use of the Internet is still contentious within many part of the community. As a professor, who is also Ultra Orthodox, stated:
Computers are stigma in my community and because of this my work could be potentially problematic…computers are not seen to be as bad as TV, but they are definitely frowned upon in some sectors…. I don’t hide the work I do (with computers and the Internet) but I don’t advertise it either…I keep my work and my religion separate. (Personal interview, June 8, 2004)
In this way, the Orthodox community plays a key role, establishing a discourse that influences community perception and use of the Internet.
Modern Orthodox interviewees also stressed that religion does not directly influence Internet use. Rather as religion is to inform all of life, religious beliefs become embedded and invisible, while still guiding choices about technology. Religion is only acknowledged when it challenges or confirms a particular practice. An Orthodox master’s degree student in computational linguistics emphasized that while he did not see his religion influencing his use of computers, there was a difference between his Internet use—for work and Torah study—and the Ultra Orthodox’s critique of the Internet as a tool of entertainment: “The [Ultra] Orthodox avoid using computers (not Modern Orthodox though) for personal needs, for a job or commercial use, yes, but not for personal needs, they do not serve the Haredi” (personal interview, June 7, 2004).
The idea that the Internet empowers personal choice is an important issue related to religious authority. Two interviewees researching a university discussion forum for Orthodox users online found the Internet served as a resource for liberal discussions about religion not available to them outside the Internet. “On the one hand, they don’t want to leave religion, but on the other hand, they do want to practice it in a way that is more convenient and open for them,” especially in issues related to gender roles, dress, and sexuality (personal interview, May 26, 2004). This raises an important point about expectations of religious structure and how this might differ even within the same religious tradition. Through looking at what the aspects of authority highlighted in these interviews, specific areas and questions related to authority online are also brought to the fore.