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Call for papers n° 9: Religious Practices and the Internet

Deadline for abstract submissions: OCTOBER 18, 2018

Special issue edited by Fabienne Duteil-Ogata (Clare EA4596, Université Bordeaux-Montaigne / IIAC [EHESS/CNRS]) and Isabelle Jonveaux (CéSor, EHESS)

In the past few years, when tragic events have been associated with religious radicalization, the Internet has been often pointed out. For instance, for fundamentalist groups such as Daesh or Al Qaida, digital social networks may be an opportunity to recruit people beyond geographical borders (Udrescu 2013, Torok 2010, 2011). Nevertheless, behind such specific and highly mediatized cases, it must not be forgotten that the Internet’s uses have grown in almost any religious group, to become today something as common as unavoidable (Dawson & Cowan, 2004, Knoblauch, 2009, Campbell, 2010, Cheong et al., 2012, Jonveaux, 2013).

This special issue precisely aims at exploring how the Internet affects religion or conversely, how religion can transform digital media. These questions may be discussed at least from two standpoints. On the one hand, one can consider that religions have always used media and that there is in fact no religion without media (Krotz, 2007). This theory relies on the conceptualization of religions as communication systems. The use of digital media by religious institutions is consequently unsurprising, because throughout history and often very fast, they have invested the major communication developments, such as the printing press in the Middle Age (Eisenstein, 2005 [1983]) or telephone and then television since the end of the 19th century (Sastre Santos, 1997). In this perspective, digital media has brought nothing really new to religions and what is observed online is nothing but an extension or the reflection of the current trends related to religious matters and its modernity (Jonveaux, 2013). On the other hand, the opposite position considers that new media transform both religions’ contents and practices (Hjarvard, 2013). They lead precisely to the creation of new religious forms or “cyberreligions” (Hojsgaard, 2005) in which religious institutions as well as religious practices exist only online, like in the case The Church of the Blind Chihuahua or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster for example, even though some of these religions have clearly a parodic dimension (Obadia, 2015). In this perspective, the Internet can be seen as a tool that has carried something original and exclusive to the practice of religions, far from only reproducing online offline practices.

To go beyond these seemingly antithetical approaches, a solution may be to go back to the classic categories of the sociology of religion and ask how much the Internet has (or not) transformed them. Simultaneously, this implies to lead empirical studies dedicated to the description of religions as lived by online users or to the religious institutions which observe and integrate digital uses to a certain extent. For this special issue, we have therefore identified at least four research directions (detailed below) in which potential contributors could inscribe their article proposals.

Areas of research

Rituals, Worship, Prayers and Celebrations

Papers may for instance focus on the various aspects of “lived religion”. This concept, created by French historians and sociologists, sheds light on the difference between legal, institutionalized religions and the actual religious practices of believers. It was already in wide use in the 1970s in the works of authors such as Gabriel Le Bras (Desroche, 1970) and was also central to the research of Danièle Hervieu-Léger. However, the concept of “lived religion” only appeared in the English-speaking academia by the end of the 20th century, after it was popularized by David D. Hall (Hall, 1997), Robert A. Orsi or more recently Meredith McGuire (McGuire, 2008). Since then, it has been particularly central to research projects questioning online religious practices, for instance the “Online Religion” project (Helland 2002).

“Lived religion”, defined as the ways people experience religion in their daily lives through their bodies, their emotions and their minds, can be framed as a theoretical device to investigate the meaning and the “symbolic efficiency” (Isambert, 1979) of online religious practices: Do social actors consider their online practices and rituals of less worth than their offline counterparts? What are believers looking for on religious websites? In the same way, does Christopher Helland’s distinction between “religion online” (i.e. practicing one’s religion on religious websites emphasizing information rather than interaction) and “online religion” (i.e. on religious websites emphasizing interaction rather than information) make sense to believers and religious institutions (Helland, 2005)? Do religious practitioners or religious institutions consider online religious practices legitimate and to what extent (Bafelli et al., 2011)?

Another core issue is the articulation between online and offline practices. The study of religious behaviors on the Internet cannot neglect the technical dimension of digital tools. Indeed, individual and/or collective practices take different paths, which need to be accounted for, depending on the terminals providing access (computers, smartphones, etc.), places and uses that are privileged (web sites, forums, applications, platforms and the like), the modalities of networking, the possibilities of geolocation or the types of data that are being shared. What are the interactions between devices and observed religious practices? Are we witnessing the creation of new rituals, rites or worship acts, and do they complement or substitute existing practices? Symmetrically, one can wonder if the traditions linked to particular religious practices (oftentimes spanning several centuries) have contributed to the structuration of some specific uses of the Internet.

More broadly, we also encourage proposals discussing empirically the ways religious (personal and collective) experiences are expressed and enacted on the Internet. What do passage rites, affliction rites, calendar rites, the worship of the ancestors, holidays or prayers become (Campbell, 2010)? The Internet as a medium also interrogates the temporality of practices: What about their frequency, their regularity, and their articulation to liturgical calendars, in spaces where actions and exchanges can be asynchronous? Inversely, how do celebrations unfold on the Internet, and are they invested with a symbolic power, able to create social relations? Several scholars see the Internet as the medium that makes practices persist over time, a kind of “digital eternity”, especially when it comes to funerary practices (Duteil-Ogata, 2015; Gamba, 2016); however, multiplying case studies seems still necessary before any generalization.

Identities, Belongings, Avatars and Communities

The Internet allows users to preserve a certain degree of anonymity via the use of pseudonyms or avatars (Boellstorff, 2013), and to build more customized, ad hoc self-presentations (Georges, 2010). When it comes to religious practices, it can thus be interesting to question the overlap (or lack thereof) of an individual’s religious belonging and his/her religious identity/ies as they are displayed on social networks, since some of these services offer to include religious beliefs among profile details.

Does the Internet allow people to alter their attitude(s) as believers – potentially their faith – or their status within the religious communities they belong or think they belong to? Can the practices and identities that Internet users build online be converted and mobilized in other social spheres? These ideas underline the need for a better knowledge of online spaces where religious identities appear, are claimed or hidden.

Works focusing on the Internet uses of people with multiple or syncretic religious affiliations will be particularly welcome. For example, the study of digital trajectories, especially when some individuals adopt temporary or definitive identities, in uncovered or concealed ways, will make it possible to re-invest the “bricolage” approach to new objects (Hervieu-Léger, 2005). Since Internet users have on the web access to a very large religious offer (institutional or not, national and international, etc.), they should be able to build more complex religious affiliations, by visiting religious sites, which are more and more deterritorialized (Roy, 2008) or by consulting the comments and opinions of other Internet users. Thus, they should be able to reconfigure their identities and practices as they spend time online. Are we therefore observing a greater diversity or porosity of individual religious trajectories? Does the online “religious market” (Stark, Bainbridge, 1985; Simonnot, 2008) really work or does it only exist at a theoretical level?

Religious practices that mobilize the Internet in one way or another are also questioning the nature of the collectives that gather around a religion. Digital uses can be a way to live the religious community by transcending geographical boundaries, as shown by Olivier Roy about the Muslim Ummah (Roy, 2000)? More specifically, in the migration context, online communities appear to be helping their members to maintain relationships with the home community, through the creation of “online diasporas” (Helland, 2008, Hoang, 2015), while they also give them access to religious resources not available in the host country. We can consequently wonder if these processes exist in other social contexts. Some proposals could therefore examine the notion of religious community in the light of practices whose “novelty” can be questioned: Who are the believers concerned by online communities and how do these believers relate to these communities? Which type of “audiences” are they and how are they perceived by those who are not involved in such communities, as well as by religious institutions?

Asceticism, Fasting and Prohibitions

Religious practices are also composed of “negative rites” (Mauss, 2001 [1902]), especially including the religious prohibitions that protect sacred things (Durkheim, 2008). In the case of the Internet, various studies (Jonveaux 2013, Cohen 2013) show that the use of the Internet, or on the contrary the choice of not using it, refers to ascetic practices among believers and more particularly among “virtuosos” such as monks. Indeed, according to Max Weber, asceticism is a characteristic of virtuosos that distinguishes them from the laypeople or “masses” (Weber, 1995).

Thus, upon which criteria are determined the reduced, controlled or intensified uses of the Internet in the context of a religious practice? Research has already documented that believers apply to this media the ascetic disciplines specific to their belief system: modesty for Muslim women on social networks (Le Guen-Formenti, 2015), abstinence during periods of religious fasting such as Christian fasting or Ramadan (Jonveaux, 2013), and so forth. Some radical groups, such as the Haredim Jews in Israel, completely reject its use, in line with other communication technologies (Cohen 2013). Contributors are thus invited to support these results in other configurations or to propose new materials. The Internet also seems to become a “promising” area for a religious and potentially community-based asceticism, as can be seen in some Facebook groups. Some proposals could therefore address how Internet uses blends in with other religious-related ascetic practices.

At a more reflective level, one needs to know more about the discourses, especially (but not only) theological, that the Internet has generated within religious authorities as well as among the believers themselves. What are those discourses on the web? How do they circulate and are they debated? More broadly, we welcome all works analyzing how some controversies over religious practices can take place in online spaces.

Conversion, Education and Transmission

It is evident that one of the central functions of the Internet has been the transmission of information since its very beginning. In a religious context, this information can be lists compiling places of worship, texts and audiovisual content for praying or educational contents on religious topics. Whether the information is transmitted through websites, social networks or applications, the technique is supposedly adapted to its content and targeted audience. However, the specific format of online platforms, like their recreational dimensions (Waltemathe, 2011) or the short format of text messaging (e.g. on Twitter), calls into question how this information is actually received and used.

First, religious institutions often have difficulties to communicate with some targeted audiences. One example is when churches attempt to reach out to non-practicing, young believers but end up communicating primarily with practicing older people religious (Jonveaux, 2007). Second, the numerous ways of communicating online can blur religious messages. A particularly interesting group to investigate is the supposedly non-religious people that are exposed to religious messages online or even consume certain religious services on the Internet: in 2006, these people represented 8% of the participants of the online spiritual retreat of the Dominican order for example (Jonveaux, 2007). At the same time, younger people, who participate the least to religious rites from an institutional perspective (European Value Survey, 2008), often become the main targets of online religious campaigns because of their assumed high use of new media. We would be therefore very interested in publishing contributions dedicated to the sociology of these audiences and/or to the receptions and uses of online religious communication.

Finally, the idea of “online conversion” can also be studied. In fact, some protestant predicators explicitly encourage conversion during their online preaches (Mottier 2015). As a result, can the Internet play a role in conversion experiences, and how? Is it a place for conversions and, if so, under which conditions? Furthermore, if some people do convert themselves after having read conversion-related online contents, how do they experience this conversion, and how do they explain or justify the role played by these online contents inside the conversion process?

Practical information

The abstracts (500 words maximum) are due by October 18, 2018. They should be sent to the following address:

Proposals may be written either in English or in French, and should state the research question, the methodology, and the theoretical framework. They will focus on the scientific relevance of the proposed article in light of the existing literature and the call for papers, and may be accompanied by a short bibliography. We also would like to draw the authors' attention to a special section in the journal called “Revisiting the Classics”, devoted to new readings of classical authors and theories in the context of digital media: for this special issue, papers centered on the re-exploration of classical authors and categories from the social sciences of religion will be particularly appreciated.

The abstracts will be reviewed anonymously by the issue editors and the members of the journal editorial board. Authors of submissions selected at this stage will be asked to e-mail their full papers by January 15, 2019 for another double-blind peer review evaluation.

The journal RESET also accepts submissions for its “Varia” section, open to scholarly works in the Humanities and Social Sciences dealing with Internet-related objects or methods of research.


Deadline for abstract submission (500 words maximum, plus references): October 18, 2018.

Responses to authors: October 25, 2018.

Deadline for full papers (6 000 to 10 000 words, plus references): January 15, 2019.


Editorial board:



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