Religious Experience in the Age of Digital Reproduction
33 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2004 Last revised: 9 Jun 2015
A religious experience is an extraordinary event that occurs against the backdrop of ordinary life, infusing that life with a meaning it would not otherwise have. Mass culture is now replete with portrayals of such experiences. Spiritually-themed television shows, movies, books, music, and fashion are now common and even popular. This is not necessarily good news for religion and religious experience. What mass culture portrays as sacred may be merely an imitation, resembling more the ubiquitous feel-good self-affirmance of popular psychology than authentic communion with the divine.
On the other hand, the appropriation and portrayal of religious experience by mass culture may be the inevitable and desirable effect of a postmodern digitized world. The digital revolution has served up an inexhaustible supply of religious information and images, stimulating individuals to an awareness of spiritual choices and possibilities that were unimaginable only a generation ago. At the same time, postmodernism has underlined the implausibility of achieving social consensus on reality and truth in the face of widespread and persistent religious difference. The coincidence of epistemological indeterminacy with direct individual access to vast global fields of information empowers individuals to choose for themselves from among the innumerable versions of the real and the true now available to them. In this world, the appropriation and portrayal of the sacred by mass culture liberalizes and democratizes religious experience, erasing the boundaries placed on such experience by traditional denominations, and permitting believers to define for themselves the spiritual meaning of their lives.
We argue that there are no reliable means of distinguishing classic religious experiences, like Moses's encounter with Jehovah in the burning bush, or St. Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, from the religious experiences of ordinary people triggered by vehicles of mass culture. We lack access to the template of original religious experience, and thus the means for determining which religious experiences are authentic, and which merely imitations. The combination of vast information about diverse religious experiences made accessible by the digital revolution, and epistemological uncertainty brought on by contemporary postmodern sensibilities, has moved religious experience beyond the control of denominational and institutional religion, to the control of the masses. Marketplace democracy now determines what is real and true, and only religions that adapt themselves to this reality will survive as mass phenomena.
Keywords: Religious, Digital, Reproduction
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