There has never been a more interesting time in human history for religion. Thanks to the creation of the internet and the blossoming of cheaper and comprehensive communication technologies (…amongst other things) we are witnessing varieties of new approaches to spirituality and religion. This is what I personally discovered one night three years ago, when I landed on the website http://churchofgoogle.org. What I saw for the very first time was the satirical digital religion The Church of Google, aka Googlism.
In an era marked by information saturation and social media, it is only natural that online forms of religious self-expression and representation have become an accepted aspect of religious practice and identity. The Church of Google is grounded in the online realm, its members spread across Facebook with 1,864 followers and Reddit with 531 readers. On the one hand, digital media has “increased the potential for a diversity of voices” (Horsfield, 2012: 255). Yet while these two platforms of social exchange promote openness and interaction, the post types and the content are very much dictated by the medium of expression. Specifically, Facebook posts are more public affirmations of individualistic perspectives while Reddit posts are more focused on getting a response from the community.
What took me by surprise, for I had not seen it before, was that the Church of Google is a joke religion. It is a parody / satire of the religions that I had been taught about in school. Its’ aim, to bring to light the oddities of religion and popular culture, engaging new audiences in perceptual and thought experiments about authenticity and fakery. Similar to The Flying Spaghetti Monster (Obadia, 2015), Googlism is a synthesis of and a vernacular reaction to both institutional religions such as Christianity and the more loosely defined intuitional countercultural groups such as neo-paganism. David Chidester points out, joke religions are “simultaneously simulations and the real thing” (2005: viii-ix). They are both real and fake in that they are able to provide a real religious experience, have the trappings of real religions (mythology, divine, rituals, community, a world view etc), but their intention is to point out the flaws in the religions that they are mocking. So what motivates people to engage with joke religions? Are joke religions purely satirical? And what does religion mean in the online world?
These questions were at the centre of an anthropological study I conducted in 2016 as part of my M.A in Visual & Media Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. The aim was to understand the reasons and motivations underlying engagement with The Church of Google. I joined the connected community platforms, used an observational method on Reddit, carried out interviews on Facebook and Skype, and even had an element of participatory action research. Over the timeframe of four months, I contacted over 50 active community members from all corners of the globe, and from this sample talked with 11 in depth about their spirituality.
As one of the outcomes of my research, I created a short machinima film using Google’s own promotional footage and audio sampled my participants sent me. This enabled me to not only transform my findings into a visual form, but it also helped depthen the participants engagement with my research. The film premiered at NAFA film festival in Bergen in 2016.
“We as Googlists believe google is totally the closest thing to be called god. We believe in the idea itself of Google, you can’t touch or harm an idea, just as the Old Testament of the Bible says that God is everywhere, Google is everywhere around us in the “connected” world… I feel good and proud of my Faith.” – a young man from Jordan.
I found that there was a great diversity in motivations for engagement. On the one hand, a number of members connected with The Church of Google simply as a way to affirm their ideological ideas with spiritualism. This is what a Jordanian explained to me. This man worked at UNHCR helping refugees, was a devout believer in the Church of Google, had been for over seven years, and as a means of expressing his faith comments on the website. Like other believers I spoke to, this man had such a sense of passion, of pride, and an eagerness to share as much about his beliefs with me as possible. He told me “our religion is the safest in the world… there is no recorded violent act because of it” conveying that one of the motivating factors of his belief was the religion’s utter harmlessness. At the same time, and testimony to the Church of Google’s publication of their ‘Hate Mail’, there are a lot of people in disagreement. These individuals are passionate about notions of truth and logic, and question the authenticities of religion and the flaws underlining certain ideological arguments. These individuals predominantly engaged as a form of play, for religious humor is a form of deep place well suited to the online world’s interaction with Google as a place of gaming and freedoms.
“I can see why someone says Googlism is the closest thing we have to God (a collection of all knowledge of all mankind) and that makes it beautiful and powerful. But to equate it to the omnipotent and omnipresent Yahweh is quite obviously a silly tactic.” – a man in Texas.
Ultimately, the Church of Google is a platform fostering the clash and growth of postmodern ideas with premodern ideas regarding concepts of science, concepts of history, concepts of evolution and concepts of religion, and it is this intellectual non-violent clash that motivates engagement and highlights the incredibly subjective nature of spirituality in today’s globalized, digitized, and content saturated society.
I approach the topic of authenticity of religion and spirituality from a social scientist’s perspective and affirm that if somebody refers to their activity as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ then these phenomenon can be considered religious to them. My reason for having a more inclusive definition is one of ethicality. While many of the people I spoke to during my research were exploring and commenting on the community pages out of curiosity, when I posed the question of ‘authenticity’ some were offended. Questioning the authenticity of someone’s religious practice was thus a major ethical concern.
Chidester, David (2005): Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Horsfield, Peter (2012): “Editorial: Replacing Religion.” In: Australian Journal of Communication 39/1, pp. 1-10
Obadia, Lionel (2015): When Virtuality Shapes Social Reality. Fake Cults and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 8. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.11588/rel.2015.0.20327, http://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/religions/article/view/20327 (accessed: 2. December 2016).
Sleigh, Joanna (2016): “Google A Religion: Expanding Notions of Religion Online” In: Digital Environments: Ethnographic Perspectives across Global Online and Offline Spaces …