Muted microphones, weak WiFi, and frozen speakers have become religious experiences of late. Low Wei Ling reflects on how COVID-19 has affected her connection to religion and the divine, and its potential implications for the religious landscape in the near future.
How would our relationship with the divine be different with virtual churches, temples, and other places of worship? Would our prayers still mean the same when conveyed through bad WiFi and broken microphones? Can our sense of belonging to a religious community stay the same? And how about with our experience of religion itself?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has left us stranded at home, testing our religious self-discipline. For the first time, we are forced to pray, fast, and worship without the physical presence of our fellow believers to provide either peer pressure or peer support. Some have covertly taken pleasure in being able to continue with online participation in the comfort of their homes, while others have lamented the loss of camaraderie and convivial conversation that meeting in person afforded.
I have fully embraced digital belonging, having gatecrashed religious study groups in the UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore which I had previously belonged to — much to the delight of my friends who certainly were not expecting a curious me, dialling in at 2am, to join them.
It is amazing to see the quick deployment of technology by religious institutions to engage their followers. Pastors are turning to preach on YouTube; imams are conducting live “Ask Me Anything” conversations on Facebook; abbots are becoming savvy with their advertising of meditation classes on Instagram; and Zoom is now the byword for young and old alike for hosting religious meetings. What feels like a spiritual marketplace has emerged — believers are now spoiled for choice and no longer limited by geographical proximity, specific service timeslots, or even particular religious personalities.
In addition, talks and seminars that used to take months to organise can now be easily set up within a week. We have livestreamed webinars to thank for the elimination of obstacles around venue booking, security clearance for high profile speakers, or upfront financial outlay to host a physical event.
Post-COVID, I can see a new world order emerging — one that integrates technology with religious participation, transcending geographic boundaries and even language, given voice recognition and simultaneous machine translation. Now with a higher level of technological adoption by religious institutions, it is possible that post-COVID, dial-in options may become more the norm rather than the exception for attendees with time or geographical constraints.
For people with hectic schedules, taking half the day off may prove impossible (taking into account commuting time and post-event socialising). The embarrassment of walking in late or leaving early may be enough to make some avoid participating altogether. Others, even if only slightly unwell, may decide to err on the side of safety, putting community health over religious attendance and give these worship gatherings a miss. People who travel often, like me, would definitely appreciate the opportunity to dial in while abroad. The global deployment of technology also benefits followers with limited religious representations where they live. For example, Shinto followers around the world may now be able to tune in to webinars in Japan.
This may also be an opportunity for exploration of foreign religious landscapes — beliefs we are not yet familiar with. The current spurt of online resources encourages us to learn more about other religions as well as question and deepen the understanding of our own. All this can be done at a self-determined level of visibility or anonymity, providing a safe space for curiosity.
In reality, I doubt technology can entirely replace the bodily presence that the architecture of physical space and the interaction of living communities provide. However, the integration of technology allows for different opportunities that would not be possible if confined within the walls of traditional religious structures.
Centuries of civilisation and a myriad of factors have allowed traditions of religious preaching and teaching to evolve. As we now experience this jolt to our traditional evolution processes, perhaps we could leverage on it to consciously explore newer helpful forms of religious belonging and worship.