XXIX.4 July - August 2022
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Making space for faith, religion, and spirituality in prosocial HCI

Khushnood Naqshbandi, Kristina Mah, Naseem Ahmadpour

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Faith, religion, and spirituality (FRS) are contentious areas in human-computer interaction (HCI) and design. As HCI researchers strive to cultivate rigor and validity in practice, the influence of FRS carries more weight in some areas of the field. One such area is design for prosocial behavior, or prosocial design. We agree that FRS is not a necessary factor to elicit or support prosocial behavior; however, we maintain that it is an area warranting further exploration into the richness of ancient wisdom and traditions that resonate with many people in different ways and can offer potential opportunities for rich and meaningful experiences within HCI and design.

An image of a large scale installation called "Wish Happiness" that was inspired by Buddhist philosophy, and created for a public festival in Sydney, Australia.

Prosocial behavior or prosociality is voluntary action that is performed with the intention to help or benefit others. Prosocial behavior manifests itself in many forms, for example, volunteerism, charitable giving, cooperation, caring, or simply doing something good for someone. Policy and legal systems and many value-shaping institutions have a profound influence on prosocial behavior, as does FRS.

back to top  Insights

Prosocial HCI and design research need to be inclusive of FRS-based values, motives, and rituals.
It is necessary to foster unbiased design research practices that capture people's FRS values.
Design practice should reflect the ways of knowing as found in FRS-based systems that influence human motives and conduct.

A widely accepted definition of religion is that "it is a system of symbols by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values" [1]. The traditions, symbols, and rituals associated with religion play an important role in society and continue to shape many people's identities and interactions. Faith is then considered the interpretative element within a religious experience that can also be considered a form of knowledge [2].

In their empirical study comparing definitions of religiousness and spirituality, Zinnbauer et al. state that "spirituality was most often described in personal or experiential terms, such as belief in God or a higher power, or having a relationship with God or a higher power" [3]. They considered religiousness and spirituality to be different concepts, yet not independent of each other, and both definitions were concerned with integrating one's values and beliefs with one's behavior in daily life.

In this article, we present critical reflections on various aspects of FRS by lead researchers on two independent research case studies. These case studies can be viewed in the space of prosocial HCI and design with embedded aspects of FRS. This is followed by discussion of points presented in those reflections by all coauthors. We put forward considerations in the form of provocations for how to foreground influence and inspiration from FRS in research and development in prosocial design to respond to values important to many people around the world. We additionally propose consolidated opportunities and challenges from these cases.

back to top  Prosocial Behavior and FRS in HCI and Design

Khushnood Naqshbandi: As an HCI researcher, when I describe my main research interest, designing for digital volunteerism, it tends to invoke varied responses. Some audiences show interest in discussions of free digital labor and liberal economy, while others are enthralled by the motivational psychology associated with digital volunteering. I also receive questions about the participatory aspects of my research with volunteers. In one of my talks, though, I was stumped by a simple comment from an audience member, who came up to me after the presentation. He mentioned how his motivation to volunteer is based on his deep religious faith, and asked if my research mentioned anything about faith-based motivation for volunteering.

Many digital platforms aim to engage people in prosocial behaviors such as volunteer work, charity, philanthropy, and mutual aid, among many others. This is reflected in HCI research on how digital platforms may support work performed by volunteers and digital "do-gooders." While research in the social sciences has long acknowledged the influences of faith in facilitating prosocial behaviors, only recently have we observed an increased interest in HCI research on the use of technology in FRS practices and environments in general [4]. However, there is limited precedent in HCI to specifically support design for FRS-based prosocial behaviors. It is thus challenging to be inclusive of FRS practices in design for technology-mediated prosocial behaviors such as digital volunteerism when the HCI space is predominantly secularized, and hardly any discourse on faith exists.

back to top  Prosociality and Compassion

Kristina Mah: Responding to loneliness and anxiety becoming the modern day epidemics of our times, my research explores opportunities within Buddhist philosophy that offer methods to alleviate this human suffering, and that can be translated to the design of "compassion driven" interactive systems. I a large-scale interactive installation (Figure 1) for a public festival that explored how tangible and intangible aspects of Tibetan Buddhist ritual interaction could be used as inspiration to design a digital experience and playfully engage visitors in a narrative of generosity and well-wishing in a public space [5]. The theoretical basis of this concept-driven design research was grounded in concepts from Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and traditional ritual practices, exploring how to transform key principles and practices of Buddhist ritual for compassion cultivation into a large-scale physical installation in a secular setting.

Two images of a large scale installation called "Wish Happiness" that was inspired by the Buddhist philosophy, and created for a public festival in Sydney, Australia. Figure 1. Wish Happiness, a large-scale Buddhist-inspired interactive installation, created for a public festival in Sydney.

Many concepts that are found in religious traditions—empathy, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, among many others—have been empirically shown to facilitate prosocial behaviors. Compassion, for instance, a major theme in religious and secular philosophy, can be a strong motivator for prosocial behavior.

Faith and spirituality are also linked to well-being and happiness in research findings. Many people associate FRS-based identities with positive experiences and long-term happiness. HCI has sought inspiration from some of these concepts such as gratitude [6,7] and compassion [5], and presented them in a secularized manner or context. Given the current trend in HCI that focuses on well-being and its predictors, engaging FRS in HCI design practices is beneficial and can foster well-being for many people who share FRS value systems.

back to top  Tension Between Science and FRS: Impact on HCI and Design

Khushnood Naqshbandi: In my survey study on digital volunteers on a scientific research platform (Figure 2), many volunteers directly mentioned how their faith inspires them to "give back " or "make a difference."Some also mentioned how religious institutions facilitate other forms of volunteering. Their religious zeal inspires their volunteering and is positioned parallel to their contribution to science, thus challenging the science-faith dichotomy often presented to us.

A screenshot of the landing page of the StepUp for Dementia Research website that allows people to volunteer for scientific research projects. Figure 2. Screenshot of StepUp for Dementia Research, a science-based research website where people volunteer for participation in scientific research.

The tensions between various forms of FRS and the scientific temperament in the modern West arise from a complex history, which in many ways has influenced the topics that are deemed relevant for research in collective consciousness. Subsequently, and due to additional colonial history surrounding the politics and geographies of manufacturing, innovation ownership, and power, many design trends still represent Judeo-Christian values, albeit with secularized undertones. Despite the current secular perception that aims to separate science and religion, evidence suggests the prevalence of FRS as a motivator and source of inspiration and resilience for many people. It can be argued that we would do a disservice to HCI research specifically, as well as to scientific research in general, to perpetuate a science-religion dichotomy that excludes many groups who are often marginalized in multiple ways, particularly those whose faith, religion, or spiritual values are not shared by the researchers.

It is challenging to be inclusive of FRS practices in design for technology-mediated prosocial behaviors when the HCI space is predominantly secularized, and hardly any discourse on faith exists.

Take Australia, where the number of people who identify as religious has decreased over the past few decades. This does not provide a complete picture of the spiritual or faith-based inclination of Australian society. For instance, it hardly represents people who engage in spiritual practices but do not associate with organized religion, or are simply irreligious or less religious. We ask: How can design researchers explore the possibilities that come with the evolution and varied expression of FRS? How do we reconcile our responsibilities toward those who may or may not be afforded an opportunity simply due to our seemingly secular design decisions? And how can we resolve tensions presented to us in design practice, particularly when we ourselves do not share the FRS-based values of the people we design for or research with? Designing around and through these tensions requires solidarity with people for whom faith, religion, or spiritual practices may guide everyday life and relationships. To achieve that, we must understand the notion of representation in design. This requires nonjudgmental intent and a commitment to advocacy.

back to top  FRS and Representation

Kristina Mah: In my review of influence and inspiration from Buddhism in HCI for well-being, I found that while there is much research that is inspired by traditional Buddhist practices, it is my impression that researchers emphasize the use of Western secular definitions of terms such as mindfulness while implicitly referring to the original Eastern sources, or omitting this knowledge lineage altogether.

A more personal example of FRS and representation is the experience I have had of answering questions at international conferences. This includes questions about my research not presenting secular values that are endemic to scientific research, as well as questions around the delicate nature of inspiration versus "appropriation" of cultural artifacts, concerning the permissibility of articulating interpretations or understandings of cultural forms.

FRS-based practices and motives for community-based activities form an important part of human societies, and can be considered as one of the markers of human civilizations.

There are many facets of representation. Behavioral (and, dare we say, traditional design) research is dominated by initiatives that are primarily conducted and published in English and follow secularized research processes. As a result, the religious, faith, or spiritual values of many less-known or less-represented groups of people that emerge in such research may not be accurately captured or expressed.

Buddhist-inspired inquiry is a good example of representation of FRS in prosocial design. Buddhist inquiry into the natural world proceeds from first-person embodied inquiry, a radically different point of departure compared with Western science, and its methods differ correspondingly [8]. In recent years, organizations such as the Mind & Life Institute (https://www.mindandlife.org) have offered a platform for dialogue between Eastern and Western scholars. Pioneers in this space such as Francisco Varela have argued for the necessity of empirical science to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity that forms an essential part of understanding. In his book Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground, B. Allan Wallace states that "the scientific engagement with Buddhism can shed a fresh light on our own subjectivity, our own language, and our own categories, for example, of religion, science, and philosophy. By recognising the unique contexts of both Buddhism and science, all participants in such dialogue may at least begin to escape from the tendency to unwittingly attribute a privileged status to our own preconceptions" [8].

Moreover, religious institutions and faith-based communities are significant sources of social inclusion and prosocial actions for many people, in both the Global South and Global North. For instance, many displaced refugee communities find solace in inclusive spaces in FRS-based community participation. Only recently have academic disciplines started to recognize the importance of the spiritual values of underserved Indigenous communities and how their various ways of knowing and action are intricately tied to their spirituality. These contribute to the decolonization of academia through extending our understanding of representation (who gets to be included) and epistemological investigation.

This notion of representation is inherently intersectional, as faith-based, racial, and other aspects of identity are intertwined. Intersectionality, not surprisingly, is linked to a legacy of oppression when a marginalized group does not fit within dominant expressions of identity along the lines of, for example, geography, ethnicity, belief, or social group. Designing for FRS and embedding relevant representation in design must address intersectionality. This can be considered an extension of design justice, which we believe is a necessary addition to the new movements to improve the design of legal and social policies.

Unless we create spaces and opportunities for discussions on varied forms, expressions, and representations of FRS, we are bound to perpetrate the status quo that limits access to and the utility of sociotechnical systems to select groups of users and their beneficiaries. We argue that overlooking the need for such spaces in prosocial HCI due to the lack of precedents inclusive of FRS would cause harm to these demographics or mis/underrepresent them.

back to top  FRS as Persuasion for Community Welfare

Khushnood Naqshbandi: A research participant commented, "We held a cake store organized through my church to help raise money for leukemia. I love helping my community with fundraising. It gets me more involved with the people and give others smiles."In my research, some participants mentioned how FRS-based institutions or FRS-oriented community endeavors form a structured pathway for engaging in prosocial community action, specifically in traditional, in-person volunteering.

FRS-based practices and motives for community-based activities form an important part of human societies, and can be considered as one of the markers of human civilizations. All major religions support compassion and helping the needy and vulnerable, which are widely considered to be prosocial behaviors. Even though FRS-inspired prosociality may not always be directly tied to altruistic motivation, it often instills an obligation to serve and forms a community-driven pathway for various prosocial behaviors such as charity and volunteering.

One example is zakat, or compulsory giving, in Islamic tradition that drives a lot of welfare practices in Muslim-majority regions, and has even been recognized as a way of fulfilling the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals. The UN's digital fundraising for humanitarian causes has recognized religious giving by assigning a separate portal (https://zakat.unhcr.org/en) to this based on its enormous potential for humanitarian welfare. Another example of organized community welfare inspired by FRS is that of Sikh community volunteering. In the event of crises or disasters such as the Australian bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic, the Sikh community has repeatedly provided much-needed community relief because of its well-organized, faith-based prosocial activities, for which members have been consistently praised as community champions. However, despite the profound influence on community welfare, the representation of such FRS-inspired prosociality and ways of designing with FRS in mind in HCI is hardly adequate.

back to top  Critique

As a counterargument, it is pertinent to mention that FRS is tied to complex and often political tensions, whether related to communal issues, international politics, persecution of religious minorities, or religious arguments being appropriated by populist narratives as part of their appeal to the dominant culture and citizenry. However, if we are aiming for design justice, critical engagement with these and other sociopolitical factors involving FRS is not only encouraged but needed. One such way critical engagement with FRS in design could be achieved is through the refinement of design tools and methods that highlight individual and collective sensibilities through people participation. Additionally, design can borrow the accumulated knowledge from social sciences that are continuously engaging with such complex sociopolitical issues. Thus, we invite designers and researchers to explore (rather than ignore) the opportunity to foster the FRS motivations, values, and practices of billions of people worldwide, despite the political complexities involved.

back to top  Future Directions

Khushnood Naqshbandi: A fair and just design of sociotechnical volunteering systems would include all those factors that individually or through a combination facilitate volunteer engagement and well-being. In my research, I include FRS as a possible determinant of volunteer motivation that is closely linked to their values involving service and giving back. This is one of the psychosocial factors included in a proposed volunteer-centric design to enhance online volunteering platforms [6,7].

Kristina Mah: My development of a Buddhist-inspired interactive installation highlighted an interface between ritual interaction and compassion-driven design. Ritual interaction itself can embody collective motivation at the scale of an individual or a group, and this can generate an ambience of cohesion that can be powerful and contagious [5]. Much investigation is warranted in the area of ritual interaction design strategies for prosocial HCI. Furthermore, exploring the fine-grained qualities of experience in the ritual process of cultivating prosocial qualities through the refinement offirst-and second-person approaches (e.g., [9]) holds much potential for developing an understanding of how prosociality is constructed and lived.

With the advent of many forms of prosociality in the online sphere, it is relevant to ask where FRS fits into prosocial design. There is still more work that could be done. Indeed, the broader discipline of HCI could also benefit from the inclusion of FRS. As such, we propose three provocations:

  • What can we do to make HCI and design research (e.g., through surveys and participatory workshops) inclusive of FRS-based values, motives, and rituals?
  • How can we, as HCI researchers, develop nonjudgmental practices that fairly capture FRS-based values, without marginalizing any group and in spite of our own beliefs and practices?
  • How can ways of knowing and rituals, as found in FRS systems that influence human motives and conduct, be acknowledged and embedded into design?

In this article, we outlined designing in solidarity with FRS-based groups and advocated for normalizing the varied expressions of their attributed values and rituals. The hesitancy in our community is understandable. There are examples of systems in relation to religious expressions that have been misused and taken advantage of by political ideologies. It is easier to follow the norm and not discuss politics and religion in order to avoid controversy. However, the easy way out would almost certainly marginalize people who may benefit from our willingness to explore the relevance of FRS in their life, in an open and respectful way. These days, we hardly find any technical system unaffected by constructs that are socially understood, such as identity, gender, and meaning. In a world where HCI and design practice is so influential on our prosocial and other behaviors, how do we develop sociotechnical systems that foster healthy expression of faith, religion, and spirituality?

back to top  References

1. Albanese, C.L. America: Religions and Religion. Cengage Learning, 2012.

2. Hick, J. Faith as knowledge. In Faith and Knowledge. Springer, 1988, 200–211.

3. Zinnbauer, B.J. et al. Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, 4 (1997), 549–564.

4. Buie, E. Let us say what we mean: Towards operational definitions for techno-spirituality research. Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019, 1–10.

5. Mah, K., Loke, L., and Hespanhol, L. Designing with ritual interaction: A novel approach to compassion cultivation through a Buddhist-inspired interactive artwork. Proc. of the 14th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM, New York, 2020, 363–375.

6. Naqshbandi, K.Z., Liu, C., Taylor, S., Lim, R., Ahmadpour, N., and Calvo, R. "I am most grateful." Using gratitude to improve the sense of relatedness and motivation for online volunteerism. International Journal of Human—Computer Interaction 36, 14 (2020), 1325–1341.

7. Naqshbandi, K.Z., Taylor, S., Pillai, A.G., and Ahmadpour, N. Labour of love: Volunteer perceptions on building relatedness in online volunteering communities. Extended Abstracts of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2021, 1–6.

8. Wallace, B.A. Introduction: Buddhism and science—Breaking down the barriers. In Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground. Columbia Univ. Press, 2003, 1–30.

9. Mah, K., Loke, L., and Hespanhol, L. Toward a contemplative research framework for training self-observation in HCI: A study of compassion cultivation. ACM Trans. on Computer-Human Interaction 28, 6 (2021), 1–27.

back to top  Authors

Khushnood Naqshbandi is a human-computer interaction researcher specializing in human-centered design and computing. Her research examines the design of technology for digitally enabled prosocial behavior with a focus on digital volunteerism, and the various technological, social, and psychological considerations that factor into the engagement and well-being of digital volunteers. [email protected]

Kristina Mah is an artist and design researcher at the Design Lab at the University of Sydney. Situated at the intersection of philosophy, science, art, and design, her work is motivated by concepts grounded in contemplative wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism, and translated through digital multimedia, installation art, and interaction design. [email protected]

Naseem Ahmadpour is a senior lecturer in human-computer interaction and director of the Affective Interactions Lab at the University of Sydney. She studies democratic ways to design interactive technologies that provide meaningful human experiences. [email protected]

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