XXIX.4 July - August 2022
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Technology and its tree-lined avenues for religion-based tribalism

Joyojeet Pal

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I don't believe there is a God. When born, I was listed as Hindu since birth certificates required that as a permanent marker of my marital, inheritance, and taxation rights in India. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable in the religious traditions I grew up around, much as I have never been an active participant in ritual or attended a place of worship. In general, I tend to prefer the term religion, to avoid both the reification that comes with the notion of "faith" and its restriction to the inner life of the believer, but also because the collective nature of religious practice is central to how I see it practiced in social settings. However, I also do not define religion; that is an inherently complex and political enterprise. The definition of religion is a discursive and evolving exercise.

back to top  Insights

The theoretical possibilities of technologies cannot be separated from the social realities of how they are used.
The dominant articulation of religion online is not through the prism of individual faith, but rather through performative expression of homophily.
This drives tribal and chauvinistic instincts, helping further divide an already polarized world.

My second disclosure is that I believe there is no technology without the social; that is my point of departure with this piece. Yes, there are mindfulness apps, and Radiohead songs, but much of what is central to our daily experience of technology is social. I study social media, so my take on religion is centrally about its intersection with the communal, and by extension, the performance of the self as communal. Ergo, I have an angle here. Arguably, academic positions on religion are probably no less prone to doctrine than thoughtful, well-articulated papers on the joys of open-source software, the strategic needs of the nation-state of your choice, or just about any argument in economics. Presenting the tenets or positions of one's faith to a community of insiders and outsiders requires a selection process, in much the same way as framed photographs require curation. I argue that propositions on the positive aspects of religion cherry-pick on two fronts: First, they attribute to religion the good done by indivvidual actors, just as they offer the contrast of evil done by nonbelievers. Second, they present hermeneutical traditions that allow for discursive interpretation as being at the heart of what it means to be a follower. I argue that, at least in its online manifestation, the epistemological traditions of religion, as well as notions of the autonomy of the believer as a subject, are subserviated to the function of identity creation.

A tenet of cross-cultural engagement, including the engagement we see in this series of articles on religion, relies on a predisposition for omnism, which focuses on the positive facets of one faith, including charity, discourse, truth, brotherhood, and the notion of an individual relationship with a benevolent God, rather than fundamentalism, which focuses exceedingly on absolute truths, and where plurality of belief is nested within a hierarchy. These arguments typically forgo the equivalence of God's creations; it is paramount for most religion that it is predicated on the supremacy or chosenness of that social collective over all others.


I recognize that there is a body of work that powerfully argues that notions of secular living are predicated on Orientalist lines, or limited constructions of contractualist traditions that define the liberal nation-state as one in which belief is a private matter, which in and of itself predetermines what it means to coinhabit what a religious practice should be. However, I argue that the affordances of social media empower the instinct in religion to speak to its outer or social states, rather than its inner states of unmediated exchange with God. At the heart of my claim is that religion online is indistinguishable from organized religion, since the way canonical ideals play out in the real world are necessarily both performative and affective.

I see religion through the prism of the same exceptionalism that allows every national anthem to tell its people they are the best. At the same time, people from across national boundaries can coexist, thrive, and constantly learn from one another. But nations rarely tell you to join them. Once a people from a nation-state are done claiming their tribe is superior, that is the end, in and of itself. So whereas religion may allow for facets of community (belonging), practice (behaving), and faith (believing), the communal nature alongside the narcissistic reward structure of social media optimize for the tribal instinct of belonging. It is this belonging that defines the latter two within its ambit.

back to top  Tribalism

In opposition to notions like globalism or secularism, tribalism refers to a feeling of identity based on in-group loyalty and homophily. There are two reasons tribalism is fundamental to any conversation on religion and technology. The first relates to exclusion, which can be on the basis of identities that define the fault lines of multicultural societies; in the North American context, this may mean a coming together of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism as mainstream with the exclusion of others [1]. Here, tribalism is enacted based on what is left out of the thus-defined mainstream collective. Much recent work has shown organized religion's role in growing political tribalism around the world, strengthened by polarized virtual spaces [2].

Tribalism may also be subdivided into an infinite number of shifting and competing identities online based on persuasion at a given time. Orthodox Jewish could see themselves as a separate, even oppositional group to Reform Jewish in the same way that Shias may distinguish themselves from Sunnis, Brahmins from Dalits, and so on. Social media allows means for such identities to find community. This has value for those to whom being online is a means of finding community and companionship, a means of discoursing on or practicing religion, and several other benefits social media may enable.

People identifying as part of the same religion will not always agree that their coreligionists, or indeed they themselves, act in ways canonically or fundamentally defined by that faith. This is especially true for traditions without a "book" of core and agreed-upon principles. While the immaculacy of homophily itself may be a moving target from value to value, exclusion is easier. We may not agree on who is a Hindu, Christian, or Jew, but we agree on who is most definitely not. And when we need to point that out strategically, technology has given us uniquely powerful ways to do so.

Caring for one's copassengers is a virtue mainly when one can't pick them. The history of loving one's neighbors in much of the world is circumscribed within the exigencies of keeping someone from becoming one's neighbor, even within liberal states where belief is noted as a private exercise. The means can be legal, such as exclusionary property covenants in the U.S.; cultural, such as caste-defined neighborhoods in India; or economic, such as rent-based exclusion. The Christians keeping out Jews in the first half of the 20th century in the U.S. were regular churchgoers, just as the Brahmins excluding Muslim renters in India today under the guise of vegetarianism would claim to maintain the purity of their religious practice.

To claim that technology in general, or social media in particular, as a space for exercising religious identity would move subscribers away from the tribalistic inclination rejects what we know from history, and, indeed, more immediately, what we know from the past decade of social media use. Subscription to any imagined community helps define someone outside that community as an "other." Is it possible to remind oneself of the core principles of benevolence and argumentation when one is sold on the real or imagined idea of existential threat?

back to top  Modernity, God, and the Enlightened Commentator

Discourse—including listening to some form of a priest or community leader offer a sermon or interpretation—is at the heart of most religious practice. However, it is also here that the polemics and oratorials of the leaders of that practice play an outsized role in defining the limits of that discourse. The inner state of argumentation, for the individual believer, is contoured by the extant norms of the community—whether defined by its leaders or its colloquial practice. Does technology allow deviance from this immanently majoritarian instinct?

It is important a priori to critically examine what is being presented as a desirable social ethic. Religion does not align with morality or criminality [3]; religiosity corresponds to attempts to corner institutions for means that suit the majority [4], and studies generally agree it is social capital (which ironically is fortified endogenously in religious groups) that most aligns with both reduced propensity to commit crime as well as success in society. Given these, what do we, as a group of academics, neither trained in theology or polemics, offer as a framework for thinking about religion and technology?

Contrary to the popular assumption that the majority of professors are atheists, university faculty, while lower in religiosity than the average citizen, are majority believers, and much more likely to profess faith than subscribe to agnostic or atheist positions [5]. So we are part of a system whose prerogative is to welcome the capital of those who do not share the same beliefs dominant in our institutions. The embrace of secularism offers a cache of legitimacy, as summarized by Storm Bailey, speaking for the values of religion-affiliated higher education: "We think or speak of schools as being pretty good academically in spite of their church or religious affiliation" [6]. The notion of truth seeking, so fundamental to many religious traditions around the world, cannot be predicated on the predefinition of certain truths in environments where embracing this diversity is necessary for the financial sustainability of the system.

So is the university system, or a set of academics from it, who are probably less axiomatic on religion than the average person, likely to have the legitimacy to speak for a people? What we have here may also be a foundational disadvantage of interdisciplinary fields, where the voice thus heard is restricted to that which can translate for the community of practice, here that being HCI. This article should really have been written by a Hindu priest or at least a theologian, but instead, I was the one available. Nobody, outside of a subset of academics, cares to hear what a group of academics think is relevant or recommended as behavior vis-à-vis religion. And those academics already have the social capital and access to discursive tradition that we aim to sell here.

back to top  Hindu Religion and Social Technology

The Hindu religion has a complex relationship with technology, modernity, and by extension, with its most recent avatar, social media. Although religious practice has had a generally positive dispensation to science, given that it was restricted as a vocation to the highest-ranked members of society—Brahmins—there were also traditional strictures that aimed to carefully guard access to knowledge. Various acts of engaging with people outside of one's own such as Samudra Langhana, or crossing the seas, would negate a person's varna status (caste, simplified) among Hindus [7]. Essentially, the goal of religious structures has traditionally been to regulate and restrict access to knowledge and technology rather than make it equitable.

The Samudra Langhana is a defining characteristic of Indian aspiration in the modern, technology-driven economy. The Hindu who crossed the seas gained access to the technology jobs and the knowledge, wealth, and status that came with them. It was also true that this community of Hindus who crossed the seas weren't those at the bottom of the caste ladder, unless they were moved as bonded laborers or, more recently, economic migrants. An overwhelming majority of Indians who have made it in the technology economy are not only upper caste but also elites within that. Paradoxically, while a disengagement with scriptural proposition may have served as an enabler for that access to foreign lands, it is this religious identity of upper-caste Hindus that has consolidated its dominance on Indian society, in part through its early monopolization of online worlds. It is also this demographic that is frequently credited with sowing the seeds of a technology- and social-media-driven polarization on religious lines that has come to define contemporary India [8].

As with other religious groups, online spaces have served as a means for Hindu religious practice as well as the declaration and consolidation of identity. Online spaces, starting with electronic bulletin boards and blogs, but especially with the advent of social media, have served much the same purpose for Hindus as they have for other communities: providing a space for building communities, for doctrinal discussion, for religious education, and for expressing personal faith.

These communities of expatriate technology workers were among the earliest to systematically champion the divisive politics of Hindutva (a notion of society based on Hindu values) and they contributed to the Hindu right holding the vanguard in weaponizing social media as an electoral tool, well before it was a hegemonic power in Indian politics [9]. Indeed, the use of technology helped the religious right move away from an association with reactionary social dominance and instead base its superior position in the caste hierarchy on a global, Internet-savvy political movement [10]. These virtual movements intersected with mainstream media early, and focused on the notion of Hinduism as a community of joint action against a political other—be it the secular political establishment of the time, or more recently, Muslims [11].

The years since, if anything, have been a spiral of divisiveness based on religion in ways never seen before, and multiple studies have shown that technology and social media have been central drivers of these movements. While, in theory, social media can be used for the individual, meditative aspects of religious practice, its overwhelmingly larger footprint is in its deleterious effects on polarization, and it is impossible to ignore that this polarization is happening along the tribally defined lines of who is in and who is out. Today, groups defined by religion can and regularly do engage in hate speech targeted toward other religions, egged on by politicians and groups that would never have the kind of access to disruptive broadcast speech were it not for social media. For Hindus opposed to this increasingly dominant worldview, the challenge of being on social media is drowning in cacophonies of hate or competitive reinforcement, or preparing themselves for aggressive confrontation when presenting contrarian positions. These consequences of religion-based tribalism are not theoretical anymore; people are killed because of religion-based polarization online. We cannot ask the targets of such speech to be reflective and ignore the calls for their blood in favor of a meditative engagement; instead, we need to acknowledge as our starting point that religion has been weaponized, and nothing in our history has allowed this to be done with as much effectiveness as social media.

back to top  Conclusion

Most religious texts are products of patriarchy, and of a very specific time period. While the foundational tenet of detachment from worldly concerns may cut across ages, you would make for quite an ironic Buddhist if you were attached to the number of followers you have on Instagram. Most epistemological positions on sexuality or morality derived from religious orthodoxy would likely inspire a few equivalents of the Catholic Hail Mary for engaging with much of the content we see online. But we as a society choose not to legislate away most online content that would be anathema to strict interpretations of morality, at least on a spectrum, not only because capital is an adequately powerful God but also because allowing one tribe's definition of propriety is at best mildly offensive to some, and possibly catastrophic to others.

That religion is spotty in providing any differential effect on morality should be an important lesson. Faith, or the idea that authenticity in religious practice relies on agency, should be disaggregated from the fact that religion is articulated as a coercive force that gains its momentum in numbers and organization. Individual morality, in whatever meditative form it takes between the participant and the entity, does not have to be restricted to people of a group based on faith—if anything, it ought to be better suited to the rejection of tribalism.

People of a tribe will attack those of another, irrespective of whether the nature or object of attack is discouraged by thoughtful reading of what makes it a tribe. The gauge thus is not the tenets of the tribe, but rather what allows it to successfully be a tribe online. We must give up claims that religion as personal is somehow different from religion as communal when it, like technology itself, is necessarily communal, political, and geopolitical. Assertions that religious practice can be disengaged from our virtual collective lives assumes that what has already failed in our collective experience of the public sphere will work in a new idealistic regime of civility and mindfulness.

There are monasteries for a reason, and there are self-help books for another.

back to top  References

1. Putnam, R.D. and Campbell, D.E. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012.

2. Lajevardi, N. and Abrajano, M. How negative sentiment toward Muslim Americans predicts support for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The Journal of Politics 81, 1 (2019), 296–302.

3. Duriez, B. and Soenens, B. Religiosity, moral attitudes and moral competence: A critical investigation of the religiosity-morality relation. International Journal of Behavioral Development 30, 1 (2006), 76–83.

4. Hunter, J.D. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America. Avalon Publishing, 1992.

5. Gross N. and Simmons, S. The social and political views of American professors. Harvard University Symposium on Professors and Their Politics. 2007, 41

6. Bailey, S. Uneasy partners? Religion and academics. Intersections 2001, 11 (2001), 6.

7. Olivelle, P. Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha. Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.

8. Rai, A.S. India on-line: Electronic bulletin boards and the construction of a diasporic Hindu identity. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 4, 1 (1995), 31–57.

9. Robinson, R. Religion on the net: An analysis of the global reach of Hindu fundamentalism and its implications for India. Sociological Bulletin 50, 2 (2001), 212—221.

10. Therwath, I. Cyber-hindutva: Hindu nationalism, the diaspora and the Web. Social Science Information 51, 4 (2012), 551—577.

11. Rajagopal, A. Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001.

back to top  Author

Joyojeet Pal is an associate professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. [email protected]

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Copyright held by author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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