Authors: Derek L. Hansen, Amanda L. Hughes, Xinru Page
Posted: Thu, August 04, 2022 - 3:16:00
Religious beliefs have a profound influence on billions of people across the globe, affecting nearly every aspect of their lives, including the use of technology. While there is a continuous rise in atheism, the majority of people in many countries still believe in a deity, self-identify with a religion, and regularly participate in religious practices such as prayer. For example, in the U.S., 69 percent self-identify with a religion, 66 percent consider religion very important (41 percent) or somewhat important (25 percent) to their life, and 67 percent pray daily (45 percent) or weekly/monthly (22 percent) . For many people, religious beliefs and teachings frame every aspect of their life, influencing behaviors related to diet, social relationships, dress and grooming, sexual practices, mourning for the dead, raising children, and financial decisions, among others.
It is no surprise, then, that religions have much to say about the use of technologies, such as the Internet, social media, and mobile phones. Yet design guidance is mostly absent on how to design technology in ways that support various religious values and beliefs. While philosophers, sociologists, and humanities scholars have studied the intersection of technology and religion, relatively few studies have examined religion and technology from a design and HCI perspective . This is unfortunate, since religious traditions often seek to transform the lives of their adherents and the world for the better. Such inclinations can be highly compatible with core HCI values, which often focus on the betterment of the world through the novel use of technology.
Few HCI researchers make time to look through the lens of religious teachings at the technologies that surround us . Thus, we don’t fully appreciate basic questions related to religious teachings and technology. How central a role does technology play in religious teachings? What stances do religions take on the appropriate or inappropriate use of technologies? How do religions frame the discussion around technology, given that many of their teachings are based on ancient texts written by those with vastly different technologies? What role does religious doctrine play in informing religious practice around technologies? How do these answers differ for different religious traditions?
Religious values are integral to many people’s lives and should be considered a key value for the HCI community to integrate into technology design. All physical and digital artifacts convey and enforce certain values, whether they are purposefully designed to do so or not. Thus, value clashes can occur when the affordances of the technology are not aligned with the values of the system’s users. In fact, a system that is designed from the perspective of one group may impose the values of that group on other target users of the system. For example, the idea that a mobile phone is attached to one individual and thus a unique phone number can be required for each person’s account setup for an online service may be a fair assumption in many contexts. However, it causes issues for countries, settings, or religious contexts where a mobile phone is a shared object between a married couple, family, or even extended community, creating an account setup roadblock for anyone who does not have their own phone number. Technology infrastructures meant to support people with many different values should account for this diversity of values and validate assumptions about its users.
A very limited number of HCI studies have investigated how technology practices complement or hinder religious practices via empirical studies (we expand on a number of these in the next section). Existing HCI research has also focused on understanding how religious practices can inform design in nonreligious contexts. For example, several studies apply strategies employed by religious organizations to enhance commitment, build community, and/or motivate behavior change in nonreligious organizations. Ames et al. explored how religious ideological practices can serve as a useful lens in understanding how nonreligious engineering and design organizations affirm membership and a shared vision . Similarly, Amy Jo Kim discusses the use of rituals (a concept inspired by religions) in building commitment to online communities .
While this prior work gives us initial insights into the interplay of religiosity and technology in practice, there is an element that is missing and yet key to understanding values we might aspire to incorporate into our technologies. While studying how people use technologies in practice gives us a descriptive understanding, there is also a prescriptive element of religion that is vital to understand. In many religions, there are a set of values that believers aspire to, and they hope to engage in practices that reflect those core values. Thus, we need to not only understand how technologies are used in practice, but also the guiding principles that a given population might be influenced by or aspire to. This also helps us to identify new opportunities for supporting religiosity.
How religious doctrine and teachings can inform design
Many religions provide specific prescriptive guidance to their adherents on the use of social media, the Internet, or other modern-day technologies that are of interest to the HCI community. Such guidance is often based upon doctrines, or the foundational beliefs, principles, and teachings of a religion. These come in the form of ancient scriptural texts, commentaries, sermons, pronouncements by religious leaders, official publications of religious organizations (e.g., magazines), and a variety of other resources. While it is tempting to consider only the practical, prescriptive advice about technology use given to members of a religion, it is essential to also understand the religious doctrines and teachings that underly such advice. Designers can benefit in several ways from learning the core doctrinal beliefs of a religion in order to better design for its members.
First, doctrines can inspire the use of religious metaphors that tap into believers’ deepest spiritual desires and insights. For example, Pope Francis used the metaphor from St. Paul’s teachings in the New Testament that views Christians as “members of the one body whose head is Christ” when discussing the importance of using social media to build up others and not tear them down . This metaphor stresses the value of a community (i.e., a body) having different body parts (e.g., eyes, ears, legs, hands), each of which serves a different purpose for the benefit of the whole. By invoking this metaphor, the Pope encourages Catholics to see the Church as “a network woven together by Eucharistic communion [a central Catholic ritual, where unity is based not on ‘likes,’ but on the truth, on the ‘Amen,’ by which each one clings to the Body of Christ, and welcomes others.” Religious metaphors can summon strong emotions and spiritual insights in believers, providing motivation to use technology in certain ways (e.g., being kind in online discourse).
Second, understanding religious doctrine and teachings can help designers solve problems and achieve goals that are religious in nature. For example, Woodruff et al. studied the home automation practices of American Orthodox Jewish families . Jewish laws generally prohibit manually turning electronic devices off or on during the Sabbath. These families had long designed and automated systems within their home that would perform mundane tasks (e.g., turning lights on/off with timers or sensors) to abide by this law. Without a deep understanding of Jewish teachings and practices, designing to meet their needs would not be feasible. Another example comes from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose doctrine encourages members to be eternally “sealed” (i.e., connected) to their family, including deceased ancestors through vicarious ordinances performed in their Temples. This focus has led them to invest significant resources in developing genealogical tools that help members identify their ancestors, such as FamilySearch, which has a collaboratively generated family tree with over 1.38 billion names and had over 200 million site visits in 2021. Additional tools allow church members to track and manage the vicarious work that members perform in the Temples. Thus, an understanding of the core doctrines related to Temple work has been essential to the development of unique tools that support such work.
Third, understanding religious teachings can help designers modify existing technologies to better meet the needs of believers. For example, HCI researchers have recognized that technologies supporting financial services within Muslim communities must work within a religious framework where charging interest is forbidden . Thus, micro-lending websites that rely on interest must be modified in fundamental ways to be viable solutions in Muslim communities. Many religions have their own dating sites, helping people find singles with a similar religious background. In some cases, these include specific features that differ from general dating websites. For example, Shaadi is a popular Hindi “matrimonial” website with 35 million users that focuses on finding a spouse rather than hookups.
Finally, understanding religious doctrines can help designers identify core values that can then be used to design solutions that are in harmony with and reflect a believer’s core beliefs. Susan Wyche and Rebecca Grinter  examined how American Protestant Christians use ICT in their home for religious purposes. Their findings suggest many opportunities for designing systems that acknowledge, honor, and support religious values in a domestic setting, such as creating digital calendars and displays that recognize and change their content based on significant religious holidays or milestones. In 2005, an Israeli wireless company launched a mobile phone specifically designed for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel . The phones were modified to disable Internet, text messaging, and video and voice messaging, after religious authorities and community members became concerned that these services could infiltrate the community with unacceptable content.
There are many open questions about how to best use religious doctrines and teachings in design. How can design methods be modified to incorporate and prioritize religious teachings? How can products be evaluated based on religious teachings? How can technology help achieve uniquely religious goals, for which technology has not historically been used? How can systems be designed that meet the needs of diverse religious groups, given their different teachings? What values can be derived from religious teachings that can be incorporated into design?
In asking these questions that seek to understand the prescriptive aspect of religious values in the context of technology use, we can better understand which values people may want represented in technologies. We also hope that this work will serve as a call to action for the HCI community to engage more holistically with religious values. A set of values that are such an integral part of so many peoples’ lives should be acknowledged and given priority; HCI should support people’s priorities and values. We call on the HCI community to take steps toward understanding the interplay of religious values and technology to be able to create truly value-sensitive technologies.
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Derek L. Hansen
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