Technology and Spirituality
Religion, Ritual, and the Body
So: rituals are indexes. Words are merely symbols. But modern digital communication is almost completely dependent on symbols.
This is making people unable to understand ritual, or even the very idea of ritual.
Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.
This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can't see each other; others can't see us. There's no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.
Of course, symbolic communication is tightly focused and excellent for abstract reasoning. But it's also inefficient; words are less informationally dense than rituals. And they can't solve the problem of investment—how to tell whether people really stand by their claims.
Religion and ritual, then, are fundamental tools for visibly expressing commitments, for tangibly engaging with the things we value. In a world where communication is increasingly digital and abstract, it's no wonder that many people see religion as absurdly backward. Tangled in words, we're rapidly forgetting how to understand ritual. As long as technology supersedes embodied life, this feedback cycle will probably continue.
Connor Wood is a Ph.D. student at Boston University in religion and science. His research interests include religion and health, evolutionary science, public theology, and comparative religious inquiry. He has lectured and presented on Korean shamanism, the history of physiology, vitalism, and spirituality and health at Boston University, Tufts University, and for the American Academy of Religion.