Spiritual Technology: The interface between religion and tech

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It was Monday morning and Sigal Samuel was sitting down to meditate, a common practice for the Vox reporter and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast.

The difference this time? Samuel was using a neurofeedback headband to help her muse and meditate. Samuel wrote:

Gently squeezing my forehead was a high-tech meditation headset, outfitted with sensors that would read my brain waves to tell me when I was calm and when I was, well, me. Beside me, my phone was running an app that paired over Bluetooth with the headset. It would give me audio feedback on my brain’s performance in real time, then score me with points and awards.

Samuel was using the Muse headband, a brain-sensing device that provides real-time neurofeedback during meditation sessions.

It is one of many technological innovations promising to trigger, enhance, accelerate, modify, or measure spiritual experiences and deliver more peace and progress in the process.

From brain stimulation to synthetic psychedelics, new spiritual movements in Silicon Valley to the everyday ways technology is used in worship and devotion technology is changing the way we do religion.

This is what researchers Kate Stockly and Wesley Wildman of Boston University’s Center for Mind and Culture call “spirit tech.”

Not only do they believe “spirit tech” is here to stay, they also suggest it has the potential to heal our relationship with technology and radically alter the way we think and pray.

What are “spiritual technologies?

From shells used to scoop and splash water on the baptized to a murti — or statue — embodying the divine, from meditation sessions in the mountains to the use of psychedelics to reach higher levels of consciousness, spiritual practitioners have been using “technologies” of various kinds to attain states of bliss, purity, wisdom, or immortality for ages.

This is what scholars of religion often call “spiritual technologies” – practices believed to enhance a person’s religious devotion or identification.

Although texts and traditions, dogmas and doctrines may immediately spring to mind when we think “religion,” the language around “spiritual technologies” reminds us that our beliefs are deeply influenced by, and connected to, the physical world around us.

It is not only our habits that shape us, but our habitats. Any “thing,” or “stuff,” – from clothes to books, food to relationships – make us who we are and determine, in large part, what we believe.

Moreover, from a religious studies point of view, it has become more commonplace to assert that while we cannot access the internal, psychic, emotional, or symbolic worlds of religious adherents and practitioners, what we can observe, study, and measure are the material, political, and social contexts that shape them.

Across time, various forms of technology – including everything from papyrus to the printing press – have drastically altered what people believe and how religion is done.

For example, writing has long been a central aspect of the spread of information and played a crucial role in the development of religious doctrine, the dissemination of the message, and the dynamics of communities. The invention of paper boosted Islamic societies in the early Middle Ages and later, the invention of the printing press handed Protestants a crucial advantage in sparking a reformation in European Christianity.

The age of techno-religion

Just as writing, the evolution of paper, and printing have changed the course of religious history, so too digital technologies are changing the way we think about and do religion today.

In many ways, this is in keeping with the intertwined history of tech and religion.

But what’s new about “spirit tech” today, say Wildman and Stockly, is how a range of spiritual entrepreneurs and tech-savvy religious practitioners are using “brain-based tech” to “hack the spiritual brain” and harness cutting edge scientific knowledge for spiritual purposes.

That brings us back to things like the Muse headband. Pitched as an “innovation in mindfulness,” the idea is to harness neurotechnology to “optimize the machine that is you.”

The headband is far from alone in attempts to augment devotion, transform worship, or fundamentally alter the way we think about religion. There are developers using ultrasound beams for fast-tracking attempts at enlightenment to churches launching in the “Metaverse,” Christian NFTs and online dating apps tailor-made for Orthodox Jews’ and conservative Muslims’ needs. Each is an attempt to offer bespoke, efficient, and technologically advanced engagements with sacred stuff.

Can we harness “spirit tech” for good?

The question many are asking is whether digital technology is transforming spiritual experiences for the better or cheapening them in the process.

As Samuel wondered when she tried out Muse, “Isn’t there something self-defeating and contradictory about trying to optimize meditation by making it all about achieving success in a gamified app?

Stockly said she understands and appreciates such concerns. “I identify with a certain level of doubt,” she told Publisher’s Weekly, “it’s an appropriate reaction—one that I shared at the beginning of the research.”

Nonetheless, she said that while skepticism is valid, she is simultaneously compelled by spirit tech and its potential to not only improve religious practice, but the world.

“This isn’t about peak performance or just playing around,” Stockly said, “there’s an authentic interest in exploring ways to heal our relationship with technology.

“Technology is here to stay; we might as well try to harness it for good.”

“Spirit tech” will transform religion

One thing is certain: spirit tech will transform religion. At the same time, the technologies themselves will be, at least in part, shaped by how religious actors use, abuse, or muse with them.

Humans have always used technologies of various kinds to express, augment, or extend their religious practice and beliefs. It turns out, however, as new as things like the Muse headband or Metaverse church may seem, they are in keeping with a long line of spiritual technologies that have shaped, and been shaped by, religious practice.

For students of religion, our task is to trace the contours of their development in real time and not immediately react with fear or uncritical fascination. Instead, we should see these technologies for what they are, one more way that humans seek to shape how they relate to stuff they consider sacred – whether that be a person, place, thing, ourselves, or the technologies we increasingly surround ourselves with every day.

Further Reading:

• Article, “God in the Brain: Publishers Weekly Talks with Kate J. Stockly.”

• Article, “Spiritual technologies: Exploring the intersections between religion and modern tech.”

• Book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley.

12/7/2022 10:02:16 PM
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  • Ken Chitwood
    About Ken Chitwood
    Ken Chitwood is a religion nerd, writer and scholar of global Islam and American religion based in Germany. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and numerous other publications. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow Ken on Twitter @kchitwood.