Posted by admin on Dec 4, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

NOTE: This thesis is quoted from "CyberPilgrims - Spiritual Identity in Cyberspace", posted on Because I have a keen interest in this theis on cyberspace and spirituality, I am posting part of the original text. Later I am planning to translate this into Korean, so please keep a enduring eye on this posting.

Cyberpilgrims : Introduction

Pope Benedict at World Youth Day near Cologne. Photo: AFP
Pope Benedictus XVI will be sending daily text
messages to the masses gathered at the World Youth Days taking
place July 2008 in Sydney, Australia. According to the Sydney
assistant Bishop Anthony Colin Fisher, this is a way to reach the
youth with inspiring messages. Moreover, the Australian church
will erect digital prayer walls and set up a digital social
network. It seems like the Roman Catholic Church is trying to be
relevant in a multimedia age where traditional churches have
difficulty connecting with the younger generation.
The religious framework shaping the experience of birth, life
and death has disappeared for many individuals in Western Europe.
The demystification of nature by technology has left little room
for a cosmological worldview where a god steers all that is
happening in the world. This younger generation consists of many
seekers who are not sure what they believe exactly and what they
want to belong to. Going to the World Youth Days can be
considered to be a pilgrimage; a spiritual journey.
Promo-video for the World Youth Days
This spiritual journey not only takes place on the road to
Santiago de Compostela or at the World Youth Days; one of the
sources for spirituality and identity is cyberspace. The greatest
example of cyberspace is the Internet, a worldwide information
network. Other examples are virtual worlds like the immensely
popular computer game World of Warcraft or the simulation Second
Life. Although extensive research has been conducted into their
cultural and economic effects, the religious and spiritual
dimensions of new media have received considerably less attention
in the academic world.
One of the sources for spirituality and identity is cyberspace
In the last 20 years, computer-mediated communication
technologies have been integrated into every part of the public
and private lives of individuals, organizations and businesses.
Besides the increasing use of computer technology, the process of
individualism, secularization and social change also
characterizes Western society. These processes have had a large
impact on reflections concerning personal and social identity.
New information and communication technologies play a crucial
role in the transformation of identity. Cyberspace is the
fast-growing medium where technological, social-economic,
cultural and religious developments occur and are communicated.
Our age has been coined as ‘post-modern’ or ‘radical modern’. Two
of the central features of modernity are rationalization and
disenchantment. At the same time, esoteric literature, magic and
spiritual movements seem to be spreading everywhere.
I am interested in cyberspace, and the ‘virtual space’ as a
place for the construction of spirituality and identity. My key
question is:
How can cyberspace be a place where spirituality and
identity are to be constructed?
I have several reasons to pose this question. In the first
place, as I already argued, the relationship between spirituality
and cyberspace has received little attention, especially in the
sociology of religion field. In the popular debates about media,
a critical and well-balanced view is often missing. Advertisers
promote how much fun and easy electronic communication is, while
parents or politicians seem to overemphasize the bad influence of
‘the media’.
Before elaborating on how I will answer this question, I will
start by defining the concepts of cyberspace, spirituality and


“The self is not a passive entity determined by
external influences; in forging their self-identities, no matter
how local their specific context or action, individuals
contribute to and directly promote social influences that are
global in their consequences and implication.”
A stable narrative of the self needs spiritual reflection
The construction of a stable identity is not a matter of fact.
Identity originates from the Latin words idem, the same. Identity
refers to who we are to ourselves. But what is our identity, what
is our self? That is a philosophical, sociological and
psychological question. Is it in our bodies or in our minds? Paul
Ricoeur wrote a book Soi-même comme un autre, the self as
another. We are forced to think about our identity as if it were
another person that we need to know. Identity construction always
contains a spiritual dimension. The spiritual dimension, more
fully explained in this chapter, is the metaphysical framework
that gives meaning to life and the world. Identity and
spirituality are two concepts that have a lot in common. A stable
narrative of the self needs spiritual reflection. Who am I? Why
am I here and where am I going? According to Charles Taylor
(1989), the self is constructed using several sources. These
sources derive from elements such as culture, education,
ethnicity, race, sex, and so on. Taylor argues that there is no
autonomous self. This contradicts the romantic idea of an inner
self that has to be realized. The French sociologist
Hervieu-Léger invokes the image of the pilgrim as an
example of the individual on a spiritual quest. A spiritual quest
can be seen as a quest for the personal narrative. A popular
narrative of a spiritual quest is described in Paulo Coelho’s The
Alchemist, in which the main character broadens his horizons by
travels and experiences in distant countries. The following
passage shows how he portrays the construction of spiritual
“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether
it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear
evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the
history of the world were written by the same hand.”
The idea of the self as a spiritual identity is very present
in New Age thinking. In popular media including the Christian
ones, there is a lot of emphasis on becoming what you are, on
authenticity and self-realization. The autonomous
individual-subject, so important in modernity, is
To develop a stable identity, trust is crucial. In the
development of a child, the child fully and completely trusts his
or her parents. Later on, the child learns to think for him or
herself, supported by structures such as family, school, friends,
and church. Before the decline of institutions such as the church
and the traditional family, there were rites of passage such as
baptism, communion, graduation and marriage. These formal rites
have since lost their power as it is currently less common to
baptize or to marry. Tradition and habit are replaced by doubt
and reflexivity. The self has to be constructed by connecting
personal and social change. Forms of mediated experiences nurture
this reflexivity. The media play a central role in connecting
distant happenings, such as September 11, to our intimate life.
With the development of mass-communication, self-development and
global systems interact.
Books, magazines, television programs, movies and Internet
sites shape our view of the world as well as our identity. At the
moment the presentation of women and beauty is a hot topic. The
fact that many photo models are extremely thin while their
pictures are often enhanced by graphical software such as
Photoshop raises the question of how this affects our view of
femininity. People wonder to what extent a negative image of the
self, or worse, anorexic phenomena, are caused by this view of
femininity. Pro-anorexia websites encourage teenage girls to lose
weight, facilitating anorexia.
We are encouraged to think and reflect on everything we do.
The break away from traditional patterns and fixed social roles
has created a society where the status quo of authority,
knowledge and relationships is questioned. The freedom of choice,
study, religious identification, relationships and work presents
so many options that it is hard to choose. This freedom can
become a burden and lead to anxiety. My social category of
students is a good example. Students are expected to choose study
directions, courses, formulate opinions about their field and the
world around them while preparing for a future career. Besides
their studies, they experiment with relationships, responsibility
and part-time jobs. The variety of options causes stress,
especially when a clear framework in the form of religion, a
stable worldview, social network or a family is not available.
The self-identity becomes a reflexively organized endeavor. It
is, therefore, important to sustain a coherent personal
biographical narrative that we constantly need to revise.


In discussions on religion and identity, speaking about
religious identification is quite usual. Of course, religion can
become part of the identity as it is a social activity that
presumes contact with some transcendent reality while maintaining
morals and ethics. Cultural identity also appeals to a more or
less defined social context. But what exactly is spiritual
identity? To answer this question, we first need to consider the
word ‘spirituality’. It is a fashionable term nowadays yet the
content of this concept seems to differ in each context. The word
spirituality originates from the Latin spiritus meaning ‘spirit’,
the opposite of the material. In other words, spirituality is
concerned with making sense of things. The existential questions
about being in the world are part of it. People need to make
sense of life, and rituals are an expression of placing events
within a framework.
Spirituality is seen as a spiritual journey to make sense of life and seek the ‘inner self’
Spirituality in the Christian and Buddhist traditions is a
part of salvation and liberation. It can be liberation from a
distorted relationship with the divine or liberation from the
limitations and sufferings of daily life. Today, spirituality is
seen as a spiritual journey to make sense of life and seek the
‘inner self’. A very important part of spirituality is
experience. This experience, often mediated by meditation, is
perceived as communication between the self and the divine,
nature, or another holistic concept. The sociologist Stef Aupers
states that the secularization process and, at the same time, the
emergence of New Age thinking have created an increase in
interest for the spiritual side of identity. Aupers speaks about
the sacralization of the self. Adherents of New Age thinking use
traditional concepts to identify the spiritual core of a human
being. As stated earlier, they borrow the term ‘higher self’ from
theosophy, the ‘divine spark’ from the Gnostics and the ‘soul’
from Christianity. It creates a form of self-spirituality where
one aims for spiritual evolution, realization of the self or
personal growth. Self-realization and authenticity are not only
perceived as spiritual concepts. They are widely used in
self-help and self-therapy books or sessions. Anthony Giddens
argues that this is not a product unique to current Western
“‘Individuality’ has surely been valued – within
varying limits- in all cultures and so, in one sense or another,
has been the cultivation of individual potentialities.”
His emphasis on self-realization and authenticity is
persuasive because original structures and institutions are
losing their influence. The search for the self by continuous
reflection presumes, in many self-helps books, a narrative.
According to Mariasusai Dhavamony, an Indian Catholic
theologian, identifying with many religious and spiritual
traditions offers an excellent perspective on spirituality.
“It is true that all basic human spiritual
traditions are open, clear and direct expressions of the manner
in which humans have structured their personal and social life in
order to give it a higher, transcendent significance. In fact,
spirit, spiritual, spirituality can be described as the belief in
some reality in human beings and the universe beyond the physical
or material or biological which is related to the Supreme Reality
and which is required to explain and justify certain human
capacities, aspirations and ideals. It is that which explains,
validates and makes it possible for humans to rise beyond all
aspects of their physical material and selfish selves. It is
spiritual reality, which accounts for human self-transcendence
and world-transcendence. It is its relation to the Supreme
Reality, which is at the basis of human religious
Spirituality, according to Dhavamony, is a metaphysical
perspective that explains and justifies human capacities,
aspirations and ideals. This perspective is not necessarily a
personal God, but can also be a personal and subjective
conviction about reality. It can be holistic, rationalist, based
on experience or something else. In contrast to religion, it does
not have to be a social phenomenon. Its essence is based on the
structure that humans give to it. It is based on human religious
experience, or the lack thereof. William James describes
religious experiences as personal, inward experiences. Though
they may occur in social and religious contexts, the meaning
people give to it is ultimately personal.
Spiritual identity is based on a metaphysical perspective on
life and reality. It is composed of social, cultural and
religious sources that provide a framework for human capacities,
aspirations and ideals. Today, spirituality is not
institutionalized; it is open and fluid. There is a whole
spiritual marketplace from all kinds of traditions that provide
meaning, spirituality and authenticity to seekers and pilgrims.
Spiritual identity can therefore be constructed from a variety of
sources and provide each individual with a framework that they
can or attempt to live with. One of the platforms for this
spiritual marketplace can be cyberspace.


Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination
Cyberspace is a word that originates from the cyber-punk
writer William Gibson, who used it for the first time in his book
Neuromancer. Gibson describes cyberspace as the electronic realm
where millions of people are connected through computer
technology. The ‘cyber’ refers to the web of electronic
connections, clearly seen in the now common concept of the World
Wide Web. It is, therefore, not surprising that cyberspace is
often used as an equivalent for the Internet. The word cyberspace
is not limited to this medium, essentially all means of
communication mediated by computer networks can be called
cyberspace. Another word closely connected to cyberspace is
cybernetics, the science that describes the interaction between
human and machine. Well-known is Donna Haraways’s Cyborg
Manifesto, in which she explores the notions of the ‘cyborg’ as a
hybrid between human and machine.
The sociologist Stef Aupers states that there is an affinity
between cyberspace and Gnostic philosophy and esotery. Gnosis is
secret knowledge that claims to liberate mankind from the dungeon
of the body and unite mankind with the divine. Working in
cyberspace by programming code, surfing the Internet and walking
through virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life can
be so absorbing that the physical becomes unimportant. Computer
technology can become a means for immersion or flow in such a way
that the user is able to liberate himself from his or her
physical limitations and realize a new identity in cyberspace.
This, at least, is what writers like William Gibson and Timothy
Leary claim. A counter to this is found in the film Avalon
(Oshii, 2001), where immersion in virtual worlds leads to madness
and alienation from the ‘real’ world.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have developed a very
applicable framework that can be used to distinguish the
different forms of cyberspace, also known as ‘new media’. In
their book Remediation (2000), they argue that many media such as
books, films, and photos are all integrated in, for example, the
Internet. They call software such as internet browsers and its
different windows ‘hypermediality’. The ‘hyper’, refers to
hypertext defined as words, sounds and images that exist in the
hyper reality of computer-generated content. The windowed style
of media, where sound, text and images appear next to each other
is known as hypermedia. With several windows, we can switch from
one source to another. Bolter and Grusin connect virtuality such
as takes place in, for example, Second Life, with transparent
immediacy: the three- dimensional world is presented so directly
that the medium itself becomes invisible. I will apply this
framework of hypermediality later on, when I describe social
media such as Facebook or Youtube, and transparent immediacy when
I describe virtual worlds in Second Life, World of Warcraft, and
the film Avalon.


I have given the definitions of identity, spirituality and
cyberspace. Identity, and the construction of identity, refers to
the self that is constructed from several sources. Various media
do play an important role in the construction of and reflection
on identity. Spirituality is concerned with making sense of
things; some kind of meta-physical framework on the self, life,
and the world. Cyberspace relates to the network of electronic
communication, illustrated most clearly by the Internet.
In discussions concerning religion and identity, speaking
about religious identification is quite common. Religion can
clearly become part of the identity because it is social,
presumes contact with some transcendent reality, and contains
morals and ethics. Culture and ethnicity also appeal to a more or
less defined social context. Spirituality, however, seems to
refer to a personal conviction about making sense of things.
Danièle Hervieu-Léger uses the metaphor of the
pilgrim to describe the search for identity and spirituality.
While the pilgrim seems to shape his own spiritual narrative and
thus his identity, there is also a dimension of ‘play’ to
identity. As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described in his
book Homo Ludens (1938), a great deal of social interaction is
based on play, where the rules are arbitrary and socially
constructed. It goes even further when play becomes a game
limited by borders of time and place. Play becomes a part of the
construction of identity when the player identifies the rules and
practices of the game.
In order to answer the question how we can create a spiritual
identity in cyberspace, I will use an interdisciplinary approach.
I use perspectives from sociology, sociology of religion, media
studies, philosophy of culture and anthropology when I discuss
the following subjects:
  • In the chapter

  • ‘The Pilgrim’, I will focus on the spiritual
    journey and the changing religious landscape in which this
    occurs. The metaphor of the pilgrim illustrates the search for
    spirituality and the role of religion. Moreover, I will cover the
    changes that occurred in traditional religion and the emergence
    of New Age thinking with its sacralization of the self.

My sociological framework draws heavily on Hervieu-Léger
and I will also deal with Davie (1994), Taylor (2007), Aupers
(2004). In the description of the phenomenon of New Age, I use
Heelas (1996), Hanegraaf (1996).
  • In the chapter 'Spirituality in a technological mediated
    , I discuss the relationship between spirituality and
    technology. Spirituality and identity are constructions of
    culture. But how is it possible to experience spirituality in a
    technologically mediated environment? Is virtual reality causing
    a new enchantment or a source of alienation? I will try to answer
    this question using the work of Dagonet (1990) on nature,
    Heidegger (1962), and Henry (1987) on technology. I will use
    Oshii's film Avalon (1999) as an illustration of virtual reality.
    Aupers (2004), De Mul (2002), Heim (2003) will be used for this
    framework of virtual reality.
  • In the chapter 'Media, Religion, Culture and Spirituality', I
    will discuss the role of the media (from 'old' to 'new') in the
    construction of identity and spirituality. Besides, I will focus
    on the relationship between media and religion using Brown
    (2001), Hoover (2006). Because audiovisual media, especially
    television, and its effect on the audience have been extensively
    debated, I will give a short overview of the most important
    positions using Kline, Dyer-Whiteford et al. (2003). Finally, I
    will finish by describing the role of cyberspace in the
    construction of identity and the search for spirituality.
  • In the chapter 'Under construction: Cyberspace and Identity',
    I will show how cyberspace can play a role in the construction of
    identity. I will distinguish between cyberspace as a place for
    experimentation using Turkle (1996), Turner (1982) and,
    cyberspace as a social network using Lövheim and Linderman
    (2005). Special attention will be paid to the role of religious
    social networks.
  • In the chapter

    'Spiritual Identification in Virtual Worlds'
    the largest chapter, I will apply narrative frameworks of Ricoeur
    (1983)and ludic frameworks of Huizinga (1951), Turner (1982), De
    Mul (2005) on spirituality and identity. I will argue why the
    apparent illusions of play in virtual worlds are so important for
    spirituality using Van Baal (1972). I will apply these frameworks
    to the computer game World of Warcraft and Avilion, a world in
    Second Life. What could be the motivations to live in a virtual
    fantasy world? In the two virtual fantasy worlds it is possible
    to create a virtual identity. People can construct a cyber-self
    and play with it. I will try to illustrate the interaction
    between the construction of a coherent narrative self and the
    playing with identity. This construction of identity will
    ultimately be connected with the idea of the sacralization of the
  • In the Conclusion, I will summarize and synthesize the
    different perspectives on the creation of a spiritual identity,
    and show how cyber pilgrims can construct their spiritual journey
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