By Heidi Campbell
HOW THE INTERNET CAN SERVE DUAL-IDENTITY RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
A recent study of young British Sikhs shows that while they may be digitally savvy and engage with religion on the Internet, for many of them, traditional offline community and authorities continue to play a central role.
While many scholars argue that online environments may lead to the rise of new religious authorities, a new study conducted at the University of Leeds shows that for young British Sikhs, online interactions may not always alter religious beliefs and practices.
“Much of the influence of the internet appeared to depend on the prior affiliations of young religious users and what they brought with them from the offline,” says study author Jasjit Singh, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds.
If a young Internet user, for example, is already affiliated with a specific religious Sikh group, the Internet can help reinforce existing ideas about religious tradition and authority. Sikhs in the study identified themselves as 18 to 30 years of age.
“If you are unafﬁliated and begin to engage with tradition online, the Internet affords a ‘safe’ space for exploring tradition on your own terms,” reports Singh.
The young British Sikhs in this study used the Internet in unique ways, such as discussing taboo subjects, exploring diverse ideologies within the Sikh tradition, accessing religious music and discourse, learning of Sikh events, purchasing Sikh resources, and discovering the legal position of Sikh articles of faith.
Although the Internet has often been described as the technological advance that changed the world, the study found that little has changed for some Sikhs. The Internet allows young Sikhs to explore and engage with traditional religion. Yet, when young Sikhs “check” information found online, they often continue citing ofﬂine elders or authorities.
However, the Internet does appear to affect some traditional religious structures; young Sikhs can now bypass these to mobilize on issues they feel are important.
“There is some influence on religious ideology, as practices such as Kundalini yoga, which previously were not very well known, have their profile raised through the online environment,” Singh said.
This study also observed that the Internet may affect how young Sikhs read religious texts, because online translation software enables them to engage with these texts in ways their parents would never have been able to.
Overall, the study shows that although the Internet has become a new resource for religious learning and interaction, it does not appear to be replacing the role and value of face-to-face interactions with hierarchical religious authorities.