A Holy Influence: Understanding religious authority in hyperconnected times

The nature of digital connectivity is intensifying as the ‘Internet of Things’ of digital sensors, devices and applications become more tightly woven in our ‘smart’ homes, workplaces, neighborhoods and even our churches. More recently, pandemic conditions in the United States and worldwide have rendered remote learning and working arrangements a significant, if not principal mode of everyday life. As such, dependencies on mediated communication platforms and infrastructures have for many, increased multifold.

For years, church life and many spiritually oriented practices have been facilitated by the use of new media technologies, including digital media. Yet the pressure for religious leaders to adopt a larger suite of digital tools to advance virtual religious instruction and services has mounted in a Covid environment. Religious services and rituals have quickly been converted to online or ‘church at home’ formats. Beyond the usual facilitation of in-person gatherings, pastors, priests and rabbis are livestreaming temple services, leading virtual modes of spiritual care or creating hybrid church models. As religious leaders and officials are faced with new choices and challenges in their work, the pace of technological adoption and innovation seems to be outstripping capacity to reflect upon the broader implications of digital hyperconnectivity.

Correspondingly, the topic of authority is a shared concern, even a pressing one among religious communities. How are religious understandings of authority shaped by hopes and expectations about digital technologies? Can a virtually mediated cleric or online prophet exercise the same level of influence as if they were physically present in a congregation? Do digital media reproduce prevailing structures of authority, or do they mar and erode traditional authority?

In what follows, I would like to discuss the changing nature of religious authority, by reflecting on the socio-cultural implications of digital and social media, including my own research on Big Data and artificial intelligence developments in religious collectivities. Questions regarding the development of religious authority will be raised and specific probes related to managing tensions and challenges to future digital connections will be posed in the concluding portion of the article. Within the remit of this forum, the goal of this entry is to raise awareness and invite dialogue to address the concomitant opportunities and challenges of digital innovations for faith communities, including issues of power and social inequalities related to digital access and outreach. To do so, we first turn to the scope of religious authority.

Religious Authority: Forms, dimensions and scales  

A variety of clerical titles are commonly used to connote religious authority and in recent years, authoritarianism has even acquired a negative tone. But what does religious authority refer to and in what ways is it changing? Given its rich nature, authority itself is contested and challenging to define, though perceptions of religious authority vis-à-vis developments in digital media have been examined in various ways and scales. Here, two conceptual frameworks are briefly highlighted below to illustrate different forms of authority[i].

First, religious authority can be understood as stable or fluid. According to Max Weber’s classic social typology of authority, traditional and legal authority is said to arise from static or inherited forms. Religious authority can be justified by sacred laws and beliefs, legitimized from a fixed appointment to a superior office or assignment in a rule-based system. Correspondingly, distinct dimensions of traditional and legal authority have been observed in terms of references to organizational hierarchy, structure, ideology, and texts in the contexts of online Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and Islamic collectivities.

Authority can also be understood in fluid terms, for instance, attributed to charismatic figures by those who recognize their dramatic powers to stimulate action and change. In such a view, authority is emergent through interactions and continuous acts of authoring claims to elicit the attention and trust of a religious association. In a digital age, religious authority can be approached as dynamic communication practices, constituted across face-to-face and mediated platforms. As such, how religious authority is constructed and recognized is increasingly tied to media factors, including leaders’ perceived accessibility and cultural competence to navigate new communication platforms.

In this sense, authority is dialogic and performative, when pastors adopt emerging technologies to compose new texts, create new links and participate in new social networks. With the rise of social media algorithms that prioritize posts based on individual preferences and corporate endorsements, performances of authority on religious issues is dynamic and fluctuate with popular consensus on social media platforms.

Second, religious authority can assume a number of singular or plural forms, on a range of levels. The practices of religious authority can vary in size or scale. For example, religious authority can be embodied by a sole representative with the capacity to define orthodoxy and orthopraxy. On the other hand, religious authority can be formed upon ascriptions of legitimacy to groups or institutions sanctioned by the State, as evidenced by Islamic state governance in Malaysia and Iraq. Forms of religious authority may also overlap or be clustered with multiple loci or claims at work. Religious authority in societies with widespread digital connectivity is likely constituted by interlocking online and offline practices and alliances, in global or transnational movements.

In light of the profound nature of religious authority, understanding key themes in authority and new media developments can help identify recurrent logics and underlying concerns of the zeitgeist surrounding contemporary digitalization. How have religious leaders perceived and adopted digital media for the accomplishment of their work? Core beliefs that have characterized religious authority and new media relations in recent decades can help shed light on debates regarding human leadership, technology use, and well-being in times of hyperconnectivity.

Digital Media and Religious Authority: Key Views and Relationships  

Relationships between religious authority and digital life have been commonly understood as conflictual or complementary. One of the most popular conceptualizations about new media is that forms of religious authority are altered by digital technologies perceived to disrupt traditional faith doctrines and domains marked by hierarchical order.

Throughout history, widespread beliefs about the conflict posed by technological innovations have been fueled by news reports and sensational headlines that proclaim moral panic, namely how the new and novel displace existing personnel and uproot religious practices. Related issues of the deprofessionalization of clergy and decline of the priestly vocation have been linked to dechurching among congregrant-consumers turning to mediated marketplaces in search of spiritual education and connection. Abstract visions of a technological society have also featured dystopic social outcomes, pitting the wellbeing and flourishing of humanity against the rise of automation or new machines.

Consequently, digital connectivity can appear to be unsettling to traditional religious authority, eroding the power of traditional institutions and leaders to define sacred place and symbols. For example, virtual shrines or avatar churches can function as alternative spiritual sanctuaries; distinct spaces for spiritual interaction and new flows of religious information which can corrode the influence and jurisdiction of traditional authorities.

Moreover, as new web-based authorities gain visibility, self-proclaimed guides who have posted their teachings online can offer alternative perspectives and incorporate popular psychology to expand religious discourse. For example, lay Islamist thinkers have co-opted mediated platforms, and have used blogs and tweets to disseminate their instructions and advice. Forum leaders, webmasters, and moderators of online groups have also been portrayed as new spiritual advisors and mentors. The status of priests and ecclesiastical structures may be weakened when followers gain access to unorthodox teachings and inflammatory or inaccurate information.

In addition, the growth of new religious service providers can undermine the livelihood and financial stability of priests by reducing the opportunities for them to receive monies from devotees. For instance, independent puja service vendors have been observed to challenge the authority of Hindu temple administration and priests by the setting up of new practices like allowing the sale of deity photographs where temple photography is disallowed[ii]. Similarly, activities of service professionals that facilitate the virtual officiation of religious rites or ceremonies can also help lay persons bypass those who have traditionally exercised authority in these arenas.

Thus, as an extension of the logic of conflict and disruption, beliefs about the construction and corrosion of religious authority have in recent years been linked to the rise of humanoid social robots, including androids and machines created for religious purposes[iii]. The invention of robotic priests in Germany, Japan and China in the past few years, for instance, have rejuvenated debates about the nature of religious authority, as well as employment and labor arrangements writ large. Deep concerns have been expressed on how new machines will destroy not just jobs with repetitive tasks, but also professional, cognitive and caring work that support human needs and social services[iv].

In particular, preaching and pastoral care have been proposed to be viable contexts in which work by a religious leader could be replaced, systematically and eventually by artificial agents and automation. It has been suggested, for instance, that Reverend Robot can serve as a teaching pastor[v]. A machine-learning, sermon writing artificial intelligent program, with access to the growing digitalized body of theological resources and religious teachings, can generate sermons and devotionals tailored to support specific theological standpoints. On a larger scale, the creation of an ‘A.I. God’ able to offer spiritual guidance beyond the boundaries of human communication may also pose as a potential threat to established religious authority[vi]. The incorporation of the first church of artificial intelligence or the Way of the Future by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur in 2017, has since fueled interest in a future ‘superhuman’ Godhead whose omniscience is artificial intelligence driven with big data and computing simulations.

Most recently, agents of varying android characteristics have been made to officiate religious ceremonies, lead meditation sessions, answer spiritual queries, and provide sermons. For example, Pepper, a white humanoid robot with a chest-based tablet can serve as a priest in Buddhist funerals[vii]. For a fraction of cash offerings typically made to human priests, it can deliver sermons and livestream the funeral proceedings to those who are not in physical attendance.

As the roboticization of religious work with artificial intelligence is already underway, their presence invites an extended probe into ways in which they substitute for the work of clergy and other religious workers. To what extent can new mediated agents perform and communicate religious authority and influence? If the popular understanding of these novel machines is that of the replacement of priests, are there ways in which these new machines can be adopted to support existing practices of religious authority?

An alternative perspective toward religious authority in a digital age, is its complementary accomplishment and growth alongside technological adoption. While religious leaders are recognized to be increasingly dependent on online resources to a certain extent, many are adaptive and still displaying significant control over their work.

So rather than be threatened by new technologies, some religious elites have addressed the presence of new online texts and controversial interpretations via curtailment of digital access in temples and synagogues, content moderation or censorship of information in fundamentalist communities. Others have enacted normative regulation of members’ digital and social media practices[viii]. Preservation of the religious order and communication among the clerical staff is for example, achieved by the automatic generation of email replies on a leader’s behalf, channeling online messages back to personalized mentoring or physical meetings, and the dismantlement of comment modes on their church’s video sharing platforms to curtail contrarian views.

There have also been changes in the modes of authority production as religious leaders restructure their communicative practices to sustain their credibility and relational bonds. Particularly with the integration of virtual practices within religious organizations, religious leaders have expressed cultural compatibilities between the development of digital media and growth of religious missions. Leaders from major world religions in Singapore, for instance, have mostly framed the internet as a positive resource and stressed its tool-like capabilities to impute neutrality and reclaim digital technologies for spiritual purposes[ix].

Furthermore, to adapt to an increasingly pluralistic spiritual sphere and perceived competition from online ‘religious marketplaces’, many religious leaders are appropriating the latest digital and social media to reach faith seekers and members. For example, prominent leaders of American evangelicalism are using Twitter to extend their current modes of communication, and provide information on upcoming church and community events[x]. Megachurches in the United States and United Kingdom have adopted the largest social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, to provide information and promote projects that align with their core mission[xi]. And in keeping with burgeoning mobile phone use among their congregants, leaders in Indian Christian churches have intentionally adopted smartphone applications to facilitate deeper social connections and generate “affective loops” back to the church[xii].

More recently, a breed of media-savvy religious leaders known as religious celebrities, pastorpreneurs, and holy mavericks, have risen to global prominence for their vigorous adaptation of corporate branding strategies, including self-branding, to boost their authority. At the same time, the latest outcrop of religiously oriented marketing advice has prompted a rethinking of church publicity, including the need for religious leaders to create compelling and distinctive ‘brands’ of themselves or their ministry[xiii]. To amplify religious authority in popular culture and appeal to younger audiences, clergy have produced memorable content like logos, hashtags, photographs and videos on mediated multimedia, and even multilingual platforms. Some clergy have emerged as religious ‘influencers’ on social media, by spreading viral content on video-sharing platforms like Youtube, or sharing lip-synced, brief and punchy messages linked to trending topics or songs on Tiktok. These and other recent digitally mediated practices demonstrate how religious leaders are adapting and performing to constitute their authority in new ways.

Rethinking religious authority: Considerations and Tensions

As discussed above, the concept of authority is contested. Relationships between religious authority and technological adoption are profound, underpinned by multiple logics, hopes and fears. Digital life can facilitate both the weakening and strengthening of religious authority, offering occasions for disruption and conflict, yet also accommodation and innovation. These dynamics can also be in direct tension, giving rise to new paradoxes and challenges. Tensions in religious authority emerge when clergy are concurrently privileged and disadvantaged with new media interactions[xiv]. What are some of the tensions and challenges that characterize religious authority in times of hyperconnectivity? Three significant areas of emerging complexities related to religious authority are described below, to spur further reflection in our engagement of tomorrow.

First, as more and more of our everyday life migrates to mediated platforms, religious leaders are faced with more occasions and pressures to perform their teaching and caring work online. While the appeal and receptivity to new forms of mediated religious authority may be augmented in these unprecedented times of technology usage and reliance, online communication may also be constrained in the facilitation of certain religious rites and rituals. For example, in reflecting upon her role as rabbi conducting an e-funeral via Zoom, her first virtual officiation in 16 years of her Judaic ministry, Jennifer Kaluzny shared about her apprehensions of being “responsible for one of the most sacred moments in a person’s lifecycle, and I had to hand over my control to my laptop.”[xv]

But beyond the technical issues, the tensions she experienced was not just about being in control of the ceremony, but about her role as “comforter in chief…to make the service as meaningful as possible, and as stress-free as possible, using the traditional words and customs that are soothing for the soul.” Changes in her communication and the performance of her authority was linked to her fears about new media and inability “to provide cyber-comfort”. Accordingly, to serve new and continuing spiritual needs, some clergy now find themselves in new situations where they must negotiate concurrent social and technological challenges while reaffirming their clerical practice and traditional beliefs.

In a related way, while clerics are now empowered with new platforms online, they must manage their increased exposure and accessibility online, to maintain a credible workload and avoid personal burnout. Earlier research on Christian pastors in Singapore highlighted how pastors had to devise new communicative practices like non-replies, one-word replies, and “I will pray about it” responses to swelling email loads and text messages[xvi]. Another study revealed that social media practices put Indonesia’s Islamic preachers “in a more vulnerable position”. Imams faced multiple tensions as they strived to “master the subtle economy of time” with their digital media connections so that they can “develop a sense of how much time can pass until they reply to particular messages without disappointing their followers”[xvii].

Correspondingly, salient questions about the future of religious authority include: how do religious leaders regard their vocation in light of heightened demands for digital connectivity? In what ways are clerics able to negotiate the mediated performances of their work amidst social and technical norms? To what extent can a virtually mediated priest or prophet exercise influence as if they were co-present with their congregants or faith adherents?

Furthermore, how do the multiple dimensions of the digital divide affect the construction of religious authority these days? While the focus on much public discussion on closing the digital divide centers on the provision of broadband access and technical hardware, there are other secondary digital divides that may impact religious leaders, separating those with the competencies and skills to benefit from digital connectivity from those who do not or do so with more difficulty. Relevant tertiary divides here include differentiation in clergy experience with digital devices, access to ‘smart’ and mobile devices to support their work on-the-go, and digital literacy skills including the production and sharing of compelling online content.

Inequalities in organizational support and help also play a part in differentiating outcomes and mediated outputs. Some religious leaders whom I have interviewed from smaller organizations have shared about the pressures that they face to make their live-streaming services “look professional”, like the ones produced by mega-churches and temples with bigger budgets and a large team of media-savvy staff and consultants.

Similarly, the capacity of clergy to engage in self-presentation and branding across multiple media platforms is intricately tied to material and financial resources. These resources include the time and emotional energy of priests but also in some cases like the Office of the Dalai Lama, the availability of committee members or assistants to manage media interviews and social media accounts. And all the while as big data is growing in importance, data literacy skills and assistance may be needed to help religious leaders make sense of new modes of knowledge and control, like the correlation of church attendance or participation data with indicators like volunteer or financial giving rates[xviii].

Last but not least, further reflection is needed to clarify the ways in which new machines and artificial intelligent agents are permitted to fulfil religious duties and expectations, particularly in conditions where barriers for admission into the clerical profession are high.  In light of ongoing developments in roboticization, what are the perceptions and expectations of religious leaders and supplicants toward the legitimacy of robotic agents to serve as religious personnel? Should clergy manage or co-labor with religious chatbots and robots to facilitate spiritual instruction and growth?  How will religious leaders manage data privacy and security with the use of digital applications in confidential settings involving pastoral care, counselling and intercessory prayer? Attention to emerging tensions in the construction of religious authority should accompany our engagement of tomorrow as digitalization and the Internet of Things become more critical, yet more invisible to us.


[i] Adapted from Cheong (in press). Authority. In H. Campbell & R. Tsuria (Eds.), Digital religion 2.0. New York, NY: Routledge, & Cheong, P.H. (2013). Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed.), Digital religion: Understanding religious practice in new media worlds (pp. 72-87). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cheong, P.H. (2017). The vitality of new media and religion: Communicative perspectives, practices and authority in spiritual organization. New Media & Society, 19 (1), 25-33.

Cheong, P.H., Fischer-Nielsen, P., Gelfgren, S. & Ess, C. (Eds.) (2012) Digital religion, social media and culture: Perspectives, practices, futures. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

[ii] Scheifinger, H. (2010). Internet Threats to Hindu Authority: Puja Ordering Websites and the Kalighat Temple. Asian Journal of Social Science, 38(4), pp. 636-656.

[iii] Cheong, P.H. (2020). Religion, robots and rectitude: Communicative affordances for spiritual knowledge and community. Applied Artificial Intelligence- An International Journal, 34 (5), 412-431

[iv] Cheong, P.H. (in press). Robots, religion and communication: Rethinking piety, practices and pedagogy in the era of artificial intelligence. In Religion in the Age of Digitization – Spirituality and Human Interaction. Edited by Innerhofer, E. & Giulia, I. New York, NY: Routledge

[v] Young, W. (2019). Reverend Robot: Automation and Clergy. Zygon, 54(2), 479-500

[vi] Harris, Mark. Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence. 11/15/2017. https://www.wired.com/story/anthony-levandowski-artificial-intelligence-religion/

[vii] Ackerman, E. (2017) Pepper Now Available at Funerals as a More Affordable Alternative to Human Priests. IEEE Spectrum, 08/22/2017, https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/pepper-now-available-atfunerals-as-a-more-affordable-alternative-to-human-priests

[viii] Cheong, P.H. (2017). The vitality of new media and religion: Communicative perspectives, practices and authority in spiritual organization. New Media & Society, 19 (1), 25-33.

[ix] Kluver, R. & Cheong, P.H. (2007). Technological modernization, the Internet, and religion in Singapore. Journal of Computer- Mediated Communication, 12 (3), 1122-1142.

[x] Burge, R.P. & Williams, M.D. (2019). Is Social Media a Digital Pulpit? How Evangelical Leaders Use Twitter to Encourage the Faithful and Publicize Their Work. Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture8(3), pp. 309-339.

[xi] Sircar, A. & Rowley, J. (2020, online first). How are UK churches using social media to engage with their congregations? Journal of Public Affairs20(1),  https://doi.org/10.1002/pa.2029

[xii] Rajan, B. (2019). Smartphones in Churches: An Affective negotiation around Digital Disruptions and Opportunities in Delhi Christian Churches. Journal of Content, Community & Communication, 9 (5), pp. 93-104.

[xiii] Cheong, P.H. (2016). Religious authority and social media branding in a culture of religious celebrification. In S. Hoover (Ed). The Media and Religious Authority. (pp. 81-104) PA: Penn State University Press.

[xiv] Cheong, P.H. & Arasa, D. (2015). Religion. In L. Cantoni & J. Danowski (Eds.) Handbooks of Communication Science. Vol 5. Communication and Technology (pp. 455-466). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

[xv] Jennifer Kaluzny, I Officiated A Zoom Funeral. Here’s What I Didn’t Expect. 06/18/2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/zoom-funeral-covid-19-pandemic_n_5eea1fafc5b68fc6dded380f

[xvi] Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious communication and epistemic authority of leaders in wired faith organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.

[xvii] Slama, M. (2017). A subtle economy of time: Social media and the transformation of Indonesia’s Islamic preacher economy. Economic Anthropology4(1), pp. 94-106.

[xviii] The topic of Big Data and Religion is discussed in more detail in the following forthcoming chapters.

Cheong, P.H. (in press). Data, discernment & duty:  Illuminating engagement in the Internet of Things. In K. Callaway & Bolger, R. (Eds). Techno-Sapiens in a networked era. Claremont, California: Claremont Press.

Cheong, P.H. (in press). Religious datafication: Platforms, practices and power. In Radde-Antweiler, K. & Zeiler, X. (Eds). The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Journalism. London, UK: Routledge.