UNCG Campus Weekly

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Dr. Greg Grieve finds religion on the world wide web

Photo of Dr. Greg GrieveSome Americans traveled thousands of miles to the Indian Himalayas this summer to take part in a huge Buddhist festival.

Dr. Greg Grieve wanted to see it in real-life – plus through the filter of the internet and social media.

The associate professor of religious studies specializes in the intersection of religions and the internet. His focus is Buddhism, which is increasingly a presence in North American culture.

At the festival, he saw a woman who’d travelled all the way from Washington State pull out an iPad and exult after she’d gotten a perfect picture – presumably for her social media feed. She was oblivious to who was passing by, as she gawked at her iPad picture. “The Dalai Lama is five feet from her, and she’s looking at her screen,” he recalls. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”

On the other hand, he saw the positives of the web: Another American who’d become exhausted could rest in her room and follow the teachings in real time via the web. She could even look up terms and send information to others.

The two-week Kalachakra Empowerment was held in Ladakh in July, 2014. He and Dr. Chris Helland, associate professor of sociology of religion at Dalhousie University, wrote about it in “Augmenting the Dharma: Understanding the 33rd Kalachakra Empowerment and Digital Media.”

Online, you miss the charisma, Grieve explains. In person, at a religious festival such as this, you endure an experience – in the blistering sun surrounded by thousands. There’s value in that bodily experience. He also saw first-hand how organizers make use of media of all sorts.

Here in Greensboro, he sees that undergraduates and his own children never knew a world without the internet. The son of a software engineer, he grew up with early versions of computers, with punch cards. “I’ve been hacking before the term was used,” he says.

Yet, Grieve, a co-founder of Scuppernong Books, loves traditional communication, such as books. “They go back 6,000 years.”

Who seems to use the internet best? The marginalized. An example? “Evangelicals are much better than mainstream (churches) at using social media.”

Mainstream religions have seen a decline in interest. Meanwhile, 25 percent of young people say they are “spiritual but not religious” – they are “Nones.” Many of those “spiritual seekers” are in fact Buddhist, he says, citing Robert Fuller’s “Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America.”

The unchurched are somewhere between 38 and 40 percent of the adult population of the United States (Barna Research Group, 2005).

Grieve had “Buddhism, the Internet and Digital Media: The Pixel in the Lotus” published this fall by Routledge Press. Co-edited by Daniel Veidlinger, it’s the first volume ever on Buddhism and the internet. Also, he and co-editor Heidi Campbell will have the book “Religion in Play: Finding Religion in Digital Gaming” published this fall by Indiana University Press.

Some surprises? Online, more people report themselves as Buddhist than in the offline world. Looking at sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, 5.3 percent of people online report themselves as Buddhists, he says, according to the most recent available data. In contrast, only 1.3 percent of Americans are Buddhists.

One more surprise for readers will be the predominance of Buddhism in American culture, from devotees like Steve Jobs to (some extent) Mark Zuckerberg.

Another is how much religion and digital media actually mix. Even 13 years ago, in 2001, a Pew survey of Internet use found that 25 percent of Americans had searched the Internet for religious purposes, Grieve says.

Listen to Grieve talk about his research trip, on Interfaith Radio, with Heidi Campbell: Experiments with Religion in the Internet’s Early Days.

By Mike Harris