[Blog Series] Angels and the Digital Afterlife: Studying Nonreligion Online

In the second instalment of the SSNB/NSRN methods blog, Tim Hutchings argues that the scope and significance of digital methodologies for the study of – and beyond – ‘nonreligion’ is much broader and more promising than is often perceived.20151006_15_TimothyHutchings_2015_SvanteEmanuelli

In some areas of the internet, the line between religion and nonreligion could not be clearer. Christians and Atheists battle through forums and video blogs, form rival groups on social media, and share satirical memes mocking one another’s failings and inconsistencies. This kind of skirmishing has been widely discussed; see, for example, Christopher Smith and Richard Cimino’s 2012 study of secularist activism in American blogs and YouTube videos, or Stephen Pihlaja’s 2014 analysis of the rhetoric of YouTube flame wars. Social media can play a crucial role in the “de-privatization” of anti-religious identities,[i] providing space for individuals to articulate their opposition to religion and its public influence.

Elsewhere online, the boundary between religion and nonreligion becomes much harder to trace. If we only pay attention to the most explicit forms of anti-religion, we risk missing some of the more subtle and interesting negotiations of what it actually means to be (or not to be) “religious”. We can also miss whole areas of activity in which the boundary doesn’t seem to mean very much at all. As Dusty Hoesly argues in a recent article in Secularism and Nonreligion, ‘religious, spiritual, secular, and nonreligious identities are not stable, unitary formations’, but performances, ‘discursive, relational constructions contingently articulated in particular locations at specific times for particular purposes’. Researchers interested in digital nonreligion need to look out for those performances, and to develop methodologies that are sensitive to their transient contexts and implications.

Hoesly is writing about weddings, but my own research applies that same insight to the study of death. Working with a team of colleagues at Stockholm University, I am exploring digital media as an “existential terrain”, a landscape in which users encounter and try to make meaning out of experiences of vulnerability.[ii] Our research includes case studies of end-of-life blogs, online support forums, harassment, gendered mourning cultures and the digital afterlife.

One of the key findings of research in the field of digital death studies has been that the bereaved talk to the dead online. Visit almost any memorial page on Facebook, and you’ll see this in action. Grieving friends and family members keep in touch with the dead by sending them messages, and these messages share a largely consistent vision of what happens after death. According to these messages, the dead live on in a world parallel to our own, close enough to hear us. They are often spoken of as angels, particularly if they died as children. Their world is still much like ours, full of vibrant social activity, music and parties. Crucially, that other world is accessible: we will all be reunited there when we die.

These kinds of cases point to ways in which the analytical boundary between religion and nonreligion is blurred in everyday life. The question is: is there anything religious about this mythology of a digitally connected heaven? And if so, how can we tell?

Only a few scholars have tried to analyse the religious aspects of the digital afterlife, and so far their responses have been divided. We can divide their arguments into three broad camps: the digital afterlife is unproblematically religious; it is transforming religion; or it is not religious at all.

We find the first and simplest approach in the work of HCI researchers Jed Brubaker and Janet Vertesi (2010), who see talking to the dead online as an inherently religious act, a “technospiritual practice”, because the idea that the dead live on in heaven is part of the Christian worldview. It is religious, because it shares the symbolic content of religion.

The second approach is rather more dramatic. According to Elizabeth Drescher, a researcher of spiritual practices among the “nones”, the mythology of the digital afterlife might actually change religion itself (2012). When a Christian dies, their friends continue to speak to them online, and Drescher sees this as something new: digital media have broken down the barriers between life and death and given rise to a new shared theology.[iii] The digital afterlife is still religious, but the content and practice of religion is changing.

The third approach is more dismissive. Christian theologian Erinn Staley (2014) argues that we should not take these practices literally. No one expects the dead of Facebook to talk back to them, so they can’t really be alive. Talking to the dead is not religious, because it is not motivated by the right kind of belief.

In the wider field of studies of death and nonreligion, we find plenty of grounds for caution about all three approaches. Abby Day found in her interviews that ‘even atheists sense ghosts’, but refuses to categorise their experiences as “religious” (2011). Instead, she argues, we should see their stories of ghostly experiences as ‘a performative strategy’, an attempt to continue to belong in a social network. Her interviewees were ‘creating and sustaining’ their belief in a continuing relationship with the dead by ‘performing’ that belief through the telling of stories. Experiencing and communicating with the dead is not (necessarily) religious, because it is not (always) embedded in a worldview that connects the individual to gods and divinities. To put that another way, talking to the dead is motivated by belief, but belief itself is not religious. If so, then the theology of the digital afterlife is actually much less interesting than its performances and their social functions.

So where does this leave us?

Online, there is a vast landscape of activity revolving around death, grief, bereavement and memory, within which a consistent worldview and set of practices have emerged. This worldview shares certain themes and symbols with Christian ideas of heaven, but does not seem to be limited to (or universally shared within) Christian communities. Indeed, theologically there seem to be considerable divergences between this view of the afterlife and the historic and current mainstreams of Christian theology (see McDannell and Lang 1988). Researchers of digital death have tended to assume that any reference to heaven must be religious, or that religion involves a special kind of belief, but we are still waiting for nuanced studies of the boundary between religion and nonreligion in digital death.

In this area, as elsewhere, sensitivity to a broader domain of nonreligious identification and belief points to the possibility and potential of much more diverse – and therefore methodologically challenging – empirical studies. I will end this post with two calls to action.

First, we urgently need a much wider range of cross-cultural studies of death and grief online (as of other forms of religious/nonreligious existential experience), to balance the current wealth of case studies from the English-speaking (particularly North American) world.

Second, we must remember the insights proposed by Dusty Hoesly and Abby Day, and approach commitments to “religion”, “nonreligion” and “belief” as unstable and temporary performances, embedded in social contexts and articulated for specific purposes. Instead of studying the digital afterlife as a worldview borrowed from religion, it will be considerable more interesting to analyse the practices used to engage with the afterlife, paying attention to the social functions of ritual and the identities and relationships constructed by talk.

We know that atheists can sense ghosts – but what does it mean when they become angels?


[i] See Ribberink, Achterberg and Houtman (2013)

[ii] For another existential approach to death and nonreligion, see Lois Lee (2015), especially chapter 7.

[iii] For another transformationist view, see Tony Walter (2011)

Tim Hutchings received his PhD in the sociology of religion from Durham University (2010). He is a sociologist and ethnographer of digital religion, and his research explores new digital forms of authority, community and ritual. He has conducted postdoctoral work at Umeå University (Sweden), The Open University and Durham University, and he has now joined the Institute for Media Studies at Stockholm University. His new research with the Existential Terrains project (et.ims.su.se) focuses on death, bereavement and digital media. His first monograph will be published later this year, and a full list of his publications can be found online at su-se.academia.edu/TimHutchings. Dr Hutchings is also the Editor of the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture (www.jrmdc.com).


Brubaker, J. and Vertesi, J. (2010). Death and the social network. Paper presented at the CHI 2010 Workshop on “HCI at the End of Life: Understanding Death, Dying, and the Digital”, Atlanta, GA, USA. Available online at www.dgp.toronto.edu/~mikem/hcieol/subs/brubaker.pdf.

Day, A. (2011). Believing in belonging. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Drescher, E. (2012). Pixels perpetual shine: The mediation of illness, dying, and death in the digital age. CrossCurrents 62(2), 204-218. dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-3881.2012. 00230.x

Hoesly, D. (2015). “Need a minister? How about your brother?” The Universal Life Church between religion and non-religion. Secularism and Nonreligion 4(1), art.12.  doi.org/10.5334/snr.be

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

McDannell, C. and Lang, B. (1988). Heaven: A History. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Pihlaja, S. (2014). Antagonism on YouTube: Metaphor in Online Discourse. Bloomsbury: London.

Ribberink, E., Achterberg, P. and Houtman, D. (2013). Deprivatization of disbelief? Non-religiosity and anti-religiosity in 14 western European countries. Politics and Religion 6(1), p.101-120. https://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1755048312000740.

Smith, C. and Cimino, R. (2012). Atheisms unbound: The role of new media in the formation of a secularist identity. Secularism and Nonreligion 1, 17-31. doi.org/10.5334/snr.ab

Staley, E. (2014). Messaging the dead: Social network sites and theologies of afterlife. In: Lewis, A. and Moreman, C. (eds.), Digital Death: Mortality and Beyond in the Online Age. Praeger: Santa Barbara. 9-22.

Walter, T. Hourizi, R., Moncur, W., and Pitsillides, S. (2011). Does the internet change how we die and mourn? An overview. Omega 64(4), 275-302. doi.org/10.2190/OM.64.4.a


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