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Religions in digital Asia (AMIC contribution, September 28, 2017)

By Fr. Franz-Josef Eilers,svd

The word “Religion” has the Latin roots of “Re-ligare” which mean to “Re-Connect”, to join which here also means to “linking human and divine”. Thus Religion can be considered as a system of reconnections with something “beyond” or what Rudolf Otto used to call the numinosum (1) which seems to very true for Asia: All major Religions originated from here including Christianity. Religion is a core part of every Culture!

To re-connect, however, means also to “communicate”: any re-connecting is actually  based and maintained through communication and the ‘backdrop’ for this ‘communication’ is culture: the way religion is ‘lived’ and expresses itself is determined also by the way it takes place within different cultures as the way of living of people! The concept and experience of ‘re-ligare’ as essential part of every culture is reflected in prophets and gurus, in ’masters’ and ‘en-lightened ‘persons’ bringing the “numinosum” (Otto 1958) to the center of life and action of any group of humans…  Buddha the ‘enlightened one’ re-connects (“re-ligare”!) towards the “Nirwana”; Mohammed is “re-connecting” through the book as  means of communication (Qu-ran); the Indian Goddesses re-connect the different ways of life and also Christianity “re-connects” through and to the person of Jesus Christ…

The different means of communication ‘used’ in all these Religions are beside the persons involved expressed in sayings and writings, in preaching, in signs and symbols, in pictures and architecture and especially through rituals which are in themselves again special ways and means to share and communicate... a broad field of studies and research!

In the past all different means of communication were ‘used’ in this processes, from writing to printing, from broadcasting in sound and image and similar ways. With the newest developments of technology, however, all these ways and many life activities are related now to the categories of analog and digital. While in analog one things follows the other digital communication is broken down into 1 and 0 with many more ways and possibilities than the previous analog system. In the new developments distances are removed or strongly minimized, time is always and everywhere – thus no limits any more in room and space…opening also for Religions and religious practices new ways of communicating, to “re-ligare” in religious convictions and practices. Basic ways and religious practices are not necessarily changed but are given new possibilities in reaching out, changing ways of communicating but maybe also bringing new dimensions to the fore which did not exist this way before or only in a limited way also for Religions. But also additional questions arise: Does Digitalization make religious ‘sharing’ broader, more quick and ‘efficient’ without losing a full exchange on different levels of human reception and religious experience also in the life of society and their cultures? What do such new conditions and possibilities mean especially for young people somehow born and growing up with a ‘Tablet’ and gadgets which might not necessarily promote interaction in the reality of life. There are plenty of ‘friends’ in social media  but no real ‘friends’ to ‘talk’ to  at home and in the own family?

How do established Religions but also other “re-ligated” groups act, re-act and connect within such a world? What is the role of these new digital possibilities in and for religious practices in the lives of individuals and communities? Are there new ways of connecting with each other but also to “re-ligare” with God and between themselves?

An Asian Approach

For a proper academic and research approach to Religions in Asia Japanese scholar Satoshi Ishii has proposed  Triworld Communication Studies from Buddhist Perspectives” where he defines ‘paradigm’ as “ a comprehensive unit of assumptions, hypotheses and methods that guide theory construction and research directions”. He proposes to move from “American centered methods” to our Asian realities also for Communication and Religion. He notes that in the American approach “…culture is rarely explicitly taken into consideration in the research conceptualization, because culture is usually not regarded as a variable.” (p. 3), which is different in Asia..

For the role and relation of Religion and Communication in Asia he distinguishes between two models of a world View which also determine respective communicative approaches and models in and for Asian cultures:  There is the mono-theistic and a poly-theistic world view which determine the flow of communications and its directions:  In the mono-theistic view there are the three ‘elements’ of God, Humans and Natural beings. They are somehow resting in themselves but related. This is the perspective of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Here communication takes place between and in these three ‘levels’.

In the poly-theistic world view the boundaries between God/Goddesses, deities” are not separated but interrelated with each other. Ishii contributes this approach to ancient Greek/Roman religions as well as to Buddhism. Hinduism, and Taoism.

He sees this “triangular arrangement of the three worlds” as not hierarchical but “dynamic and changeable according to contextual changes.. the sovereignty of each world is not decisively predetermined but is tentative and interchangeable.” From here he develops his “Tri-world Communication studies from Buddhist perspectives.”

From this Ishii proposes (p.6) for Asia that – first - “Communication scholars should shift their conventional analytic, mechanistic, and individual-centered views of communication to holistic, systematic, and correlation-ship centered views and – second- that “ in-depth discussions of existential philosophy should play a crucial role in future communication studies” which also includes the role of Religions.  He actually proposes “to explore the possibility for developing a new alternative paradigm of communication studies from a cross-religious comparison of monotheistic and poly-theistic world views…” (P. 9)

Following Ishii’s approach Yoshitaka Miike proposed in an editorial on “Asian Communication Studies” for a new Indian Journal 2016 (Journal of Content, Community & Communication”: Amity University) four “content dimensions of the Asia-centric paradigm”: 1. The linguistic 2. the religious-philosophical, 3.the historical and 4. the aesthetic dimension.  “All cultures use language as common code of communication and as symbolic vehicle of indigenous epistemologies. Cultural values and communication ethics have been largely shaped by religious-philosophical underpinnings. No culture exists without its own history, from which its members learn important lessons about relational (communication), environmental (communication) and spiritual communication. Every culture performs communication in rituals and ceremonies that gives a sense of binding and belonging to its members and appeals to their ethos and aesthetics.” (p.2) From this he calls to revalorize beside others also “Asian religious-philosophical teachings as behavioral principles and codes of ethics.”

Georgette Wang’s collection on “De-Westernizing Communication Research” (2011) presents several contributions reflecting the role of Religions in Asia like Shelton Guanaratne who proposes a “new structure” in Communication studies on the basis of “the triumvirate of Philosophy, Theology and Science” (p.41). Together with others he promotes especially a Buddhist foundation for communication he also proposes also in his latest publication on “Mindful Journalism,” (2016). He also refers in a similar way  ( in the Wang collection) to “Asian values” as “reflecting the core principles of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, which do not support authoritative governance or a subservient system of communication  outlets.” (p.39). Wimal Dissanayake lists two of his five “contexts and challenges’ for the production of “Asian theories of communication” which are especially related to Religion: the Rituals, ceremonies and performances and the role of language in different Asian religions and traditions which are e.g. realized in a Buddhist approach. An Islamic perspective appears in the same volume in the contribution of Gholam, Khiabany on Iran. Georgette Wang herself titles her final contribution (p. 254 ff.) in the volume with a (Jewish/Christian) biblical reference to the “Fall of the Tower of Babel” from the book of Genesis. For the “historical, linguistic and humanist mode of understanding” she refers to the ”roots traced back to theology and philosophy, the interpretaton of ancient religions and classical literary texts” as “primary concerns of hermeneutic analysis.” (p. 258 ).

The Asian Research Center for Religion and Social Communication (ARC) at St. John’s University tries to encourage studies in this field with a periodical “Religion and Social Communication” , a Book series (UST Publishing House Manila) and (almost yearly) thematic “Round Tables” with selected and invited scholars from all over Asia and different Religions, the last two on “Religions in digital Asia” and for 2018 on “ Religious Communication in multicultural Asia: Realities, Experiences, Challenges”.


(1)Rudolf Otto calls the numinosum the “real innermost core” of Religion without which “no religion would be worthy the name” (p.6) Though Otto starts in his description and development of this expression from Christianity he later also considers other Religions. Chapter IX of his study is devoted to the “means of expression of the numinous” where he distinguishes between direct and indirect means. In the first category he lists the living voice which “passes on to the other persons  mind”. Elements of this are “the tone and voice demeanor  which reflects in its presentation the ‘numinous’: “If a man does not feel what the numinous is, when he reads the 6th chapter of Isaiah, then no ‘preaching, singing, telling…can avail him’ Indeed no element in Religion needs so much as this the viva vox transmission by living fellowship and the inspiration of personal contact” (p.60 f.). But the mere word even when it comes as a living voice is powerless without the “spirit in the heart” of the hearer to move him to apprehension”. And this spirit, this inborn capacity to receive and understand, is the essential thing…”(p.61)

Otto also refers in this chapter to the Numinous expressed in Art, where he also refers to architecture starting already with the “Megalithic” age (Stonehenge) which expresses already the ‘magical’ (p.65 ff) as do the constructions till today. Other elements in this communicative experience are darkness and the “necessity of Silence” (p.68 f.) He here also refers to  emptiness and empty  or ‘enclosed spaces” (“keeping silence before the Lord”) also in Chinese culture as well as generally also in Music. (p.69ff.)


Ishii, Satoshi
2001 An Emerging Rationale for Triworld Communication Studies from Buddhist Perspectives. In: Human Communication. A Journal of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association. Vo. 4, No. 1 pp. 2 – 9
Miike, Yoshitaka
2016 Asian Communication Studies at the Crossroads. Editorial in “Journal of Content, Community and Communication” Amity University, Gwalior, India
Otto, Rudolf
1958 The Idea of the Holy. An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational.  London (Oxford) - ( German Original 1923)
Sax, David
2016 The Revenge of Analog. Real things and why they matter. New York (‘Public Affairs’)
Wang, Georgette (Editor)
2011 De-Westernizing Communication Research, Altering Questions and Changing Frameworks. Milton Park, Abingdon (Routledge Contemporary Asia Series)