Earlier this month, the bi-annual meeting of the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network was held in Belfast. Among the highlights of the event was the presentation of the Network’s Postgraduate Prize, which was awarded to Marta Kołodziejska of Warsaw University for her work on “The Electronic Frontier of Catholicism in Poland: An Answer to the Crisis of Religious Community?”
Kołodziejska was one of five postgraduate student members of the Network who published a chapter in Religion in Times of Crisis, a new book edited by myself, Heidemarie Winkel and Christophe Monnot on behalf of our Network and the North American-based Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR).
The postgraduate prize was chosen by a panel of three members of the ASR: Anthony Blasi, Giuseppe Giordan, and Bill Swatos, who selected what they considered the best chapter from among the five written by postgraduate students.
To give readers a flavour of Kołodziejska’s work, I’ve reproduced a couple of paragraphs from her Introduction below (pp. 54-55). The specific findings from Poland are interesting in and of themselves. But I think Kołodziejska’s work also provides a useful basis of comparison for scholars in other contexts who are studying the effects and implications of “religion online.”
“The Electronic Frontier of Catholicism in Poland: An Answer to the Crisis of Religious Community?”
The term “religion online” has become popular in the sociology of religion in the last decade. With technological advancement and new communications technology becoming omnipresent in the everyday lives of millions of individuals, the religious beliefs, practices and religiously-based moral values also become visible online. People pray on the Internet, discuss religious issues, get informed about their church’s activities and learn about their own religion as well as other religious traditions. Religion and religiosity have found their place online, and new technologies seem to foster higher levels of communication.
… In Poland, there is an ongoing crisis of communication between the institutional Roman Catholic Church and believers. A key aspect of this crisis is the perceived necessity to redefine what religious (in this case Catholic) community is. My research has found that much of this redefinition of community is happening not within traditional Catholic institutions, but among believers – online. Participants in Catholic online forums are providing an answer, or answers, to questions about what religious community is and what its functions are. Accordingly, the first section of this chapter provides a brief overview of the traditional (i.e. parish-based) Catholic community in Poland and its transformations in recent years.
In the next part, some findings from my ongoing research on Catholic online forums in Poland are analyzed. The characteristics and functions of online communication communities are identified. I argue that Internet forums should not be regarded merely as a means of communication, but as a highly expressive environment with features including:
- fluent/flexible authority and mutual user control,
- a broad understanding of religious community,
- reference to the teachings of the Catholic Church as a base of interaction,
- as well as support and advice as incentives to participate.
As such, Catholic forums have community-building potential, but this community goes beyond traditional parish boundaries. Online religious communities reflect the tensions between the need to participate in church-based communities and to create new ones. In that sense they also embody the dynamic between communal and individualistic religious pursuits.
Photo: Marta Kołodziejska receives the Postgraduate Prize from Dr Heidemarie Winkel, Chair of the Network