Belief Systems in the Digital Age

Image by Rogier Hoekstra from Pixabay

While culture is one word, it encompasses seven categories in its ontology such as social organisation, the arts, economic systems etc. One of these is belief systems. Belief systems include religions, spirituality, faith and atheism. As the internet and its spin-off technologies like social media, connected humans globally, so it has also enabled the rise of new belief systems. As well as the ability for traditional belief systems to expand their reach.

Belief systems can play a vital role in a society and culture and have contributed to humanity’s development over many thousands of years. How are they evolving, changing and adapting to our world in the digital age? What does this mean for societal growth and development?

While it would be impossible to predict definitive outcomes, we can look at how various belief systems have leveraged the internet and companion technologies over the past two decades or so.

When it comes to religious systems in the digital age however, they may actually decline rather than grow. In fact, we may see even more splintering of mainstream religions and a rise in cults as well. I explore this further down.

What is a belief system? There are a number of definitions. Some view it as strictly pertaining to religion. Philosophers consider it personal beliefs that define our view of the world. Our reality. Here, I define it as the variety of beliefs from personal through to religions, spirituality and yes, even atheism. They are systems when they have a set of principles, values, traditions, ideologies and shared views across a social group.

In cultural anthropology it is also referred to as supernaturalism to encompass a broader swathe of belief systems. This is useful as a term as well. You may not see yourself as religious, but if you’re an avid sports fan, you likely have rituals around what you do when you watch a game, perhaps some fetishes (not sexual) and myths around your favourite sport. This too, is a belief system. Sports itself is a form of social mythology.

Why is this important to even understand? Belief systems have always played a key part in cultural transmission. The role that they played many thousands of years ago was key to human survival because they enabled humans to come together and behave as cohesive groups and get things done. Of course, some belief systems, such as organised religion, have also lead to conflicts and persecution of other beliefs and cultural groups.

Belief Systems in the Digital Age — History Rhymes?

In almost every netnographic research project I have done over the past 12 years, whether it be for marketing or UX research or public policy and foreign affairs, belief systems have always been an aspect of my findings. Sometimes playing a very big role, other times a peripheral role.

One study in 2018 by Baylor University found something you may think to be counterintuitive. That internet use may decrease the likelihood that a person will fully affiliate themselves with one particular religion.

When the printing press arrived, it was a new form of lower cost mass communication than previous technologies. Martin Luther and John Calvin, saw an opportunity to take a different approach to Christianity. The printing press enabled them to distribute leaflets and bibles. A splintering of Christianity was born as Protestantism. What is called the Christian Reformation.

There is a lot of activity online from the five global religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism) and splinter groups that came out of those religions. There has also been an increase in activity from groups that are more spiritual in nature and groups that aren’t religious, yet have a defined set of beliefs, such as atheism.

Note: Explore my brief on two emerging techtopian belief systems here.

Just as larger belief systems (religions here) can use the internet to try and grow and keep their believers connected, so it also enables people to research different belief systems. As the Baylor study shows, people may dip their toes into various belief systems to find the one that they feel suits them. People may also stay with one system for a period of time and then move on to another as they age and have life experiences.

We may also see the rise of cults, which is already happening. The internet has also lead to an increase in non-religious belief systems such as spiritual movements like yoga and neo-Druidism. Pagan belief systems are also making a come back in many parts of the Western world.

So while it is impossible to say exactly how belief systems will evolve in the coming two decades, we can suggest that we will see new belief systems (a topic I will explore in this article) and we are likely to see some become more political as well and the continued change in societal views on religion. This is all part of the impact of the internet on society as a whole.



Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious