Penn State Abington students ponder online religious rituals

Search You Tube for “first Internet baptism” and a pastor clad in an Ed Hardy shirt pops up. As he begins the ritual, it becomes clear that the woman is over 600 miles away and is actually being anointed in her bathtub by her mother-in-law. The pastor is simply guiding the service over the Internet.

Is an online baptism led by a pastor dressed in a trendy T-shirt spiritually valid? Is participating in a cyber-service a satisfying substitute for a visit to a place of worship?

Penn State Abington students were asked to consider these and other questions last week during Nicole Karapanagiotis’ lecture “Does Cyber-Smoke Reach the Gods?” during Common Break in Lubert Commons.

According to Karapanagiotis, an assistant professor of religion at Georgia Southern University, about 17 million people have participated in a religious ritual online. Her research has led her to conclude that the demise of traditional services is not imminent. For many people, the two complement each other.

“Intention is what counts…your sincerity of heart,” she said. “The medium doesn’t make a difference.”

Some have expressed concerns about the effectiveness and spiritual satisfaction derived from cyber-rituals as well as the lack of sensory involvement and aesthetics. Karapanagiotis believes that this unease will prevent the elimination of offline religious services.

She was introduced by Pierce Salguero, assistant professor of Asian history at Abington, who cited her “groundbreaking work” on evaluating religious rituals online. He told the audience that, coincidentally, he connected with her for the first time on Facebook.

Karapangiotis’ appearance, the last of five iLife lectures, was part of the Penn State Abington Lecture Series this fall. The series is sponsored by the Academic Environment Committee, LEAP (Lares Entertainment and Programming) and the Division of Student Affairs, and funded by the student activities fee.