Digital Death


In the interests of full disclosure, Erica Andrus is a friend of mine.  But just because she knows me doesn’t mean she didn’t write a really good article …

I tend to use a very specific — some might say “narrow” — definition of religion, mostly because it focuses on the specific phenomena I’m interested in (social systems and the creation of identities), but also because I find looser definitions messy.  I don’t feel comfortable, for example, saying that anything to do with the afterlife is (therefore) “religion”:  there are too many examples of religions not particularly worried about the afterlife: and among those that are, there’s so much more going on in people’s day-to-day experience of their religion.  I like to say, you’d be better off defining religion is “about food,” since I’ve yet to find a religion that doesn’t have some kind of communal meal, diet proscriptions, etc.

That being said, cross-over interest is naturally common.  Moreman & Lewis’s Digital Death (2014) isn’t specifically about “religion” or “science fiction,” but is rather an anthology of work on how technology — specifically social media — is affecting our perceptions and experiences of death.  The essays I’ve read so far are all pretty solid … I certainly plan on making students read a couple at the first opportunity.

The most relevant essay to this blog is also the strongest (yes, I’m biased, but I’m also right, dammit!):   Erica Andrus’s “Remembering Laura Roslin:  Fictional Death and a Real Bereavement Community Online” (ibid., pp. 161-180).  It describes a prolonged virtual wake for one of the most interesting of religious figures in recent gSF television, President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica.  This passage (from EA’s draft version, so please don’t quote) caught my imagination:

In online, intentional fan communities like this we can find the strongest argument for the idea of online religion embodied in a pop culture form if we follow classical definitions of religion such as those proposed by Geertz and Durkheim –- symbolic systems and culturally constructed meanings based on shared emotional experiences. These definitions, like [S. Brent] Plate’s world making, allow us to overcome the perceived dichotomy between what is “serious” and what is “play” by understanding that the symbolic significance of the worlds we invent in our play reflect the deeper assumptions of our everyday lives. Rachel Wagner’s work in Godwired also addresses this process of continuing to build a world after its commercial lifespan is over: through the serious play that people engage in with transmediation, and the way that this kind of play allows people in a “secular” world to experience faith, simultaneously acknowledging the fantasy of the created world and its fictions, and the reality of the emotional sway it holds over us. The fictional life of Laura Roslin thus becomes a vehicle for individuals to care — about her, about each other, about art, music, the sanctity of a life itself.

William Paden (1994) described “myths” not just as important narratives, but narratives we internalize and re-enact in ways which keep them present.  In a sense, the narratives we care about, and “play” in … though I think we adults sometimes must be reminded how utterly serious “play” be.  We know games can be serious, but don’t appreciate how real (and socially significant) the world of the imagination can be.

For more on Plate’s views on world making, see THIS.  Alternatively, for examples of science fictional takes on technologically mediated afterlives, I recommend THIS:


Moreman, C.M. & Lewis A.D. (2014).  Digital death:  Mortality and beyond in the digital age.  Santa Monica, CA:  Praeger.

Paden, W. (1994). Religious worlds:  The comparative study of religion.  Boston:  Beacon Press.


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