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Religious Authority and the New Media

TitleReligious Authority and the New Media
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsTurner, BS
JournalTheory, Culture & Society
KeywordsAuthority, Bureaucracy, Knowledge, New Media, Tradition

In traditional societies, knowledge is organized in hierarchical chains through which authority is legitimated by custom. Because the majority of the population is illiterate, sacred knowledge is conveyed orally and ritualistically, but the ultimate source of religious authority is typically invested in the Book. The hadith (sayings and customs of the Prophet) are a good example of traditional practice. These chains of Islamic knowledge were also characteristically local, consensual and lay, unlike in Christianity, with its emergent ecclesiastical bureaucracies, episcopal structures and ordained priests. In one sense, Islam has no church. While there are important institutional differences between the world religions, network society opens up significant challenges to traditional authority, rapidly increasing the flow of religious knowledge and commodities. With global flows of knowledge on the Internet, power is no longer embodied and the person is simply a switchpoint in the information flow. The logic of networking is that control cannot be concentrated for long at any single point in the system; knowledge, which is by definition only temporary, is democratically produced at an infinite number of sites. In this Andy Warhol world, every human can, in principle, have their own site. While the Chinese Communist Party and several Middle Eastern states attempt to control this flow, their efforts are only partially successful. The result is that traditional forms of religious authority are constantly disrupted and challenged, but at the same time the Internet creates new opportunities for evangelism, religious instruction and piety. The outcome of these processes is, however, unknown and unknowable. There is a need, therefore, to invent a new theory of authority that is post-Weberian in reconstructing the conventional format of charisma, tradition and legal rationalism.