“Communication” derives from the Latin term communicare meaning to share or impart and to make common. “Popular communication” refers to those efforts of, by, and for the people that establish and maintain this sharing and commonality. In this sense, communication is the basic requirement for sustaining any social group. “The people” are generally understood as the average or common members of a society, the masses, and are contrasted with elite sub-groups that possess an unusual degree of power, wealth, or information. “The people” are also distinguished from “others,” who are nonmembers of any particular group at issue but are members of their own social groups.
“Religion” has a more obscure etymology, with Latin and Old French derivations pointing to binding and reconnection, reverence, rereading, gathering, and care. From a philosophical perspective, religions are belief systems or worldviews that posit a divine order for both human life and the universe as a whole. There is significant diversity of belief among world religions regarding the structure of this divine order, but human recognition of a spiritual “depth dimension” is universal. From a communication perspective, a religion is a more or less organized social movement working to unify a people by advocating and passing on ways of life that are in accord with its vision of divine order.
Historically, universality of religion suggests that sharing spiritual experience was one of the first goals of human communication. Early human culture is characterized by oral, gestural, and graphic media. Early graphic evidence of religious communication is recognized in Upper Paleolithic cave art (40,000 to 10,000 bce); the scale (murals up to 20 feet in length, 20 feet above floor level), location (some nearly inaccessible, others in cave galleries for popular viewing), permanence (a consistent message across hundreds of generations), and expense (requiring extensive scaffolding, assistants, tools and pigment, lighting) all demonstrate how cave art expresses awe and reverence. Paleolithic oral (myths, legends, dramas) and gestural or performative (songs, dances, rituals, etc.) communication traditions are more difficult to trace, but archaeological evidence of interment and other ritual practices is clear as early as 160,000 years ago. Each subsequent media revolution enables new forms of expression, but orality, visual symbolism, and ritual performance are the fundamental modes of popular religious communication.
Architecture presents another early avenue of popular religious expression, serving to mark sacred spaces or times and create appropriate ritual environments. Numerous megalithic calendars and tombs dating from 5000 bce show both precise astronomical knowledge and considerable labor invested in transporting and positioning massive stones. As agriculture developed, temples and shrines became important structures within the new and growing cities.
Many religions vector toward sacred locations and architecture – ritualized travel to a distant site represents both the first mass form of international communication and a fundamental pattern for socio-religious movements. Pilgrimage sites are still vital centers for disseminating religious knowledge, styles, and imagery. The holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is a prime example, today it is estimated that over 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims visit and worship in the month of Zil al-Hijjah.
With the development of alphabetic writing circa 2000 bce, the myths and metanarratives of oral religious traditions could be recorded and distributed with a broader reach and a new degree of uniformity and precision. The sacred texts and commentary of manuscript culture became important to many religions, forging a close relationship between religion and literacy. With Islam, reading the Koran in Arabic is considered a spiritual obligation for everyone. Judaism and Christianity also advanced literacy, but for most people religious communication remained oral and performative. Hinduism is an exemplar – it is the oldest active world religion, developing out of the already ancient Vedic oral tradition between 3000 and 1000 bce. The Hindu Vedas are revealed sacred texts, but they are experienced orally and referred to as Shruti, “that which has been heard.”
Manuscript culture remains active, as with Judaism and the Torah, but religious communication changed radically as printing technologies developed worldwide. Buddhist scriptures and artwork were printed with woodblocks as early as the sixth century ce, and in Europe Gutenberg’s Bible (1455) represents a landmark event; the movable-type press inaugurated mass production of books, a much more portable and durable medium than manuscripts. Martin Luther’s publication of Ninety-five theses in 1517 sparked the Protestant Reformation and ultimately pushed the spread of literacy by encouraging vernacular translation and personal interpretation of the Bible. Later, when paper became less expensive and presses more common, religious newspapers and periodicals flourished. This was especially true in the “new world” of North America, where religious books and tracts were used extensively to spread both literacy and morality from the educated east to the wilds of the expanding western frontier.
The end of the nineteenth century saw the development of electronic media in the west. Telegraph and telephone are primarily interpersonal media and had minimal impact on popular religious communication, but the development of radio at the turn of the century introduced a revolutionary pattern of dissemination, broadcasting. Prior to broadcast media, religious communication was relatively local. Pilgrimage site art and architecture could share a uniform message with millions, but it took hundreds of years; print media introduced portability and faster distribution on a larger scale, but were limited to literate receivers. With broadcasting, a uniform oral message is shared nearly instantaneously on a mass scale. By the 1930s radio was firmly established as the mass medium for both Europe and North America, with television following a similar growth pattern in the 1960s. Religious programming in the United States was among the earliest genres because commercial broadcasters interpreted their legal obligation to operate in the public interest as a call to provide major religions with weekly airtime and programming support. Today religion remains the third most widely syndicated radio format in the United States. In the 1980s, cable and satellite networks extended the broadcast pattern to a national and international scale, and numerous churches and faith-based organizations have embraced this expanded opportunity for mass ministry by founding their own studios and channels, many operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With the turn of the twenty-first century, computer media are rapidly developing alongside both the fundamental oral, graphic, and performative media and the now firmly established print and broadcast media. The Internet enables nearly all users to communicate on a global scale in both text and audio-visual formats, and religious content and interaction abound. In contrast to the unilateral quality of broadcast and print media, computers enable both dissemination and bilateral interaction – sender and receiver can converse and discuss all issues, including religion, with greater speed and reach than ever before. However, just as literacy rates limit the reach and efficacy of print, economic conditions limit the scale of broadcast and computer media. In developed countries where technology is common and networks are established, mass-mediated and web-based religious communication can be enormously influential, but in developing countries the impact is much less apparent.
In the future, as computer media undoubtedly spread, religious content and interaction will grow along with global networks. Extensive use of electronic media for religious purposes makes it clear that communication about religion is well served by all media, but religious communication itself, the rites that express reverence, awe, devotion, and belonging, tend to be more interpersonal than mediated. With radio and television some rituals are broadcast, yet presence at and participation in a physical communal event is usually considered necessary for sacred purposes. Popular religious communication remains fundamentally oral and visual, especially within ritual performance contexts.
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