Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins didn’t always coin terms that would be used by millions of people worldwide, but when he did, he gave us the word “meme.” Researchers at Texas A&M University studied Internet memes, specifically religious memes, and found they hold some of the best clues to understanding how religion is viewed in modern society.
A “meme,” as defined by Dawkins in 1976, is an idea, belief or behavior that is spread through a given culture or social system via social or information sharing. Internet memes generally take the form of an image over which text is written and are, for the most part, intended to be humorous, often using sarcasm, pop culture references and puns to relay an idea or simply poke a bit of fun.
Professor of Communication Heidi Campbell, who specializes in the intersection of new media, religion and digital culture, along with a team of graduate students, analyzed six different cases of Internet memes: “Advice God;” “Buddy Christ;” the Christian Meme Facebook page; Mitt Romney/Mormon Memes; Muslim Memes on Facebook; and “Tweeting Orthodoxies,” memes on an Israeli-Jewish Facebook page. The study “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” was published in the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture.
“Internet memes tend to boil down complex ideas into broad generalizations that can express popular assumptions or biases about religion, so that images and messages about religion often become over-simplified or distorted in memes,” Campbell explains. “This helps highlight what people see as important or problematic in religion.” She says religious Internet memes are created to emphasize both affirmations and critiques of God and religion.
Each of the case studies was examined in three areas: meme construction, use of humor and audience reception.
“We found that memes break down, or essentialize, religion, in positive and negative ways, making religious ideas more accessible and popularized,” notes Campbell. She adds that religious memes also require a certain level of cultural and religious literacy to be understood, especially for those outside the tradition, such as observed in the Islamic and the Jewish memes studied.
The research team found many memes have subtle nuances and intertextuality that mix affirmation with challenges to religious values and practices. For example, one “Buddy Christ” meme the team studied takes the popular image of Jesus from the movie “Dogma,” overlaid with the text “The body of Christ is ‘snackrelicious.’” While playful, Campbell explains, the intertextual message is one that questions the ritual of Christian communion and challenges notions of religious authority.
And while Buddy Christ memes often critique religion, others offer an opportunity to affirm religious faith and practices, as members observed in comments posted on blogs and sites such as memegenerator.com. For example, a blog post by an Episcopalian priest suggested that Buddy Christ memes offer readers the chance to reflect on whether or not they demonstrate the same joyful witness as Buddy Christ.
Memes can be used to either reject or promote religious stereotypes. For example, the Muslim custom of women wearing hijabs, or head scarfs, is viewed by many outside the religion as oppressive. Yet team members observed wearing a veil was frequently affirmed in memes created by Muslims, such as one showing a woman wearing a hijab with the words “Forgot to be oppressed, too busy being awesome.”
On the other hand, memes concerning the Mormon religion were observed as reductionist in nature, reducing its religious beliefs to simplistic terms. “This created a caricature of Mormonism that its practitioners would not recognize or agree with,” according to the study.
Research team member Ruth Tsuria, a Ph.D. candidate in communication, focused on the “Advice God” series of memes in which the Judeo-Christian God as depicted in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is placed on a background of blue and yellow triangles. Advice God is predominantly used to portray anti-religious themes or critiques of religion.
Tsuria says the major critiques in Advice God have to do with perceived inconsistencies and contradictions in Judeo-Christianity, portraying God as an unethical figure who doesn’t follow his own rules.
“Memes work because they shove so much meaning into just a few words,” Tsuria explains. “It’s a sophisticated way to communicate and it’s not fixed. Memes are the nomads of the Internet; as they travel, they collect and develop new meanings. They exemplify how online users produce and consume culture together.”
The researchers also examined responses to the memes posted as reader comments, which they found varied based on the platform but were mainly positive. “Even though religion is a sensitive subject, when it comes to memes, it seems for many people, religion and humor can mix well together,” Campbell notes.
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