Heidi Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University at College Station, speaks on October 18, 2019, during a conference entitled “Religion Beyond Memes” at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement at the University of Notre Dame in Washington. The one-day conference explored the role images play in how some in society perceive religions and those who practice them. (Photo CNS / Greg Gibson, Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame)

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The image looks harmless on the surface: a figure of a gray-haired man, presumably God, with text that reads, “I gave you free will, so use it exactly as I told you.” ‘ordered. “

This was an example of an image known as a meme donated by Heidi Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University, who studies how such images can affect widespread perceptions of religion and members of religious groups. .

Memes – pronounced “meems” – are rampant and hard to avoid by anyone who uses social media. members.

Campbell was one of more than a dozen panelists who attended a conference in Washington on Oct. 18 called “Religion Beyond Memes,” which explored the role that images play in how some in society perceive certain people. religions and those who practice them. Professor Ebrahim Moosa, University of Notre Dame, reminded participants that “memes can mutilate” and even become toxic, “discrediting a whole people”.

The conference, hosted by the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at Notre Dame University, was the latest effort in an initiative to foster a better understanding of world religions and which began with Hopes of a couple from Indiana.

The institute was founded in 2017 with a philanthropic donation of $ 15 million from Rafat and Zoreen Ansari, two doctors who live near the Holy Cross Institution in South Bend, Indiana, whose daughter attended Our Lady. It is part of the University’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

The Ansari were in attendance for the one-day conference in Washington where reporters, teachers and academics discussed misconceptions, the need for accuracy to combat the lies that can circulate through memes, and what others can do. to fight against disinformation about religion.

Academics such as Moosa discussed at the conference popular misconceptions that are being propagated, often via memes. Some target madrasas, a type of religious instruction school in the Islamic world – a madrasa “is not a place where terrorists are trained,” he said – and sharia, a set of values. that Muslims have developed over the centuries. Both are popular memes that seek to spread misconceptions and portray Islam as a religion to be feared.

In the absence of authorities charged with upholding the truth online, it is up to others to educate the public because memes, while they may seem harmless, can lead to lies that others begin to believe and to adopt.

“What it does is it destroys the truth,” Moosa said. “We shouldn’t take the meme at face value. The meme then substitutes the truth for its own version of what it thinks is the truth.

A quick internet search also shows that the Catholic faith and its members are not exempt from the world of offensive memes. Some take the sex abuse scandal and portray all priests as abusers and Christians in general as judgments, ignorant and hypocrites.

Memes can often only paint one side of the story, Campbell said. Some groups and individuals use memes to negatively describe faith as a system of control, not beliefs that people choose freely. But it’s not really a new development.

“One of the questions I get asked often is ‘Isn’t the Internet one of the reasons religion has such a bad reputation?’ I would say the internet doesn’t frame religion in a negative way, ”Campbell said. “What it does is it amplifies and expands some popular speeches that have taken place (offline).”

Religion online is often based on stereotypes, she said, and sometimes that’s because the nuances cannot be captured in the succinct methods used in online communication, including memes. However, there are positive ways some are using to express their religious identity online, Campbell said, and some are using digital spaces and resources to “create and fulfill” a religious identity.

“The Internet offers them a way to experience what it means to be a Muslim, a Scientologist, a Christian in contemporary society. It becomes a space where they present an alternative identity, ”she said.

For example, there is a meme that uses the image of a man wearing a “taqiyah”, or a skullcap worn by some Muslims. He’s known as an “ordinary Muslim man” meme and it says “I’m the bomb,” but below is the words “make falafel,” Campbell said. It’s an ironic effort to overturn a stereotype, but sometimes what’s humorous here in the United States isn’t in other parts of the world, she said, and sometimes an attempt to correct a stereotype. may have the opposite effect.

The meme “Buddy Christ”, from the movie “Dogma”, depicts a smiling statue of a Jesus winking, with one arm outstretched and the other raising his thumb, and in the movie he was portrayed as the new symbol of the Catholic Church, explained Campbell. Although the meme portrays a playful Jesus, it has also been used for negative narratives, Campbell said.

“Memes aren’t just about humor, they’re not just nonchalant,” she said. “These are serious spaces for us to discover how people think about religion in contemporary society. “

Panelist Michael J. Murray, president of philanthropy Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, spoke about the benefits of people of different faiths learning about other religions and their members.

“High religious literacy leads to more positive feelings towards these groups” and can “lubricate” social friction between religious groups, and this is a significant benefit to society, Murray said.
However, much of America’s knowledge of religion in recent times has come from social media, where damaging memes communicate wrong ideas.

“But where do those who talk about (these ideas) on social media come from?” Murray asked.

There is a concern, he said, that when someone hears something more than once through social media feeds, “they tend to take it more as true”, even if at some point given they had believed it was wrong, Murray said. “There is concern about the harmful effect of social media because we keep hearing the same thing over and over again, when it comes to our food… it sounds more and more true,” a- he declared.

And while many may consider religious literacy to be good for society, if there is no demand for it, “creating an offer is unsuccessful,” he said.

However, there are indications that society wants to learn more about religion and others, Murray added. He pointed to a podcast that largely includes religious topics and has 50 million downloads per year and National Geographic’s “God’s Story with Morgan Freeman”, which has become the channel’s most popular show in its series. story.

“This is an indication that there is indeed an appetite for it,” he said.