How Facebook Is Transforming Religion

Author
A. Trevor Sutton

July 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: Sightings is pleased to bring you this follow-up to a previous column by the same author, “Social Media and Sin” (April 5), which was one of our best-received pieces of the past academic year. It addresses topics that are discussed in greater detail in an article forthcoming in Concordia Journal.

Proteus, the shepherd of Poseidon’s seals from Greek mythology, was known for his ability to change shape when captured. If anyone tried to apprehend him, he would elude imprisonment by changing his appearance and slipping into the sea without giving up any of his secrets.

Facebook, Inc., the digital shepherd of profiles and posts, appears to be a modern Proteus. CEO Mark Zuckerberg made global news when he recently testified before Congress in the midst of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Congress sought to apprehend Facebook and force it to give up its secrets. Like the wily Proteus of old, the social media giant assumed an empathetic and conscientious appearance, thereby evading capture.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and congressional hearings, Facebook reported its strongest first quarter earnings in company history. The #DeleteFacebook movement only briefly trended on various social media platforms. Many people are back to posting, liking, and scrolling as usual.

It would seem that Facebook is here to stay.

As part of his “apology tour,” Zuckerberg offered the following statement: “So across every part of our relationship with people, we’re broadening our view of our responsibility, from just giving people tools to recognizing that it’s on us to make sure those tools are used well.”

Facebook (and perhaps Silicon Valley as a whole) is reflecting on the impact and influence its technology has on society. Facebook is considering how its tools are used both individually and collectively. Facebook is spending time contemplating its navel. Through all of this, Facebook is asking questions that have to do with technological determinism.  

Technological determinism, as its name would imply, explains the ways in which technology determines the structure and values of a society. This theory understands technology as a powerful force in daily life. Far from an inert object waiting passively for an actor to arrive and decide how best to use it, technology is itself an actor networked with other human and non-human actors. Technology thus exerts societal influence, creates an “order,” and even predetermines human behaviors. Technology is never neutral; it is always in the process of inclining users toward a certain action, value, or social arrangement.

Drawing from the insights of technological determinism, Michigan Tech scholar Robert R. Johnson has argued that the reach of any technology extends far beyond its immediate context: “Technology helps shape the discursive and material characteristics of cultures. As technologies emerge and are incorporated into a cultural context they alter not just the immediate activity for which they were designed but also have ‘ripple effects’ that shape culture in defining ways.” 

How far does the “ripple effect” of social media reach? If Facebook can influence democracy and elections, can it also influence our religious beliefs? Are these platforms actively shaping our theologies and the ways in which we live out our faith?

Research from Baylor University sociologist Paul McClure indicates that digital technologies do, in fact, have a profound impact on religious belief. McClure’s article “Tinkering with Technology and Religion in a Digital Age,” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, argues that frequent internet use correlates to more “religious tinkering” and spiritual bricolage. Hypertext invites users to stitch together a panoply of diverse and otherwise disconnected religious perspectives. “Today,” says McClure, “perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas—even different, conflicting religions—before we decide how we want to live.”

As we spend hours each day on social media platforms, we are ourselves being shaped by these technologies. Theologians and other scholars of religion, therefore, need to begin paying much more attention to social media. A thorough examination of this technology calls for more than merely superficial observation of its features and functions. Scholars must recognize the furtive influence of social media on our religious behaviors, and attend to the ways in which these digital technologies are reconstituting the forces of faith in our pluralistic society. We must reckon both with the technical objects themselves and with the ways in which they are situated within society.

Facebook, in and of itself, may seem inconsequential to religion. But Facebook, as it is deployed in the world and as it is involved in shaping the religious beliefs and practices of billions of people, is massively important to the global religious landscape. Facebook has already shown that it has the power to shape our politics and democratic process. When will we be ready—and what will it mean—to acknowledge that it is also reconfiguring our faith?

Resource

Johnson, Robert. User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts. SUNY Press, 1998.

Photo Credit: qiaomeng/Flickr (cc)


A. Trevor Sutton (@atrevorsutton) is a PhD student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is co-author, with Gene Edward Veith, of Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Postmodern World (Concordia Publishing, 2017). Learn more at atrevorsutton.com.

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (PhD’18). Sign up here to get Sightings by email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by A. Trevor Sutton