Do you remember Gordon Gecko in the original film of Wall Street proclaiming that Greed is Good? Unwittingly, he may have been formulating a wonderful law about how religions rise and fall, and I’m not referring to the materialism of Prosperity churches. Worldwide, the churches that succeed and boom, that win and retain members, tend to be the “greedy groups” – greedy above all for your time and commitment. They don’t leave you alone for long, and in consequence, you rarely leave them. And recent changes in our technological landscape mean that our religious culture is about to become much greedier and more demanding. We are on the verge of a radical change in our religious behavior.
Over the centuries, the history of religious change has been intimately bound up with new forms of media. The world’s oldest printed book is a Buddhist scripture (a ninth century Chinese copy of the Diamond Sutra), and the Protestant Reformation owed its success to the spread of printing in the West. Apart from the obvious impact of Bible translations, printing allowed the easy spread of pamphlets, handbills, song-books, chapbooks, and especially cartoons, which were a critical vehicle for distributing the Reformation message throughout Northern Europe. Thomas Carlyle famously listed “the three great elements of modern civilization: gunpowder, printing, and the Protestant religion.” Moreover, the fact of reading texts – as opposed to hearing them – fundamentally changed the means by which audiences understood, processed and remembered the information they learned in the churches. In light of this history, it’s essential to explore and confront the religious implications of the technological changes that we are living through today. These changes after all constitute the most radical transformation in forms of media at least since the sixteenth century, and they may well augur a comparable shift in consciousness.
In order to suggest the impact of these technologies, consider some of the reasons why religious institutions rise or fall. Over the past fifty years or so, some American churches have declined sharply while others have boomed. The best known decliners are the so-called mainline liberal denominations, the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and the rest, while more conservative and traditional-minded churches have boomed, including the Southern Baptists and Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God. Sectarian groups like the Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses have both flourished. We see a similar pattern within Judaism, in which liberal congregations have stagnated, while the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have grown spectacularly.
These changing fortunes have attracted plenty of different explanations, including demographic factors (traditional minded churches promote and value larger families) and the appeal of simple, orthodox doctrines expressed without compromise or apology. Most convincing, though, is what we might call an investment theory of religion, namely that the groups that demand the most of their members also give the most back, thereby securing the loyalty of their followers. If you attend church for just an hour every week, or every other week, your attachment to that institution is not likely to be too profound. On the other hand, imagine a church that demands long hours of participation going far beyond church attendance, that demands its members contribute serious time and effort, not to mention money, commonly by tithing. In the Mormon case, this commitment includes the celebrated vow made by young people to serve the church in whatever role it may demand, and wherever in the world it may take them. If you really have given your all to the church, you are not likely to leave it over some doctrinal squabble, some hot new book trying to expose flaws in the Book of Mormon. These churches moreover do an excellent job of using such commitment to build a communal identity separate from that of the mainstream world.
So much is familiar from sociological theories of religion and religious change, but now let’s factor in our current technological revolution, the world of the Internet and social media, of pads and smartphones. At first sight, this new environment would seem to work abominably with traditional notions of organized religion, as the electronic setting meshes so poorly with notions of authority or hierarchy. The whole ambience of the medium favors voluntarism, participation, and grazing among available options. The Internet is a world that functions most naturally on a peer-to-peer basis, rather than on the authoritative distribution of spiritual goods by a narrow elite. While written texts are inflexible, Internet content is endlessly malleable, and so are the truths it communicates. The medium is best suited to that kind of mix and match self-created religion that is sometimes called “cafeteria” faith. Nor is the highly atomized electronic culture hospitable to any attempts to impose – or even to imply – moral absolutes. If printing and the Reformation laid the basis for modernity and Protestantism, then electronic media seem eminently suited for post-modernity, and even for post-Christianity.
But if the new media world undermines orthodoxy, it promises – or threatens – to create extraordinarily greedy structures that elevate communal identity to levels undreamt of even in the most authoritarian cults. However paradoxical this may seem, the same technology that so exalts individual enterprise and seeking coexists with an astonishing willingness to trample all familiar notions of privacy and separation.
As social media have proliferated over the past decade, they have revolutionized ideas of friendship and social circles, so that young users especially do not hesitate before sharing virtually every trivial fact, opinion, visual image or news item about everyday life. The dominant ethos is one of relentless sharing: a friend is someone who shares access to a blog or journal in which nothing is apparently censored or sacrosanct, who shares all your videos and photographs – someone in short with whom you share something approaching a true group consciousness. You allow friends to track your geographical location at any given moment, and to determine their surroundings. You elaborate on your personal tastes in reading, films and television. You put online facts that in earlier generations you might have admitted only to intimate family or, in religious settings, with fellow members of a communal sect, in ritual sessions of mutual confession and penitence. You hold back nothing.
Before your friends, you have no intimate secrets, and you care little that these may ultimately escape to a wider audience. If you grew up with the Internet, you also know that privacy is an unattainable fantasy, but you have long since learned to live with the fact, and it does not restrain your limitless self-revelations. You understand and accept universal surveillance. The only deadly sin is withholding or censoring experience.
Putting those themes together, we can imagine future religious networks united by a degree of mutual knowledge and intimacy unimaginable in any previous age. A future church, for instance, would need nothing like the intense investigation of candidates for membership on the lines of seventeenth century Puritans, to discover the state of souls and their progress to salvation: all this information would be instantly clear from years of their confessional journals and postings.
Churches have a great many decisions to make about handling the new media world, which run far, far, beyond merely debating the need for a website. Potentially, religious organizations could easily develop forms of group solidarity and shared intimacy of an intensity that is actually frightening to anyone of an older generation – the non-sharers, as we may someday come to be labeled. Nor would it be hard to find justification for this kind of absolute organic community in the images or scriptures of the faith. If people are prepared to expose their innermost secrets to a circle of friends, why should they hold forth from those religiously oriented communities, in which they would be cells in a body, branches of a tree, petals of the flower? In fact, the only thing that is impossible in this environment is leaving it, and the greatest punishment would be exclusion.
In the 1970s, the media regularly denounced authoritarian and totalistic religious groups as exploitative “cults”, which scorned the privacy and individuality of their members. Technology could yet make such self-surrender to the needs of community a much more common reality, and a more total one. Welcome to the future?