There’s a new mega-church in town—one already boasting over two billion members. Although launched in 2004, “Pastor” Mark Zuckerberg only recently Christianized his online community by comparing Facebook to a church:
A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter…People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity – not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.
While people of faith who attend doctrinally-based churches or synagogues scoffed at the idea of Facebook as a replacement, Zuckerberg thinks he knows his flock. But does he? Or is Zuckerberg projecting what, by all appearances, is his belief system—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
Our New Religious Creed: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
As Christianity Today explained in “Death by Deism,” Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton “discovered [this] newly dominant creed that they dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” after years researching the religious life of American teenagers. In their 2005 book “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” Smith and Denton identified five underlying beliefs professed by the more than 3,000 teenagers they began interviewing in 2002:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
From his public comments about religion, Zuckerberg, who came of age at the same time as the subjects of “Soul Searching,” seems to subscribe to a similar belief system—one founded on a creed of kindness.
For instance, in 2015, Zuckerberg, who was raised Jewish and later identified as an atheist—a view he has since renounced—posted a picture of himself praying at a Buddhist temple. In his post, Zuckerberg noted that “Buddhism is an amazing religion and philosophy.” Facebook has also integrated the “Buddhist-inspired concept of compassion” into its anti-bullying efforts. Zuckerberg likewise had kind words for Pope Francis, telling him how much he “admire[d] his message of mercy and tenderness.”
It would seem only natural, then, that Zuckerberg would view Facebook as the church incarnate. What better way to satisfy humans’ supposed central goal in life—“to be happy and to feel good about oneself”—than by sharing pictures and posts of joyful occasions? Or, as is more likely the case, by posting perfectly posed pictures of themselves, their vacations, and their food?
Or consider this excerpt from “Soul Searching”: “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” What better church to join than the one that allows you to connect with the latest artists and celebrities, and learn more minutiae about their glamorous lives?
Facebook’s Community Can’t Make People Happy
But is that enough for believers? Moralistic Therapeutic Deists seem to think so, since one of the few tenets they profess is that “nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion.” Facebook is definitely the place to do nothing!
Facebook would seem to be the perfect church for a belief system that has replaced the “sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the self,” especially “[i]n this therapeutic age, [where] human problems are reduced to pathologies in need of a treatment plan.” And, as The Federalist’s Joy Pullman detailed recently, social media is the place to find those self-care treatment plans and boast of their “success.”
Yet studies show that the more time spent on Facebook, the more happiness and mood decline, and the more depressive symptoms increase. In this case, Zuckerberg may have lost sight of the needs of his flock—or at least its newest members.
The current generation of Facebook users seems to have a much different view of the social media goliath than its founder. When asked for her thoughts, Donna Freitas, a Non-Residential Research Associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion, told me, “After spending two years interviewing college students all over the country for my national study on social media and young adults, (published as “The Happiness Effect” at Oxford University Press), I would say that very few students seek community—the kind you might find at church—on social media.”
“So, if I had to make a guess, based on my study, I’d say that young adults who turned to Facebook to find the sort of community a church might provide, would regard this as a kind of failure on their part and on society’s as well—as a last resort, in other words. Facebook should be a tool they can use. Period. A number of students reacted angrily because they believe that Facebook was constantly trying to use them (manipulate them), when they believed that it is always and should only be a tool for their use.”
A Virtual Church Will Always Fall Flat
Given Freitas’ perspective, it would seem Zuckerberg misjudged the appeal of a virtual church. Unless, that is, society fails the Facebook generation. Or already has. And my guess would be that we already have. If the Church of Facebook takes root, it will not be an indictment of Zuckerberg or social media but of society: It will merely be the latest manifestation of a society that has traded concepts of kindness for dogmas of faith—a society that has lost its religion.
While it is easy to cast aspersions on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as Freitas put it, “there is a kind of derisive attitude that we take about this spiritual affiliation (if we can call it that) among young adults, and in this derision, we miss the fact that there is an implicit critique of traditional religions that many young adults are enacting in their decision-making to distance themselves from traditional religions, in favor of something else less tangible.”
Yet it would seem impossible to decipher that critique because Smith, now a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, explained in “Soul Searching,” American teens were unable to articulate their religious beliefs:
“To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both.”
Therein lies the problem. Too many churches have attempted to reach the younger generation by dumbing down the faith and spicing up the entertainment. But when the “fun” wanes, the flock flees, and they leave disillusioned with a religion they really never learned about.
We Still Need Real, Incarnational Churches
On the other hand, doctrinally rich churches (and synagogues) find their membership rolls growing. Well-versed in their religious traditions, these faith-filled individuals would never seek refuge in the Facebook community because the cult of the individual can never replace the community of the divine. Father David Palmer beautifully explained just that point—and more—in his response in the Catholic Herald to Zuckerberg’s comments: “Christianity is an incarnational religion. Social media is the opposite,” writing:
“Religions offer answers to peoples’ deepest needs and desires: What does it mean to be human? How do I live my life? What happens when I die? Where is true love to be found? When people feel they have found the answers (or at least guideposts on the way to those answers) then they will become engaged with the community built around those answers. Facebook cannot hope to answer those questions. If anything, it is part of the problem.”
But while Father Palmer sees Facebook as part of the problem, it is rather a symptom of a diseased society that has failed for years to share its repository of faith with the next generation. And a quick press of the share button is really no substitute.