The Church of Facebook is set to capture the human soul in silicon. On July 25, the New York Times reported that since 2017 the social media giant has quietly cultivated exclusive partnerships with select religious communities. As always, money is involved.
While Facebook’s ultimate goals remain sealed behind non-disclosure agreements, the Times article does hint at things to come: “The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money.”
“The partnerships reveal how Big Tech and religion are converging,” the Times continues. “Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life.”
In other words, ultra-mod spiritual centers will be blessed by mass data extraction, algorithmic polarization, and censorship of theological “misinformation.”
If Facebook’s history is any guide, every digital prayer will be scooped up and turned into a data point. Livestreamed preachers who deny the sanctity of LGBT lifestyles will be flagged and punished as “extremists.” Best of all, smartphone-addicted congregants can donate their last widow’s mite with the touch of a virtual button. Sounds like a little slice of heaven, doesn’t it?
Getting Saved in the Metaverse
The Church of Facebook is just one part of a much broader vision. Three days before the Times article appeared, The Verge published an in-depth interview with founder Mark Zuckerberg about his ambition to “bring the metaverse to life.” The term refers to the evolution of 24/7 screentime into a warped synthesis of physical reality, mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality.
The Metaverse was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopian novel “Snow Crash.” The author imagined the decadent virtual realm as an escape from a dismal society run by mega-corporations. Now that the Metaverse is being funded by Silicon Valley oligarchs and Wall Street traders, we’re supposed to believe it’ll be a fine place to live.
In his Verge interview, Zuckerberg describes the Metaverse as an “embodied internet” — “the holy grail of social interactions” — where we can work, play, and enjoy a “sense of presence” alongside teleporting holograms. He predicts that within the next five years — around the same time Elon Musk hopes to achieve digital telepathy through brain chips — Facebook will “transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
According to Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, it will also be a spiritual endeavor. “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” she told the Times. “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
Imagine a synagogue where a holographic burning bush recites the Decalogue, or a cathedral where saint icons speak to you directly, or maybe animated deities waving their many arms in Hindu temples. Immersive idolatry is the future of false religion. With 3 billion users worldwide — and zero sense of sacred boundaries — Facebook is poised to lead this spiritual revolution.
From the New Atlantis to Techno-Occultism
It’s true that with enough hyperbole, anything can be described as a “religion.” People often say things like “Art is my religion” or “Nature is my religion.” Critics also use this to scold their opponents, perhaps accurately, saying “Science is their religion” or even “Video gaming is their religion.” But this is not hyperbole: Technology has become a religion.
If you look at the personalities behind techno-fetishism, they frequently describe digital culture in spiritual terms. Smart devices produce all the miracles promised by religion, and for an affordable price. It’s a dream world with a long history.
In Francis Bacon’s unfinished 1626 novel “The New Atlantis,” he describes a technocratic utopia with “perspective-houses, where we make demonstrations of all lights and radiations. … We procure means [to] represent things near as afar off; and things afar off as near.” The pioneering scientist warns of vivid mechanical “illusions” that could be presented as “miracles.” As far back as the 17th century, Bacon was imagining holograms. In a sense, his New Atlantis has already arrived on your laptop display.
Striking a dissonant note, in 1976 the first Apple computer went on sale for $666.66. Despite the cuddly Steve Wozniak’s insistence that it was just a fluke, the numeric symbolism has dark resonance in the Christian imagination. You don’t have to be superstitious to appreciate the mythical implications. When I visited the famous Apple Museum in Prague, Czech Republic, a large decal on the front window read: “Three apples changed the world. The first tempted Eve, the second inspired Newton, and the third was offered to the world half-eaten by Steve Jobs.”
Many observers are thrilled by these infernal archetypes. In 1988, Timothy Leary published his classic essay “Digital Polytheism: Load and Run High-tech Paganism.” The High Priest of LSD explicitly describes the personal computer in terms of ritual magic: “Today, digital alchemists have at their command tools of a precision and power unimagined by their predecessors.”
“Computer screens ARE magical mirrors, presenting alternate realities at varying degrees of abstraction on command (invocation). Aleister Crowley defined magick as ‘the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with our will,’” Leary wrote.
It’s a curious fact that, like many techno-fetishists, Leary was as obsessed with Crowleyan “magick” as he was with psychedelics and cybernetics. In fact, his essay opens with Crowley’s catchy little ditty:
We place no reliance
On virgin or pigeon;
Our Method is Science,
Our Aim is Religion.
In the smartphone age, even a “midwit” wizard can summon transportation, Sichuan noodles, or casual sex with a few swipes of the touchscreen. But that’s just a cheap parlor trick. Big Tech titans can observe our inner worlds in the aggregate, or each of us one by one. They can use that information to sell targeted ads, manipulate public consciousness, or sway national elections. It’s just like magic, except it works (almost) every time.
Building Back Better with Corporate Religion
This mystical connection is not some secret conspiracy. For instance, on Good Friday of 2020 — while religious communities were forbidden to gather in-person and forced to worship online — Microsoft launched a controversial ad for their HoloLens 2 mixed-reality glasses. The advertisement featured an art exhibit called “The Life” by Marina Abramović. In it, we see goggled hipsters standing around a bougie gallery, looking pleased with themselves. Suddenly, the “Spirit Cooking” sorceress materializes in a red dress.
“I believe the art of the future is art without objects,” Abramović narrates. “There is always this great ideal of immortality. Once you die, the work of art will never die. … Here, I am kept forever.”
The ad may be as tacky as it is sinister, but you don’t have to be a crazed dot-connector to see the profound symbolism. It’s merely one expression of an increasingly influential worldview.
Incidentally, both Microsoft and Facebook are among the many partners at the XR Association who’ve joined forces to manifest the Metaverse in our daily lives — from basic infrastructure to spirituality. Google, Sony, and HTC are also leaders in the effort. “Immersive technology will play a vital role in America’s drive to Build Back Better,” the XRA website promises. “Over the course of the next decade, the physical and digital worlds will merge at an unprecedented scale.”
While citizens bicker over vaccine mandates and debt ceilings, Big Tech is crafting a parallel universe for a new breed of humans to inhabit. Right now, the “magic mirrors” used to enter that world are touchscreens in our palms. In the coming years, we’ll be wearing them on our foreheads. Each of us will be free to spiral off into our own inconsequential reality, playing make-believe in the shadow of a homogenizing corporate umbrella. It will be heaven on earth.
Maybe you don’t buy that story, and that’s fine. Don’t worry about it! If Zuckerberg’s proposed universal basic income is sufficiently generous, the powers that be will just buy it for you.