It can’t possibly be a coincidence (well, of course, it possibly can, but I’ll try to make the case that it isn’t) that the emergence of digital media directly relates to (if not a cause of) a huge shift in religious sensibility. Coincidence does not indicate causation, I know. Yet simple curiosity made me want to investigate whether these two things happening at the same time are related phenomena. There’s a sharp decline in explicit religious affiliation, across North America and Europe. There’s a sharp increase in people who identify as “None” – not atheist, which is a category they can check in, say, the Pew Research; they aren’t even committing to even that dogmatic tradition.
While I’m interested in digital media more generally, social media might be the most pertinent consideration here. Social media dates back at least to 1973 when Dave Wooley and Douglas Brown at the University of Illinois created Talkomatic, a multi-user chat room that was a great success for the PLATO Systems online community, the Plato System, that dates back to the 1960s. (Of course, I’m grabbing this information off of Wikipedia; see “Timeline of Social Media”.)
In 1973 I was sitting in a Chinese Language class with a group of smug young students who chuckled at our professor’s reference to the Christian Trinity as “the old man, the little boy, and the chicken.” Only one young woman didn’t laugh. When questioned by this incredulous professor if she believed in God, she stated firmly, “Yes, and I try to shape my life according to Jesus’ teaching .” Silence. Were we incredulous or humbled? I can’t speak for the others certainly, only for myself: I was both incredulous and humbled.
Fast forward to 2016, a Religious Studies class in an art college and now I’m the instructor. (Again, I urge you to check out Wikipedia’s “Timeline of Social Media”.) Linked in is nearly 16 years old, MySpace is 13 years old and mostly redundant with Facebook 12 years old… yes, there was a time before Facebook. A student is presenting on the phenomena of “Spiritual but not religious” which, according to his straw poll, is the belief system of everyone in this class of mixed race, mixed gender identities, mixed ethnicities, and everyone way out of the closet. Only one student, in fact, doesn’t identify as “spiritual but not religious”. He is a DJ, long hair, engaged to a Satanist, and a strong Roman Catholic. In fact, he’s going to present on St. Thomas Aquinas, and wonders if I’ve heard of this man. (I had.)
What strikes me is not that there is exactly one person, now forty years later, who holds an explicit and strong Christian conviction. What strikes me is that only one of my classmates held any spiritual commitment or practice forty years ago. Now I’m looking over an entire class of tattooed artists and they all do.
And their lives together on social media is profoundly connected.
Recent Pew Research studies indicate that this isn’t generational. The shift away from institutionalized religion to identify as “None” – no affiliation, not an atheist – is across all generations, just as the use of social media is intergenerational.
(To be continued….)