Francis Vierboom's Blog

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Is Facebook killing organised religion? Or is it doing something even worse?

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An interesting post by Dr Richard Beck at ‘Experimental Theology’ considers the possibility that mobile phones and online social networks are leading to lower religious affiliation among young people. This is in a follow-up to a study finding a notable drop-off among Gen Y church attendance, when compared to past generations.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (“Let’s get together for dinner this week!”). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.

It goes without saying that the broad decline in church attendance and faith in the West predates SMSes and Facebook. Secular societies, like those hellish social democracies in the Nordic countries, Francis, Germany etc have been lost to the church for decades. One can blame this on indoctrination by communist university lecturers, on the fact that most people want to use contraception, on the morally perilous selfish and indulgent outlook that apparently takes root in a prosperous, well-fed and secure society, or on improving education rates and the hypothesis that education leads people to question religion and faith. But it’s doubtless been happening.

Still, the Pew survey does seem to note a real change in the latest generation, and I can certainly recognise it anecdotally. My parents, like others I know from their generation, met and began dating at their local church youth group. And, as if to mirror that, it was actually just a few months after I first got a mobile phone that my local church youth group dissolved in vague disinterest. I haven’t married anyone from that youth group, which is unfortunate because it was full of cute girls, but I’m still good friends with a few of them.

Basically, I think Beck has hit upon an interesting phenomenon here, and one I think is probably quite true. Moreover, assuming that the social connectivity of mobile phones and Facebook does actually have an impact on church attendance, I think it’s interesting to consider what it means about the young people who are still going. In times gone by, if you were a floozy who was in the church choir to meet girls and make friends, you would have to keep attending to develop relationships with the people there. Today, once you have a few new mobile numbers and Facebook friends, you can zoom off. Sure, a lot of your new friends may not be as into drinking or partying as much as you would like, but there were probably also at least a few who were there for the same reasons as you anyway.

But I personally know people who still go to church youth groups a lot. Huge numbers of young people attend Hillsong in Sydney’s west every week, and similar ‘megachurches’ in the US tradition are springing up around Australia. World Youth Day is a pretty big show every few years for the Catholic Church. Still, if you could have just organised dinner on a Facebook event, why go to church? The answer, obviously enough, is the people who still go are really religious. They are usually happy people with good lives, but they also see a modern society plagued with problems that are largely caused by failures to observe various profound-ish pronouncements in the letters of St Paul from the second century AD. The can look into the eyes of gay people walking down Oxford St on Mardi Gras night and see the deep unhappiness and malaise caused by their denial of their true godly straight selves (paraphrasing a real quote here).

It means that what could be unkindly described as the ‘jihadi wing’ of the church is gradually coming to dominate religious institutions. Of course, old school bible bashers and religious panic merchants have been around since the Adam was a boy. Or at least Isaiah. But a less radical group was – and still today is – also a very important component of the church. These ‘moderates’ – people who hung around to get a boyfriend at the youth group and ended up staying on – are not unreligious by any means, but I would venture that the more valuable elements of the Church to these people are the sense of community and the beauty of ritual. Going to church to them is not quite a public political statement, but an important part of being a family, of maintaining a sense of values, maintaining a spiritual life, and keeping moralism as a part of personal contemplation. It’s also obviously because they believe in God and they are therefore obligated to attend. In other words, mostly harmless. And in general, they are people who reflect the broader social consensus about moral issues. Sure the church might be against gay marriage and contraception, but they have plenty of gay friends (indeed, many such moderate churchgoers are gay themselves) and laugh off the Vatican’s posturing as a mildly embarrassing and slightly outdated attitude.

The more radical wing, taking things to their logical conclusion, places more emphasis on Jesus the revolutionary, and sees the church under siege from all sides by creeping secularism and moral relativism. The truly terrifying scale of abortion, easily described on the same level as a genocidal war crime. The related but less-mentioned tragedy of contraception letting teenagers fornicate with such reckless abandon. The imminent breakdown of society to be caused by children raised by same-sex parents. The deep unhappiness visible in the eyes of homosexual and non-religious people. Some of these attitudes are a sensible, if conservative, response to big changes in society over the last few years. Some of these attitudes are alienating to many people, no matter how many pro-forma quotes about how much Jesus loves everyone get thrown around at the same time.

The upshot of the Facebook generation’s ability to leave church youth groups is that one would expect churches today to be shifting towards this more radical and insular standpoint. And I would say the trend is already observable, at least in the types of youth groups that exist now. Church youth groups might have once been a dorky but pretty normal thing to do, but now it carries a lot more meaning. And the most important effect is that a much stronger social bond of the type that can be found among groups under siege. Mobile phones might be getting church attendance down among younger generations, but it’s leaving behind a hardcore of true believers (literally) that rely on each other a lot more, and their work will strengthen the church’s position and coherence. And this will mean some big changes for the church – particularly the Catholic Church, which is at least the one I understand the best – over the coming years. There will be a scaling back from Catholicism as a broad social movement with acceptance across political and social lines, and instead movement to a more ‘paranoid style‘:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Hofstadter’s essay, even though written in 1964, is really a classic that seems to get more relevant every year and is describing something very similar to what I am trying to get at here. It’s quite possible that as the coming generation of religious Australians enter middle age, Christianity in Australia is going to look a bit more like Christianity in the USA: politically vocal, ideologically rigid, and far more influential. Christianity in the US has been locked in battle with the country’s own secular constitutional guarantees that forbid religion in public schools or any government program pretty much since they signed off on the Constitution. Religion is also concentrated in the South, which has been paranoid about the government since the Civil War. So the siege has been on there for years. It may just be coming down under.

The New York Times coverage of the study of church attendance also notes that young people, despite attending church less, are more spiritual on some measures. This is interesting too, but I might try and figure out what it means another time.

On related religious matters, Andrew Carr has a good post on the hollowness of the old ‘facts vs values’ critique of secular policymaking and a nice little deconversion confessional.

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Written by Francis

March 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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