Mormon Newsroom

Keeping Religion Real

Keeping Religion Real

Social media can facilitate real friendships, but institutions maintain them

Commentary

We all benefit from the communication technologies of our time. These breakthroughs bridge large distances, quicken communication, increase education, simplify shopping and entertain us. But what do they do to our relationships with each other, with our communities and ultimately with God? What does this technology do to our sense of reality?

This tension between cyberspace and the real world is a complex balancing act unique to our age. We collectively struggle with “technology-fueled isolation” to get to “the humanity that lies beneath.”[1]

Sherry Turkle, known for her social analysis of science and technology, says today we are connected but alone. "New devices encourage ever-greater volume and velocity," she writes. "In this escalation of demands, one of the things that comes to feel safe is using technology to connect people at a distance, or more precisely, to a lot of people from a distance. But even a lot of people from a distance can turn out to be not enough people at all."[2]

In truth, at least 40 percent of American adults over 45 feel lonely.[3] Though many have hundreds of Facebook friends, Americans on average have only two close friends in their offline world.[4] Little wonder, Turkle concludes, that "the ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind."[5]

Social media can, and often does, facilitate and supplement real friendships, but it is institutions that maintain them.

The Heft of Religion’s Social Capital

The tenuous ties formed through technology should point us to the strong ties that can be found in organized religion. Yes, a person can experience spirituality in solitude, but “religion only happens when he gets together with his friends and family.”[6] We are social animals, created to interact with each other.

 

As its Latin root "to bind" suggests, religion should be a unifying force that brings us together. But fewer people go to church today — a fact as unfavorable for society at large as it is for churches. Houses of worship are an example of what one sociologist calls a “third place”[7] — a community-building space where people spend time in between their first and second places of home and work. Indeed, those who do attend gather regularly in their congregations to teach, serve and comfort each other and their neighbors. They are joined by covenant — with each other and with God — to share sorrows and joys and burdens.

Burden bearing brings people together so powerfully, in part, because it often requires real, in-the-flesh interactions. Such physical presence is a key component of religion’s social glue. As Rabbi David Wolpe has said, churches “remain that rare place in American society where people of different ages sit together in common cause. … In a world where community is increasingly difficult, and atomization is becoming the norm, Prayer is a moment of togetherness.”[8]

The Power of Personal Ministry

Ministry cannot be virtual. For Christians, it cannot be overstated that Jesus came as a real person to minister to real people in real places. “It is not possible to have a Christian gospel apart from place and person,” one prominent pastor has written. “It works exclusively in creation and incarnation, in things and people.”[9]

Jesus blessed the people of everyday life — men, women and children — the sick, the deaf, the blind and the dumb. He stayed with His followers for 40 days after His Resurrection. According to the Book of Mormon, He visited peoples in other lands, weeping with, healing and embracing them one-by-one in all their difference and complexity.[10] His in-person visit proved so powerful that the people experienced unprecedented peace and harmony for more than 160 years after He left.[11]

The power of religious presence can have a similar impact. Watching a sermon alone in your home on YouTube can inspire, uplift and motivate. But by itself, such a solitary experience lacks human touch. It lacks tangibility. “A video screen cannot match the anxious thrill and warm spark of human contact,” Rabbi Wolpe says.[12] Such contact matters when we understand, as one study of American religion says, that individual spirituality transforms into neighborliness only when we feel “religious belonging” as we chat “with friends after [a worship] service or [join] a Bible study group.”[13]

The Social Hereafter

In 1843, long before our pixelated age, Joseph Smith taught, “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in heaven], only it will be coupled with eternal glory.”[14] Coming as it did in a day void of mediating screens, his message says much about God’s concern not just that we socialize, but that we do so together and in-person. Heaven, therefore, is other people.

Face-to-face ministry and worship carries more weight than a digital gathering, allowing us to see things “as they really are”[15] as we look our fellow beings in the eye and recognize a reflection of the face of God.

 

[1] Lauren DeFilippo, “Drive-In Jesus,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/drive-in-church-florida.html?_r=0.

[2] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), 280.

[3] See G. Oscar Anderson, “Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+,” AARP, Sept. 2010, https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/life/info-2014/loneliness_2010.html.

[4] See “You Gotta Have Friends? Most Have Just 2 True Pals,” NBC News, Nov. 4, 2011, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/you-gotta-have-friends-most-have-just-2-true-pals-f1C6436540.

[5] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 280.

[6] Patrick Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015), 136.

[7] Ray Oldenburg, Project for Public Spaces, https://www.pps.org/reference/roldenburg/.

[8] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Internet Can’t Replace Real Human Interaction,” Time, Sept. 16, 2015, http://time.com/4036310/rosh-hashana-internet-sacred-spaces/.

[9] Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God (2017), 81.

[10] See 3 Nephi 11:15.

[11] See 4 Nephi 1:17–24.

[12] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Internet Can’t Replace Real Human Interaction,” http://time.com/4036310/rosh-hashana-internet-sacred-spaces/.

[13] David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), 472.

[14] Doctrine and Covenants 130:2.

[15] Jacob 4:13.

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