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Is Social Media a New Religion?

Personal Perspective: It shares features scholars say define spiritual paths.

Key points

  • Given the idol worship and rituals that typify its usage, social media could be considered one big religion or a gateway to countless "cults."
  • Throughout history, religious movements have emerged and surged during eras fraught with fear, hatred, and danger—such as ours.
  • Studies suggest that spiritual beliefs and spiritual practice enhance well-being. So perhaps engaging in social media also has such benefits.

Religions rise when people need them.

Whether or not scriptures tell the truth or deities exist, religions and religion-ish phenomena serve emotional needs.

That's why they rise and thrive in times and places fraught with fear, misfortune, acrimony, and oppression—times and places whose long-trusted former hopes and dreams seem false, tainted, or unattainable.

Do we inhabit such a time and place?

New Forms of Worship, Sacrifice, and Ritual?

Engineered into social media are versions of those practices and creeds that made our ancestors build tumuli and worship trees—but now they're as easy as clicking "send."

Is social media itself a new religion? Or is it simply a set of circumstances through which users find and follow factions that are ostensibly secular but operate like cults, denominations, or sects?

Before we ponder the specifics, behold our devotion.

More than 4 billion people worldwide interact regularly with social media—so its "users" are us. Most of those billions spend more than two hours daily using it—by choice. This indicates commitment, sacrifice—while forsaking, at least for those two hours, all else.

Features Shared by Religions and Social Media

Scholars have specified a certain set of features that define religions as such. Any single feature from this list exists in nearly every human hobby, group, or gathering. But social media possesses the whole set.

  • Shared beliefs: Traditional religions are based on shared principles (e.g., "There is one God."). The principle fueling social media is that fame matters most, that famous people deserve worship because they are famed, and that popularity is the highest pursuit.
  • Myths and origin stories concerning deities and phenomena: Modern versions of Genesis and the Mount Olympus tales are narratives surrounding Kim Kardashian's sex tape and Belle Delphine selling her bathwater.
  • Hoping for "heaven": Many users dream of someday posting content that goes viral—in good ways, not damning/cancellable ones—and thereby entering the "paradise" of wealth and fame.
  • Threats of "hell": Persistent dread of insults, mockery, unpopularity, and other dooms might spur the depression and suicidal ideation that studies have linked with social media.
  • Rituals: Clicking "like" and checking for notifications are rituals. So are TikTok challenges that emerge from who-knows-where and implore users en masse to perform certain dances, commit certain crimes, or ingest certain substances.
  • Deities, divinities, or other celestials: Wielding superhuman beauty, power, and allure, influencers receive devotion in the form of adoration, loyalty, compliance, mimicry, and money from devout millions who never see them in real life.
  • Symbols: Hashtags, emojis, and acronyms are the social media yin-yang and ankh, offering solidarity and a sense of superiority through fluency and semi-secrecy. TikTok even has its own set of specially coded "hidden" emojis.
  • Presumptions of salvation: Users feel "saved" from the dreaded ennui, isolation, un-belonging, and unhipness of not using social media. Engagement such as DMs from others, especially influencers, makes users feel "chosen."
  • A sense of community: Social media is, above all, social. Each platform has its own slang, traits, jokes, protocols, etiquette, celebrities, and membership procedures that evoke an insiderish aura of sacrosanct belongingness.
  • A sense of identity: Users embrace group names based on favorite platforms or fandoms within them, calling themselves Instagrammers, say, or Thronies just as members of certain persuasions call themselves Baptists or Theravadins.
  • Codes of behavior: Users know the terms of service for their favorite apps—and follow these to demonstrate their loyalty, obedience, and fear of exile via shadow-bans or worse.
  • A sense of purpose: The actual practice of using social media feels urgent, meaningful, and crucial while it's happening—although afterward one often wonders where that time went.
  • Altered states of consciousness: Many religions use music, herbs, and other means to induce visions and other effects. Social media spurs a dopamine-fueled high, activating the brain's reward system in ways that resemble the effects of addictive drugs.

We might consider all this creepy and dystopian. Is Jeffree Star, with 14 million followers, a god? Is Elon Musk Nebuchadnezzar? But if, as studies suggest, spirituality is linked with better health, then maybe clicking "like" another 50 times today is not so bad.

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