Religions arise when people need them.
Regardless of whether the scriptures are truthful or whether deities exist, religions and religious phenomena serve emotional needs.
That is why they rise and thrive in times and places filled with fear, unhappiness, bitterness and oppression – times and places whose long-cherished earlier hopes and dreams seem false, tainted or unattainable.
Do we inhabit such a time and place?
New forms of worship, sacrifice and ritual?
Social media has ingrained versions of these practices and creeds that led our ancestors to build burial mounds and worship trees — but now it’s as easy as clicking send.
Is social media itself a new religion? Or is it simply a series of circumstances through which users find and follow factions that are supposedly secular but operate like cults, denominations or sects?
Before we think about the details, see our dedication.
More than 4 billion people worldwide regularly interact with social media – these are their “users”. us. Most of these billions spend more than two hours a day on it – voluntarily. This indicates devotion, sacrifice – while renouncing everything else, at least for those two hours.
Features shared by religions and social media
Scholars have specified a number of characteristics that define religions as such. Every single trait from this list exists in almost every human hobby, group, or gathering. But social media owns the whole set.
- Common Beliefs: Traditional religions are based on common principles (e.g. “There is one God.”). The principle that drives social media is that fame matters most, famous people deserve worship because they are famous, and popularity is the supreme pursuit.
- Myths and origin stories about deities and phenomena: Modern versions of Genesis and the tales of Olympus are tales centered around Kim Kardashian’s sextape and Belle Delphine selling her bathwater.
- Hope for “Heaven”: Many users dream of one day posting content that goes viral – in a good way, not in a devastating/deletable way – and thereby entering the “paradise” of fortune and fame.
- Threats of “Hell”: Persistent fears of insult, ridicule, unpopularity, and other tragedies could spur depression and suicidal thoughts, which studies have linked to social media.
- rituals: Clicking likes and checking for notifications are rituals. Ditto for TikTok challenges, which come from who-knows-where and en masse, asking users to perform certain dances, commit certain crimes, or take certain substances.
- Deities, deities or other celestials: With superhuman beauty, power, and appeal, influencers receive devotion in the form of worship, loyalty, docility, imitation, and money from devout millions they never see in real life.
- Symbols: Hashtags, emojis and acronyms are the yin-yang and ankh of social media, offering solidarity and a sense of superiority through familiarity and semi-secrecy. TikTok even has its own set of specially coded “hidden” emojis.
- assumptions of salvation: Users feel “liberated” from the fears of boredom, isolation, disconnection, and the unhipness of not using social media. Engagement like DMs from others, especially influencers, make users feel “chosen.”
- 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 insider aura of sacrosanct belonging.
- sense of identity: Users adopt group names based on preferred platforms or fandoms within them, calling themselves Instagrammers, say, or Thronies, just as members of certain beliefs call themselves Baptists or Theravadins.
- Behaviour rules: Users know the terms of service for their favorite apps – and follow them to show their loyalty, obedience, and fear of exile through 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 afterwards one often wonders where that time went.
- Altered states of consciousness: Many religions use music, herbs, and other means to produce visions and other effects. Social media spurs on a dopamine-fueled high and activates the brain’s reward system in a manner similar to the effects of addictive drugs.
We could consider it all creepy and dystopian. With 14 million followers, is Jeffree Star a god? Is Elon Musk Nebuchadnezzar? But if, as studies suggest, spirituality is linked to better health, then maybe 50 likes today isn’t so bad.