The week of December 14, 2014

Is there room for God on the Internet?

By Cooper Fleishman

Are you there, God? Is there a place for you on the World Wide Web?

Before I began commissioning stories for this issue, I wasn’t sure. In my corner of the social Web, from the dominant cavalcade of mainstream stories on Facebook’s News Feed to the under-the-radar subcommunities of Twitter and Reddit, the closest you’ll get to a sign of faith is an ironic #blessed hashtag or a prayer-hands emoji.

I have an unshakable belief in our right to customize our networks, to cull our social feeds to create a place where we feel welcome. I believe in the echo chamber. But I also believe that too much culling can restrict our worldview, and I had to face the fact that I’ve spent the last 10 years building a community of educated, left-leaning, Internet-savvy, agnostic contemporaries.

If you’re a Web-fluent millennial, how do you reconcile your faith with your Facebook?

Moreover, I’d argue that much of the “front-facing” social Web, the collection of social networks that influence news media, is stridently God-free. Anarcho-sociopathic teenage troll hubs like 4chan and parts of Reddit, where r/atheism was a front-page community for years, are a feeding tube for Internet culture. They send a river of Webby soylent into the hungry maw of the news media. Then, twice an hour, the media projectile-vomits clickbait headlines into the content processing plant of Facebook. It’s often hard to find substance in the content stream—and it’s even harder if you derive substance from faith.

Most difficult of all is navigating your complicated relationship with God in public.

If you’re a Web-fluent millennial, how do you reconcile your faith with your Facebook? Where do you go to find solace? How do you explore your beliefs in public territory? And what if you do it “wrong,” like the teens taking selfies at the Auschwitz concentration camp, nobly—if discourteously—trying to make sense of their Jewish ancestry by literally inserting themselves in history, only to find yourself mocked by millions across the Web?

As Dylan Love writes in his story, “The Church of Whatever: Finding God in the Internet age,” everything old-time religion is new again. The subreddit is the modern-day church pew. The tweet is the modern-day psalm. “The Internet has made it clear that there are as many ways to relate to God as there are people on the planet,” he writes.

The subreddit is the modern-day church pew. The tweet is the modern-day psalm.

Casey N. Cep has found a momentary connection with God in the Twitter microprayer, a kind of “digital compline,” as she calls it. Others try to connect through online media and find themselves along the way. Allen Weiner takes a trip to Auschwitz and becomes cognizant of a kinship with selfie-snapping teens. Will Rogers, a former viral star on Christian video hub, explores his compulsion to share his lack of faith with believers. Greg Stevens investigates transhumanism and the soul, the theory of tech-assisted life beyond the restrictions of the human body. Aaron Sankin explores the relationship between faith and SEO in his insider’s look into the Universal Life Church. And in our Me IRL interview with former Pedro the Lion frontman David Bazan, we talk about what it is to lose your religion in public.

In Love’s essay, you’ll find a brief meditation on the Latin phrase solvitur ambulando, which means “it is solved by walking”—by experimenting, by experiencing, by moving, by wrestling. The Internet has given us a wide-open area for the deepest soul-searching of our lives. We just need to remember that our stumbles will live on forever.

Happy holidays.

Photo via peasap/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)