Deus ex machine: Social networks can’t replace religion

Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator:

GettyImages-511709630Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook could be to its users what churches are to congregations: it could help them feel part of ‘a more connected world’. That got a dusty response. Facebook as church, eh? So the man who helped an entire generation to replace real friends with virtual ones and online communities is sounding off about people feeling unconnected? Cause and effect or what? He wasn’t quite touting Facebook as an alternative church. It is, rather, now using artificial intelligence to suggest groups that its users might join — anything from locksmiths’ societies to addiction groups and Baptist organisations — and Mr Zuckerberg is enthusing about the benefits of moving from online to offline groups: ‘People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.’ So he’s trying to get more people to join things. Only — only! — 100 million of Facebook’s two billion users belong to a group that gives them a sense of community; he wants to raise that to a billion.

He’s right, obviously, about the benefits of being part of a group, from bellringers to Free Presbyterians, though it’s a bit weird for him to be evangelising for something that already exists, something that you might say is part of the human condition, given that we’re social animals. To take the most basic example, churches and parishes are ready-made communities under the noses of all of us. Just as they’re in radical decline in developed countries, Mark Zuckerberg is talking about how good it is to have a pastor looking out for your wellbeing. But it’s interesting that Zuckerberg identified the function of a church, specifically, as something that needs replicating. Churches were once the most obvious centre of any community, and at times of crisis, like after the Grenfell Tower fire, people still congregate there. But what’s now evident is that churches have other benefits. Specifically, churchgoing seems to have a bearing on the very contemporary problem of mental health. The object of going to church isn’t mental wellbeing, but it happens to be a documented side-product of ‘doing’ religion. And I don’t mean in the Alastair Campbell sense. A persistent finding in the field of mental health research for some years is that there is a beneficial effect of church attendance; religious practice, per se. It’s not about affiliation or spirituality, but about actually going to church. Including, I suppose, going to church all by yourself.

More here.