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Spiritual but Secular

When good goes viral

By Anne Bokma

Last year, Chris Farias, a 34-year-old advertising creative director in Hamilton, decided to count his blessings and name them one by one. Inspired by the 365 Grateful Project, an online initiative encouraging people to take photos of something they are thankful for and post them every day on Facebook for a full year, he snapped shots of everything from his beloved grandmother to the sunset at a friend’s cottage, a dinner out with friends and even his favourite midnight snack of peanut butter and crackers. At the end of the year, he produced a two-minute video of the photos set to a bouncy soundtrack.

“When I finished the project, I cried,” he says. “Here was an entire year of wonderful single moments I was grateful for.” Then he shared the video with his 1,000 Facebook friends.

Farias, who was raised Catholic but considers himself “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), also participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a charity effort benefiting ALS research that went viral last year, raising an unprecedented $100 million. He says these types of online feel-good exercises represent a digital devotion to the greater good that has high appeal to SBNRs, allowing them to “feel connected with something bigger that aligns with their beliefs — they may not be marching in the streets or going to church, but they are finding a way to share and get involved in things on social media that matter to them.”

Increasingly, people are turning to their digital devices for the kind of connection and sense of meaning they used to find in church. This is especially true of millennials, who are both the biggest users of social media and the largest cohort of SBNRs. One-fifth of North Americans are religiously unaffiliated, but that increases to one-third for adults under 30, according to Pew Research. In his article “How Facebook Killed the Church,” Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, writes, “The thing that kept young people going to church . . . has been effectively replaced. You don’t need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone.”

Rev. Tom Sherwood, a United Church minister and professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who was commissioned by the church to undertake a two-year project on the spiritual habits of young adults, echoes that sentiment, noting millennials can find everything on the Internet the church provides, “except committees, pettiness, hypocrisy, boredom and meetings that last three hours.”

Elizabeth Drescher says that if Facebook is killing the church, “it’s more accurate to call it assisted suicide.” The adjunct professor of religious studies at California’s Santa Clara University and author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation observes that social media is often there for people in times of confusion and distress in a way the church isn’t. People “turn to Facebook and Twitter to express their hopes and frustrations” during crises such as the Ferguson riots, she says. “Social media is a space where people can engage their spiritual questions as events are actually unfolding.”

She also points to social media’s ability to restore our faith in humanity. Just think of all those YouTube videos that lift our spirits and serve as modern-day parables: the five-year-old boy with leukemia who got to be Batkid for a day thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Or the 69-year-old New York bus monitor who received more than $700,000 in online donations after a video of her being bullied by middle-school kids went viral.

For many SBNRs, the Internet is a 24-7 electronic shrine, a go-to altar in times of both crisis and celebration. They sit like disciples with heads bowed in front of computer monitors — knowing connection is just a click away, and meaning is as close as their mousepad.

It’s a whole new social gospel.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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