Image: Hugh McLeod – http://www.gapingvoid.com/
This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.
Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.
Technology and the Secularization Thesis
To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.
However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.
And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”
The One Perk No Googler Wants
I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.
As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?
I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.
The gods in Our Pocket
Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.
At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?
Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.
Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?
Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.
Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.