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[10.0] Zuck declared the death of the church.
Facebook's theology seeks political power, not communion.
Divine Innovation’s opening salvos recounted the tale of The Pivot. My ontological odyssey in which, after my erstwhile startup employer announced a radical change in our mission, I saw the company for what it really was: the corporatization of expanded, profitable forms of social instability cloaked in the language of social good and tech-driven progress.
And though I no longer reflect on my own experiences in startup-dom as “cult”-like (hashtag personal growth), the relationship between religion, spirituality, and technology remains at the core of this newsletter’s inquiry. This nexus has it all: a long-term relationship with settler colonialism; collaborative multimedia artwork on abolition and spiritual possession; and a considerable hold on what feels real and fake.
Pivots connect these issues, too. The switches from one mission or reality to another, be it dramatic and sudden or under-the-radar and gradual. These moments merit our attention. Things get funky, and, sometimes, explicitly religious.
Let’s gossip about my favorite Augustus Caesar-cosplaying billionaire, the one and only Mark Zuckerberg. [He and I are in the throes of a tumultuous love-hate relationship; he won’t answer my Venmo requests for a billion dollars :/]
More specifically, let’s dig into the 2017 Facebook Communities Summit in Chicago. The conference brought together the administrators of leading Facebook groups—those who managed online communities running the gamut from common to niche demographics, from disabled veterans to gay dads to birders. Senior Facebook officials wanted to prove to these group administrators that they mattered, that they were a core and valued piece within the social media giant’s cybernetic empire.
Since nothing says “we value your work” like an all-expenses-paid trip to… Chicago, it makes total sense that Zuck was tasked with relaying this core, sensitive message as the Summit’s keynote speaker. It seems he tried his darnedest!
Delivering his decree in the baritone timbre of a high school student still figuring out how deep his voice can go, Zuck tailored his portfolio of lies to meet the moment. “We’re all trying to do the most good we can for our communities,” said the third-richest man in the world hellbent on colonizing Kauai. He also framed the hotness-ranking motivations behind Facebook’s founding as a mission to “connect” his college community—another lie. He showed pictures of his dog, Beast, and of his daughter. He made strident efforts to appear as one of the regular guys, emulating Joe the Plumber-esque affect, only if Joe were reskilled to work in tech.
Zuck’s monologue and much of the visual contents that accompanied it resembled a weird IRL CAPTCHA. “I’m not a robot,” his oration begged between the lines. Yet despite forced laughter and apparent malaise of its audience, this speech should be central to any inquiry of Silicon Valley’s power as a spiritual and political crucible.
For one, the keynote address has a literal pivot. At the eighth minute, right as the audience’s attention began to flag, Zuck announced a monumental change to Facebook’s mission. With more than two billion people now on Facebook, he noted, he and his suite of companies “have the responsibility to do more.” That terrifying feedback loop necessitated a new charge: “To give people the power to build community to bring the world closer together.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
In a clever rhetorical sleight of hand, Zuckerberg deflected speculations of any less-than-noble intentions like more power or wealth before they could materialize. Facebook communities, he noted, have the potential to solve the world’s most trenchant problems. It is only once people are given the infrastructural means to care equally about others halfway around the world as much as they do their neighbors that we can collectively tackle long-standing social failures. “There are certain things we can only do together, like end poverty,” he suggested with the full-throated confidence of a human centibillionaire. That a pivot to communities translates to greater user engagement on Facebook, meaning more revenue, is little more than an ancillary outcome not to be acknowledged.
It’s logical enough to conclude that this soliloquy is full of shit in more ways than not, particularly through Zuck’s consistent denial of his own immense (dare I say God-like?) power. But I’m more interested in the theology that emerges from his speech. Like, his literal views on what religion is or is not, and what that means for us as users and political subjects.
The screenshot above, a gift from the gods of irony, comes right as Zuck turns to the question of leadership. The curated audience assembled before him matters because they are the new vanguard of meaningful communities. À la Bowling Alone, Zuck cited dwindling membership in traditional meaningful communities like churches. Since, according to his rigorous calculus, social connection = joy + health, and churches are sites of connection as old as time itself, then something has to replace church. That is, the perceived decline of institutional religion precisely necessitates the ascendance of new meaningful communities in cyberspace, ones that inhabit the platforms that bring increased power and wealth to his pasty hands.
“A church doesn’t come together by itself—it has a pastor.” His audience is ordained with the godly mission of turning Facebook communities into the new church. But, not one for tact or brevity, Zuck decided to run with the metaphor until it ran out of breath. Group administrators, he said, are also like little league coaches who will teach kids to “hit better.” [Hello, phrasing?] Admins will thus help their memberships grow and navigate struggles together with empathy, coach-pastor style.
This one-two punch actually falls perfectly in line with a very niche subfield of religious studies that asks “is sports religion?” It contends that any institutional meaning-making practice is automatically religious, especially through myths, rituals, and symbols. Many religious studies scholars find it a stretch. It ignores how adherents of something like a sports team actually describe themselves. That Zuck can speak in the same breath of little league and a church tells us that he views religion as he would any other network, one without some higher meaning that can explain its longevity and devotion. To him, ultimate concerns are negligible, if not easily replicable and scalable.
A question to ask is why any of this matters. Why should we give a hoot that Zuckerberg seems to dismiss religion, using its alleged decline as a cause for his newfound corporate mission?
For one, churches may have shrinking flocks, but they retain immeasurable power as a political base. Evangelical doctrine has moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The Supreme Court’s majority and its rulings solve for “religious freedom” above any other concern, including pandemic-related imperatives. And QAnon, which is “the absurd logical conclusion of the New Christian Right,” now has two representatives in Congress. Facebook’s recent decision to ban QAnon-associated groups on its platform has come too little too late, the delay a result of Zuck’s fast-and-loose theology in which these religious beliefs are the wails of a dying faith, if not just kooky; Facebook worships instead the engagement and profit that all “meaningful communities” promise. How Facebook underestimated religion and QAnon as an outgrowth of a particular subset of churches—placing revenue and potential violence, at best, as concerns of equal standing—gave the QAnon worldview a massive platform. The movement flexes its growing muscle through our political institutions. Facebook’s theology births white supremacist outcomes.
This becomes especially clear as we look to minoritized and racialized religions in the US: Zuck talks only of churches, not gurudwaras, mosques, temples, and other sites of worship. This is the product of an American religious landscape in which “secularism” really means Protestantism, and “religion” is viewed and defined with a Christian lens. That Zuck is ethnically Jewish suggests the persistent power of this language beyond those who identify as Christian.
As long as Zuckerberg approaches religion as a vague institutional tradition with church as its sole synechdochal quantifier, Facebook will never acknowledge and protect other religious groups responsibly and empathetically. This has disastrous, racist implications: As my classmate Harmeet Kamboj notes, equating “religion” with “Christian” (or “conservative”) obscures the role of growing religious minorities in contemporary progressive agitations, a “beating heart” that has been “far from silent” about the injustices of the current presidential administration and beforehand.
Gauging the reactions of Zuck’s audience suggests that they too have experienced what happens when powers-that-be like Zuck approach all networks as interchangeable, cybernetic bodies to be propped up and dropped at will. Facebook clearly uses their labor for its own gain, yet is desperate to give them just enough to keep them at work. Vociferous applause comes not when Zuck shows pictures of his daughter or announces his Pivot. No: It arrives as he describes new tools for his assembly of admins, features that can help them kick bad actors out of their groups and keep their virtual communities safe and healthy spaces. They’ve collectively spent hundreds of thousands of hours as, basically, unpaid interns doing the heavy lifting to “bring the world closer together”; spending even more of their time at a conference in Chicago (again, yikes) is so, so far from the remuneration they deserve.
If Zuckerberg, for all the hot air of his pseudo-sermon, still takes these allies for granted, imagine what that tells us about how he treats groups that are a greater thorn in his side. With an obvious kink for band-aid solutions, he attempts to merely offer more troubling demographics the tools to manage themselves. Facebook’s Redirect Program, for instance, tries to “deradicalize” users who search “keywords associated with dangerous groups and individuals”; of 57,523 users who searched these terms, only 25 clicked through to “get help.” Facebook somehow sees this as a success. The social media behemoth can resolve messy social issues, it argues, while making money in the process: it doesn’t need regulation to make a better and more valuable world.
But its track record is clearly abysmal. Beyond Facebook’s Redirect Program or the notorious Cambridge Analytica episode, Facebook has also fueled a genocide against Rohingya Muslims during its aggressive introduction to users in Myanmar. The company now refuses to comply with international tribunals investigating these crimes. Facebook cares more about its global congregation of users and data points than it does Rohingya Muslims, a non-Christian religious and ethnic minority.
These ghastly puzzle pieces suggest Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to be a new religion of ultimate concern. He wants religion, American style (largely a white Christian privilege): not just to be left untouched by the state, but lauded by it. With tax exemptions, with faithful allies in the courts and White House, with Facebook’s harms met with applause rather than accountability. Zuck desires the political outcomes that church status provides, not its spiritual potential.
Recent developments in the form of massive anti-trust lawsuits against Facebook suggest this vision, too, may fall short. Forcing Facebook to sell WhatsApp and Instagram in the name of “fair capitalism” is not justice, however. His holdings may splinter into a corporate archipelago, but Zuckerberg will retain the privileges of American capitalism and religion: continued godly status in the face of theodicy. A world made and broken in his image.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.