“We see things not as they are. We see things as we are.” – Babylonian Talmud
Religion has always capitalized on technological shifts to drive adherence and converts. The astrolabe (think GPS for medieval explorers) was developed to help traveling Muslims face Mecca at prayer times. The first use for the printing press was to make copies of the Bible; the dictionary helped preserve our understanding of the Torah and Talmud. Technology shifts the dynamics of religion by allowing the faithful to connect with their creator, spirit, and others of their faith in new ways.
What would it look like if patterns that are apparent in the digital space were applied to the religious?
There are emerging trends of user behaviors that are consistent across religious groups:
01 Increased insularity enabled by social networks
02 New methods of proselytization
03 Rise of animism
04 Commercial technology to aid observance
Algorithmic curation has replaced natural discovery as the primary avenue of content consumption. Content delivery platforms (like Facebook’s news feed) monitor content you read (and avoid) in order to feed you more of what you like and less of what you don’t. This exacerbates the echo chamber effect that naturally occurs in faith-based communities. The echo chamber is the process by which ideas get amplified and reinforced within a closed system, which religion tends to be. Facebook’s news feed is literally built to preach to the choir.
Without active efforts to drive exposure to new ideas, the opportunity for the radicalization of religious thought arises. The counter-trend is the ease of availability of ideas and the lower barrier to entry into new communities. If an individual is curious about alternative faiths or ideologies, it is much easier for them to get up to speed and join a community than it was in the past. As curation engines advance, do we enable ourselves to build more intense echo chambers? Or do we configure these engines
to help us amplify and appreciate entirely different worldviews?
New Methods of Proselytization
As the story goes, one woman discovered she was pregnant based on the maternity ads being fed to her while browsing the internet; Google knew before she ever took a pregnancy test.
Behavioral analytics driving online advertising is making its way to adjacent verticals. Political campaigns utilize a voter’s search history to make assumptions about receptiveness to their platforms. Is it that large of a leap for a faith organization to take that same data to drive outreach?
Imagine an analytics engine configured to assess various states of spiritual receptivity. News articles you are reading, videos you consume, music you are listening to, and friends you engage with could all be inputs to assess your level of adherence to a faith (or lack thereof) and emotions you may be feeling at the time. That would determine your sensitivity to spiritual messaging. The output would be digitally orchestrated moments of revelation.
Enhanced outreach can be augmented by better funnel management. Applying the learnings from enterprise sales with enhanced communication technologies can create a huge net in which to gather up potential converts. Machine learning combined with A/B testing will also improve the effectiveness of those undertaking missionary activities. The conversion process involves expressing ideas and responding to objections. With proper tracking, it will be easier to deliver the right responses.
Outreach is not simply a matter of gaining converts; it’s also a matter of access. Most major religions have an open door policy to their places of worship. Using VR or live streaming, a charismatic pastor could directly address a gathering in Nunavut while standing in a Boston pulpit. Individuals praying in homes, offices, or hospitals can virtually join the congregation of a nearby mosque to pray in real time. Technology can be used to extend the walls of the temple beyond borders.
Rise of Animism
Technological advances have always taken physical forms that were recognized and understood by the general public. With wind-powered grain mills, for example, you can see the rotation of the blades translating into the movement of the millstone. With the internal combustion engine, you can hear the combustion of the gasoline generating the movement of pistons. the cause and effect is clear.
Technological development has increased the abstraction of progress. The growth of mobile has enhanced this disconnect. While technology is increasingly present in our lives, its presence is felt less and less. Functional literacy is commonplace, but engineering literacy is rarer. This creates opportunity for the growth of animism toward technological change and development. The most obvious example is why something is working one minute, broken the next, and working again shortly thereafter. There might be an explanation as simple as packet loss, but what is driving the loss of that specific packet? What is a packet?
In the 1960s, John Glenn coined the term “glitch” to describe inexplicable changes in voltage. Since then, artists have tried to encourage glitches to create computer-generated art.
Are glitches evidence of the supernatural in computers, or a naturally occurring phenomenon? If a glitch is driven by the afterglow of creation, by the cosmic background radiation that was generated by the big bang and still surrounds us, how does that extrapolate into what the glitch produces? People in the past have looked to the stars and tea leaves for guidance. It is likely they will look to glitches as the fortune-telling medium of the future.
Commercial Technology to Aid Observance
Increasingly, religious groups will stop seeing technology as a threat and more as a way to aid observance. Already, there are popular Quran, Torah, and Bible apps being used by millions to support and guide their implementation of religious ritual.
Looking forward, there is an opportunity to mix data scraping and religious prophecy to validate religious belief. Ot would be a powerful affirmative tool to be able to “see” how your religion was right about certain topics or outcomes. Imagine relating current events or a scientific discovery to passages from prophecy or scripture in real time. There is already a thriving community of religious conspiracy theorists who post videos about current world events, connect them with passages of religious eschatology, and, at times, connect this to an e-store where followers can buy supplies to prepare for Armageddon.
There will be increased internal religious conflict when it comes to the application of technology to elements of practice. The Jewish concept of the Sabbath is especially under threat by automation. Will it still be considered a day of rest if all the tasks you were normally forbidden from doing are now done autonomously, driven by algorithms you program on days when work is permitted?
With religious groups traditionally being strong organizers of charitable contributions, there will be a shift of power from the pulpit to the smartphone. Crowdfunding and peer-to-peer transactions will supplant the traditional infrastructure requirements that maintained the place of worship as the primary center of donation.
Religious activity can be a proxy for other high conviction beliefs. The shifts we are seeing here will be reflected in political communities, and even extend to challenge brand communities. There are obvious analogies to be drawn with CrossFit aficionados, Porsche owners, and sneakerheads. Religion is only a portion of a person’s identity, so the opportunity lies in drawing inspiration from its developments to remain relevant to the rest of a person’s identity. Religious adherence will also frame a person’s response to technology in ways that are often overlooked. Adding this lens to research will create more empathetic products and experiences.
Religion has grown, adapted, and thrived through the emergence of technology – from electricity, to modern medicine, to telecommunications. There is no reason to think it will not survive the current technological evolution. Where this shift differs is in the fact that it will create a more personalized experience around religion because the power of knowledge and data is now concentrated in the individual versus the community. For religious authorities today, there is a strong first mover advantage to be gained – because technology is not going to leave the church, mosque, or synagogue alone.