Social Media and Religious Syncretism

In the article “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Religion?,” published in The Guardian, author Aleks Krotoski argues that the importance of the internet in everyday life has become a destabilizing force on traditional religion. In order to stay relevant, it’s argued, religious organizations have moved their services online in order to reach wider audiences. This has challenged the control that religious leaders once held over their followers, resulting in a growing amount of spiritual practices that fall between the cracks of what is considered mainstream. Krotoski states “. . . the web has helped proliferate different interpretations and articulations of religions and we have witnessed the emergence of new online communities and faiths. Individuals now have a much more autonomous role in deciding whom to approach as a source” (paragraph 8). I agree with the author’s main claims and further argue that the syncretization of spiritual beliefs is occurring directly due to the rising pluralism of religious groups on social media.

In chapter 16 of You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley, it’s stated that some sociologists believe in a sociostructural crisis in religion caused by pluralism, which is “the presence and engaged coexistence of numerous distinct groups in one society” (Conley). This increased diversity in religious groups is argued to be detrimental to the social foundation of religion, allowing for various denominations to discredit others’ practices. However, instead of the “religious disintegration, psychological malaise, and chaos” these sociologists predicted, we are faced with the modern emergence of individualized forms of spirituality, which borrow from multiple religions and incorporate a variety of traditions. As further stated in the chapter, “These “nones”—which make up about a quarter of the population, up from only a tenth in 1980 (Smith & Cooperman, 2016)—are not necessarily atheists. In fact, only a third definitively state that they do not believe in God (Pew Research Center, 2015b).” This phenomenon of rising eclecticism is directly attributable to the increased plurality in traditional religion, which I argue is enabled by the cross-pollinating forces of social media.

According to a study from 2016, published in Sociological Perspectives Vol. 59, the rapid adoption of social media has had syncretizing effect on the religious beliefs of emerging adults. The study specifically found that “emerging adults who use SNS [social networking sites] are more likely to think it is acceptable to pick and choose their religious beliefs, and practice multiple religions independent of what their religious tradition teaches . . .” (page 818).  This occurrence is due to the cross-pollination of new ideas and beliefs through the internet, recently facilitated by social networks. One of the author’s supported hypotheses states “SNS users will be more likely than non-SNS users to report that it is acceptable for a member of their own religious tradition to practice other religions” (page 830). These trendsetters in the study are indirectly acknowledging that at least some truths exist in other religions, confirming the effect of pluralism.

Does the advent of the internet and rise of social media mark the beginning of social breakdown in religion, or the collective transcendence of divisive traditions? I believe that both are occurring. As religious organizations increasingly utilize the internet to reach wider audiences, an ever-broadening degree of pluralism is arising. This is reflected in the emergence of individualized forms of spirituality that incorporate some form of belief in a higher power, yet do not affiliate with traditional denominations. As Krotoski concludes in her article “The search for answers is part of our social narrative and so it is unsurprising that we have gone to the web to ask the questions. There, we are finding our communities, whether they are organized under a traditional doctrine with well-established rituals, or are evolutions that have been produced by people who feel they have seen the light” (paragraph 11). I agree with the author’s main claims and further argue that the syncretization of spiritual beliefs is occurring directly due to the rising pluralism of religious groups on social media.

Works Cited:

“Chapter 16: Religion.” You May Ask Yourself: an Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, W.W. Norton, 2019.

Krotoski, Aleks. “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Religion?” The Guardian, 16 Apr. 2011, www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/17/untangling-web-aleks-krotoski-religion.  

McClure, Paul K. “Faith and Facebook in a Pluralistic Age: The Effects of Social Networking Sites on the Religious Beliefs of Emerging Adults.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 59, no. 4, 2016, pp. 818–834. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26340183. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

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