Monday, July 17, 2017

Will Facebook Replace the Church? Mark Zuckerberg Thinks it Can

Will Facebook replace the church? If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future is correct, the answer is yes—it will.

In a speech in June, Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook’s online communities may be poised to replace organizations that used to bring large numbers of people together—organizations like churches.

"Membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter," he said, noting that participation in organized religion has decreased.

"That's a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else."

Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can help fill the gap. But it will need help from people who can organize these new communities.

"A church doesn't just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation,” he said.

To help all those non-churchgoers find new communities, Zuckerberg will use Facebook's artificial intelligence algorithm.

"We started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you,” he stated.

“We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50% more people join meaningful communities."

His ultimate goal is to convince half of Facebook’s two billion users to join Facebook communities.

"If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we've seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together,” he stated.

Bringing people closer together is so important that "we're going to change Facebook's whole mission to take this on."

Zuckerberg isn’t wrong; people are leaving organized religion. Between the “nones” and the “dones,” active participation is falling dramatically in North America and Europe.

But is Facebook the answer? Or does old-fashioned getting together still have something to offer?

That’s a good question to ponder in light of a new study about the health effects of attending a physical place of worship.

According to the study, published in May by medical researchers from various U.S. universities, “increased religiosity (as determined by church attendance) is associated with less stress and enhanced longevity” for middle-aged adults.

The results of the study, they went on to say, “underscore the potential importance of church attendance . . . as a mediator of health and lifespan.”

This latest research stands in a long line of studies that have found a positive relationship between attending religious services and good health. But what researchers don’t know is why. Is it the prayers? The music? The sermon? The coffee time after the service?

Two ideas suggested by researchers are the larger sense of meaning and purpose that religion provides, along with the social connections and support people feel from belonging to a worshipping community.

Of course, not all religious experiences are positive. Some forms of religion cause people to feel judged, guilty, depressed and oppressed. But overall, studies have shown that being religious has produces positive health benefits, both physically and mentally.

Can Facebook replicate what religion provides? I have my doubts. I like my online groups, but they don’t fill me with meaning and purpose. Plus, if I’m sick, or having a tough time, I might get lots of likes, comments and sympathy from my online friends, but who will show up to cut my grass, shovel my driveway, or bring me soup?

That’s hard for someone who lives across town, much more for someone on the other side of the world.

A number of years ago author and historian Martin Marty addressed the then hot topic of people saying they had stopped going to church because they were spiritual, not religious.

That was all fine and good, he said, but he warned: “Spirituality doesn’t bring you a casserole when you are sick.”

The same would be true for Facebook—unless Mark Zuckerberg has a vision for that, too.

From the July 15, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

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