Do you remember Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street proclaiming that “Greed is good”? Unwittingly, he may have formulated a law about how religions rise and fall. Worldwide, the churches that succeed and boom, that win and retain members, tend to be the “greedy groups”—greedy, above all, for your time and commitment. They don’t leave you alone for long, and in consequence, you rarely leave them. Recent changes in our technological landscape mean that our religious culture is about to become much greedier and vastly more demanding. We are on the verge of a radical change in our religious behavior.
Over the past 50 years, some American churches have declined sharply, while others have boomed. These changing fortunes have attracted plenty of different explanations, including demographic factors and the appeal of simple, orthodox doctrines expressed without compromise or apology. Most convincing, though, is what we might call an investment theory of religion—namely, that the groups that demand the most of their members also give the most back, thereby securing the loyalty of their followers. If you attend church for just an hour every week or so, your attachment to that institution is not likely to be too profound. On the other hand, imagine a “greedy” church that demands long hours of participation going far beyond church attendance, that expects its members to contribute serious time and effort, not to mention money, commonly by tithing. If you really have given your all to the church, you are not likely to leave it over some doctrinal squabble. Those are the churches that flourish.
But now let’s factor in our current technological revolution, the world of the internet and social media, of tablets and smartphones. At first sight, this new environment would seem to work abominably with traditional notions of organized religion, as the electronic setting meshes so poorly with notions of authority or hierarchy. The whole ambience favors voluntarism, participation, and grazing among available options. The medium is best suited to that kind of mix-and-match self-created religion that we call cafeteria faith. Nor is the highly atomized electronic culture hospitable to any attempts to impose—or even to imply—moral absolutes.
But if the new media world undermines orthodoxy, it promises to create extraordinarily greedy structures that elevate communal identity to levels undreamt of even in the most authoritarian cults. The same technology that so exalts seeking and individual enterprise coexists with an astonishing willingness to trample all familiar notions of privacy and separation.
As social media have proliferated over the past decade, they have revolutionized ideas of friendship, so that young users do not hesitate to share virtually every trivial fact, opinion, visual image, or news item about everyday life. The dominant ethos is one of relentless sharing. A friend is someone who shares access to a blog or journal in which nothing is apparently censored or sacrosanct. You allow friends to track your geographical location at any given moment. You elaborate on your personal tastes in reading, films, and television. You publish online facts that in earlier generations you might have admitted only to intimate family or, in religious settings, to fellow members of a communal sect, in ritual sessions of mutual confession and penitence. You hold back nothing.
Before your friends, you have no intimate secrets, and you care little that these may ultimately escape to a wider audience. You also know that privacy is an unattainable fantasy, but you have long since learned to live with the fact, and it does not restrain your limitless self-revelations. You understand and accept universal surveillance. The only deadly sin is withholding or censoring experience.
Putting those themes together, we can imagine future religious networks united by a degree of mutual knowledge and intimacy unimaginable in any previous age. Religious organizations could easily develop forms of group solidarity of an intensity that is frightening to anyone of an older generation—the nonsharers, as we may someday come to be labeled. Nor would it be hard to find justification for this kind of absolute organic community in the images or scriptures of the faith. If people are prepared to expose their innermost secrets to a circle of friends, why should they hold back from those religious communities, in which they would be cells in a body, branches of a tree, petals of the flower? The only thing that is impossible in this environment is leaving it, and the greatest punishment would be exclusion.
In the 1970’s, the media regularly denounced authoritarian and totalistic religious groups as exploitative “cults,” which scorned the privacy and individuality of their members. Technology could yet make such self-surrender to the needs of community a much more common reality, and a more total one. And who knows how far such groups might grow?