Religion in the Age of Social Media

4th Sept 2013

An interesting article in the June edition of Wired, by Noah Shachtman, highlighted the impact that Buddhist thinking is having on West Coast technology companies.

The centrepiece of this trend is the Wisdom 2.0 conference, at which delegates sit down and discuss the best ways to incorporate technology into our lives in a symbiotic and sympathetic fashion –

It’s headline proposition is ‘How do we live with greater presence, purpose and wisdom in the digital age?

Started by Soren Gordhamer in 2010 with 200 participants, this year it had 1,700 attendees and involved companies such as LinkedIn, The Huffington Post and Twitter.

Organisations such as Google and Facebook fund Buddhist meditation classes for their employees, alongside other self-development classes, that look to maximise performance and increase staff satisfaction and retention. And this is not a new thing – the connection between ‘The Orient’ and the personal computer industry has been around for a while – Steve Jobs spent months searching for gurus in India and was also married by a Zen priest.

Buddhism is a good fit with these organisatons, and of course it makes for some great PR. Make no mistake – they are not (primarily) motivated by altruism. They want some serious R.O.I. on their Buddhism.

Social Media in particular, is aligned with Buddhist thinking in that both systems are about interconnectedness; but there is (sometimes) a difference between the compassion expressed in both systems. Facebook, for example, has learnt from the compassionate aspects of Buddhism, in order to reduce the amount of bullying and ‘flamer wars’ that occur on the network.

Also interesting I think, to consider the relevance of religion in the light of the Internet and specifically – ‘memes’. Bud Caddell in his excellent Slideshare presentation – Digital Strategy 101 ( asks, What is a Meme? – ‘Memes are pervasive ideas that can be shaped and reshaped by the person sharing or performing it. An idea, which is imitated and re-contextualized as it is shared, re-mixed and sustained. The Internet is full of memes – Lolcats is a meme, Keyboard Cat is a meme. Religion too is a meme.’ 

So Buddhism is proving a big hit in west coast technology companies and it is easy to see how the interconnectedness and egalitarianism of Buddhism is relevant in a social media world.

So what is Buddhism all about? From Wikipedia – The non adherence to the notion of a supreme God or a prime mover is seen as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religious views. In Buddhism the sole aim of the spiritual practice is the complete alleviation of distress in Nirvana. The Buddha neither denies nor accepts a creator, denies endorsing any views on creation and states that questions on the origin of the world are worthless.

Also from Wired : Buddhism has been preaching for centuries, that we are all interconnected, and that the differences between us do not exist. This is the basis of Buddhist compassion. 

Interesting then, to see the connection between Buddhism and the digital world and how they have found common ground. This begs the question – what then of other major religions – how do these connect with us in the Internet era?

The Occidental and a good chunk of the Oriental world are dominated by the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, and I thought it would be interesting to consider how the doctrines of these faiths, are suited for our era (please note that I seek to approach this question from an entirely agnostic and objective perspective)

Islam – 

As with Christianity, the focus is on a strict monotheism. From wikipedia – God is beyond all comprehension or equal and does not resemble any of his creations in any way. Thus, Muslims are not expected to visualise God. Whilst God is described in the Quran by certain names or attributes, the most common being Al-Rahman, meaning “Most Compassionate” and Al-Rahim, meaning “Most Merciful”. He is viewed as a personal God who responds whenever a person in need or distress calls Him. There are no intermediaries, such as clergy, to contact God who states “We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein”

As with other Abrahamic religions the focus here is on the relation with, and linear subservience to the supreme God ; and not so much about the relations ,or connection, between individuals involved in the faith.

Christianity – 

In the Christian faith, there is certainly the tradition of charity – where individuals support and assist each other. Despite this, amongst longer established denominations especially, there is a tradition of centralisation and an authoritarian structure. A good example is the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the longest continuously reigning monarchy on earth – the Papacy, which itself has a tradition of authoritarian religious rule (perhaps somewhat tempered in recent years).

There is also the traditional hierarchical demarcation between the clergy and congregation, although this is less clear in modern non-conformist strands of Christianity.

Overall, Protestant and non-conformist denominations have proffered a more democratic approach, but a key element remains the focus on individual prayer and the importance of the connection between the individual and the deity, rather than among groups of believers.

Judaism –

In Judaism, (from Wikipedia again) …..God is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created, that He is One, there is no unity in any manner like His, and He alone is God; that He is free from all the properties of matter and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever; that He is eternal, and is the first and the last.

Interestingly, a more modern derivation of Judaism – Kabbalah, has a more inclusive approach – Explained as follows – Over time, a Kabbalistic belief evolved that all of creation and all of existence is itself a part of God, and that we as humanity are unaware of our own inherent godliness and are grappling to come to terms with it

All religions are having to adapt in rapidly changing times. Despite this it seems clear that in a socially connected, increasingly less hierarchical world – certain religions may be more able to ‘catch the digital and social wave’ than others. We shall see.

Nick Hammond