Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech in Chicago last week, laying out a new mission for the platform. I can’t find a video or transcript of it, just news stories with quotations. But those few quotations are far-reaching and revealing.
They begin with two sound premises. One of them arises from the Bowling Alone thesis. “It’s striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”
The other premise comes out of research by, among others, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity—not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”
The fact listed in the first part of that sentence is inarguable, but you sense in that qualifier, “not just because,” a turn away from the religious grounds of church-going. That’s just what happens when Zuckerberg explains further the social formation of a church:
A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.
There in miniature is the liberal dream: communities held together by no other glue than the interests and needs of their members, plus strong leadership. God plays no necessary role in the process, though nothing in Zuckerberg’s description rules him out. We can find our “sense of purpose” in one another. We don’t make strong demands upon ourselves and our brothers and sisters (and we certainly need not allow God and his deputies to tell us how to live), but we do give comfort and succor and belonging to each other.
A little more than a century ago, this draw-down of God went under Humanism. It had its negative expression, most powerfully in Nietzsche, but usually it took a positive form, the elevation of Man. “Divinity must live within herself,” Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning.” The seventh lecture of William James’s pragmatism series bore the title “Pragmatism and Humanism,” and included the statement: “When we talk of reality ‘independent’ of human thinking, then, it seems a thing very hard to find.” The humanist regards this incapacity as a liberation. The world can (largely) be what we make of it. The universe may be God’s creation, but it can be ours, too. “The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers human violence willingly. Man engenders truth upon it.”
With that shaping of reality by the human will, the step toward an all-human-based community is a short one. Once you’ve adopted the humanist we-can-do-it-alone conception, you may start believing that the church did indeed come together as a therapeutic social contract. We convene and pray and give because we love one another. A religious community/church is just one kind of gathering, and it’s declining.
Two years ago, I chaired a panel at Virginia Military Institute on social media and the social good. Everybody involved, it seemed, from the panelists to the 1,200 people in the audience, was enthusiastic about social media. The session started to deteriorate in the Q&A when I opened it by announcing my aim to put on my tombstone, “He never took a selfie.” Boos from the cadets followed my further pessimisms, along with truculent retorts by the panelist who was a teacher at the school.
Another speaker, a thoughtful fellow who ran a center at Georgetown, characterized social media in sanguine terms of benevolence. He stated that it was the largest and most effective instrument of charitable giving in existence. He displayed data demonstrating the diverse causes and promptings of donation in the United States, with social media standing clearly at the top.
I didn’t wish to embarrass him or undermine his presentation. But as the praise for social media grew, I had to ask, “In your surveys, did you include weekly church collections?” He paused before issuing a modest “No.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.