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Digital Minimalism and God (Or, is Social Media Undermining Religion?)

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Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.

Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.

As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.

As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:

“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”

On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.

As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:

“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

Then, clarity:

“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'”

Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.

* * * *

I first encountered this story in a book by Mike Erwin and Raymond Kethledge about solitude, and then expanded on it in Chapter 4 of Digital Minimalism, where I discuss what’s lost when we deploy devices to avoid every moment of time alone with our own thoughts.

For many in our modern context, this observation that reflection is critical might be novel, especially given the steady refrain of “connectivity = good” that we’ve been fed for the last decade. But to the spiritual, like King, it’s deeply familiar.

Common to many different religions is an emphasis on contemplative practices — turning one’s focus inward in search of transcendent insight (what Karen Armstrong calls “intimations of the divine.”)

Sometimes these practices are structured, as in the Islamic Salat, Buddhist mindfulness meditation, or, as is familiar around my academic home, Jesuit imaginative prayer. And sometimes they’re unstructured, like King’s experience at the kitchen table. Regardless of form, contemplative reflection is often intertwined with spiritual life.

I’m bringing this all up because it provides background for a surprising claim that’s been growing online in recent years, and which seems self-evidently worthy of unpacking: social media might be accidentally undermining religion.

* * * *

I stumbled across this growing tension between social media and religion in an admittedly ignoble manner: checking media hits for Digital Minimalism. I was surprised to discovered the amount of attention the book has started receiving in religious circles.

But as I looked closer at the coverage, the surprise dissipated. Though there are many ways in which tools like Twitter or Instagram might work against (or in some cases with) the traditional objectives of religion, the issue that kept arising is the way in which the ubiquitous distraction they provide corrodes the contemplative life.

Courage, reassurance, revelation: these require a quiet mind capable of apophatic insight. One of the unintentional consequences of innovating an algorithmically-optimized, always-present source of attention-snagging noise is that this quiet disappears.

The religious are increasingly concerned with this consequence as they notice more of their fellow adherents stumbling around in a state of unmoored anxiety, but it’s an effect that’s clearly important beyond just formal faith, as it gets at something fundamental about human flourishing in a hard world: if you’re constantly escaping, you’ll eventually end up lost.

At some point in Digital Minimalism, I remark that “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” But perhaps a more vivid formulation of the stakes is to wonder (with a dash of anachronistic hyperbole) what would have happened to Martin Luther King Jr. at that kitchen table sixty years ago if, instead of turning inward to find wisdom, he had been distracted by his mentions?

31 thoughts on “Digital Minimalism and God (Or, is Social Media Undermining Religion?)”

  1. Cal, as a devout Catholic and a meditator the answer to the question is yes. However, my evaluation is more pessimistic than yours. Social Media (actually perpetual-connectivity) is destroying introspection, so we are not only losing the ability of thinking about the great questions (the Why’s which can be religious) but also the knowledge of the Self, that is the Being, the source of our thoughts. With no knowledge of the Being only stress and depression can arise (humans have a natural sense of the Self which is suffocated by perpetual connectivity). Marcus Aurelius was right.
    By the way, check this AMAZING lecture which I am sure will provide some insights:

    • Cal,

      Another devout Catholic here. I made Digital Minimalism as part of my sacrifice for Lent. This method and the Freedom App have helped me with my productivity during Lent as well as keep me away from a multitude of sins.

      Keep doing what you do, I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers. I have a feeling your message is eventually going to cross the wrong people that can’t handle the level of self-reflection and look inward it takes to learn from it. Both So Good They Can’t Ignore You to Digital Minimalism bring profound and great wisdom not heard anymore today.

    • Religious or not, I think we all need to keep this is check. For example, I’m a co-founder of a Catholic Apostolate, and for a few years about a decade ago many of our followers preferred we send them content via email and social media, and our events were not well attended. So I keep talking about how the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches moderation [CCC 1809], and more importantly how ‘Catholic’ means Community (offline).

      In fact, the pope just addressed this issue, how social media does not replace the need in the human heart for authentic human community. The pope himself has a huge following on Twitter and Instagram.

      I keep hearing more and more about imaginative prayer, Cal, so I’m wondering if this has to do with the effects social media is having on our lives.

  2. I’m not a religious person, but I can see how social media can undermine religion. Personally, having a quiet and peaceful time regularly to reflect on my life is very important to my mental health. However, I can see how finding that time can be difficult if you’re addicted to social media.

  3. I am Muslim and I am a religious girl, 21 years old at the moment and I have been thinking about this issue for quite a long time. Glad that now others are noticing this issue as well.

  4. Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness talks about this in his article “First Things First”:

    It’s a two-fold issue. First, playing on your phone sucks up a lot of time, and since prayer/Bible reading is “optional” compared to work, chores, etc., your spiritual life can get squeezed out.

    Second, the things you’re exposed to when playing on your phone (a political argument on Facebook, hot girls on Instagram, etc.) are distracting when you’re trying to focus on your spiritual reading or prayer.

    Plus, praying or reading the Bible for 30 minutes straight takes a certain amount of focus and calmness of mind, which are undermined if you’re feeling frazzled and fragmented by your phone.

    This isn’t even mentioning the other ethical issues coming from cell phones and social media: lust (24/7 access to porn in your pocket), vanity/immodesty (which Instagram encourages in girls), etc.

  5. Cal,

    Speaking as a Christian and Presbyterian pastor, I believe that social media – along with the online world in general – is absolutely a challenge to the religious life.

    I’m not at all surprised that Digital Minimalism has struck a chord with those in more religious circles. I hope it will be helpful to others as it was to me.

    Thank you for your book; I really enjoyed it and appreciate the message you are trying to communicate. For what it’s worth, I wrote a review of it on my website, specifically explaining why I thought Christians should read it. Here’s the link:

    Scott Johnson

  6. I use my device to listen to scripture being read on the Bible app , listen to sermons, and listen to Christian hymns on Pandora. Ironically, this background stream of Godly audio often distracts me from quiet contemplation and reflection which God desires.

  7. Excellent post. I’ve written a few articles about this sort of thing. To me, it is not just the problem that religious folk are experiencing a kind of spiritual anaemia, but also that non-religious people are escaping spiritual and existential angst by choosing the easier route of constant distraction. Here’s a recent article:

    Just finished Digital Minimalism and loved it. Thank you Cal!

  8. Hello Cal,

    Thank you for your great work! I have been following your blog for a while now since the intersection between technology and spirituality interests me allot.

    I have been wondering about the exact point that Corey Lambrecht raises above. The use of digital media forms to aid meditation… It is interesting to note that the media streams that Corey uses rather distracts than focus.

    Andy Crouch who wrote “The Tech Wise Family” suggests that we should use technology in moderation in order to aid creativity, courage, and community and not to stand in the way of those values.

    What do you think about the intersection between Technology and Faith? Do you think the way forward will be a tightrope walk in the middle? Or rather refraining from technology for deep meditation?

  9. As a pastor in New Jersey, Digital Minimalism is now my go-to book to hand out to people in the church. Focus is the discipline underneath the spiritual disciplines. You can’t read the Bible well if you can’t focus.

  10. Obviously it has an impact on belief as it does on other aspects of life from close relationships and friendships to actual physical health. Inconsistencies and hypocrisies get amplified impacting the vast number of believers (not practitioners) who don’t practice what they preach. Religion and spirituality, have larger issues at play than solely social media.

    As an agnostic person more aptly described as a naturalist I find as others above me have pointed out that the entire Internet when not used consciously with clear intent or purpose impacts my life in a negative way. Primarily it lessons my belief in the natural goodness of my fellow man thus making me more fearful and hostile.

    We have an obligation to give younger generations not only a more positive example of technological use but, the intellectual skills to think and reason for themselves. The modern incarnation of the Internet, by extension social media, clearly impacts those skills

  11. Great post. I’m not religious however would say I am spiritual and find that a mediation practice and time in nature away from all the digital distractions is essential for peace of mind.

  12. At 77 I have many cherished friends, without devices. As a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda I’ve meditated every day since 1974 and most days since 1967. I guess it’s because I’m not young and doing monastic work writing and editing that I don’t find the pace or technologies of the modern world distracting at all. That said, I’ve had some of my deepest inner experiences while riding on public transport, in fact consider it a very enjoyable sport to breathe deeply and pray and do spiritual work to get past the busy little brain firings and ego clingings. There will always be the 10,000 things referred to in the Tao Te Ching. There’s a reason the Eastern teachings refer to Self-realization. Where else will we practice, if not here and now?

  13. Great post Cal.

    Interesting to see you picking up on this. Probably many religious people have been reasonably aware of the problem to begin with.

    Worth considering though is whether there is a correlation between time spend on smartphone use and relative dedication to a given faith?

  14. The digital world has done great damage to my own spiritual development. I just want to quote from “37 Verses of Practices to Bodhisattva”, it says:

    “If you keep strong ties to pleasure, acquiring things, fame, and praise, then however much you may study, meditate, try to integrate high teachings, or even become a teacher yourself, it will be of no help to you at all.”

    I think digital tools are used exactly to aggrandize oneself, which by itself is destructive to a practitioner’s mind and delays everything he/she needed to practice.

  15. This is an interesting observation.

    I live in a hyper-secular community, and when I have discussed aspects of digital minimalism around town, there are two types of people who seem to be more enthusiastically receptive than others.

    One group is conservative tempered (not necessarily politically), and seem to use digital minimalism to focus more on their family, faith, or career.The other is a more bohemian, countercultural group, that seeks to disconnect from the noise to be closer to nature, talk with more strangers, and find adventure.

    These groups are obviously not discrete. I find myself somewhere in the middle. However, I am excited that many different types of people find value in digital intentionality.

    In other news, a 6th grad counter-cultural type recently said, referring to my phone, “flip phones are dope!”. There is hope!

  16. Thank you Cal for this post.

    It really reinforces something that God has put on my heart even in the past few weeks that even a small amount of engagement in certain technology can have a detrimental impact when it places distraction over trust.

    When I turn to my phone instead of to God when I’m feeling vulnerable and uncertain, not only am I only getting empty reassurance (actually just distraction). But also I’m depriving myself of the opportunity to develop the character qualities of deeper trust and faith and more importantly depriving myself of the opportunity to cultivate a deeper relationship with God in those moments of vulnerability.

    I’ve found cutting out distraction apps–that I had already limited down to just about 15 minutes a day–has really made a substantial difference. It feels uncomfortable but right.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  17. Is not contemplation the same as rumination? And greater rates of rumination are linked to greater rates of depression? Merely food for thought.

  18. I’m a religious person,and I can see how social media can undermine religion. I have been thinking about this issue for quite a long time. Glad that now others are noticing this issue as well.

  19. I loved what you shared, especially that it covers the angles of faith of the most important stories in politics and entertainment. I love being able to recommend something that will change their lives, ( ) for the glory of God.

  20. As someone who value practical spirituality a lot,I have been thinking about this lately.Thank you for writing about. As a result I deleted my instagram/Facebook /WhatsApp/Twitter accounts and gave up my Galaxy S9+ and iphone 6s for a flip phone.

  21. Thank you Cal, like others have said this is a very important topic to discuss related to social media. I have experienced it myself and seen digital consumption drastically effect the behavior of my children.

  22. The greatest distress about all of this is that one member of mankind makes an appealing statement of human capacity, “humans are not wired to be constantly wired” and people swoon. Ahh, the joys of being in the always right, morally superior band of colonists, supremacists, and segregationists commonly known as “religious folks.” In case you missed it… this world we live in was MOSTLY crafted by the most religious among us.

    We are abundantly clear about the angst and reality of Dr. King’s lament, “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.” Those in the violent majority have shaped a life that for them is the model that all the world should follow. Of course, only in the self-serving, self-dealing, self-aggrandizing way that inures to their continued moral supremacy.

    Alas, I digress. Truth is that I and you (Cal Newport) have NO IDEA what humanity is wired to do, be, have, and give. I do know that we stand a greater chance of positive growth, evolution, and expansion by NOT following the advice of the ones who drove us into this apparent (or so the religious people claim) ditch, on our next foray into the unknown.

    Just a thought. But, then again… what the hell do I know, anyway?!


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