Social Media and the Secular Age

Could it be said that “social media” is an agent of ongoing “secularisation”? Well, the answer, of course, depends upon what we mean by this term “secularisation”. We have been discussing this in previous posts, and I have drawn attention to the weakness of the theory as it related to the early “religious” experience of students when they were at primary school. Somehow the “secularisation” that was discussed within sociology when I was an under-graduate, and which became a taken-for-granted aspect of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s when I taught sociology at university, focused upon the “religious character” that was present at the onset of the modern age, and which has, supposedly been in decline ever since.

It has become commonplace to attribute the rise of modern political thought in the West to a process of secularization … it may well be that we live, as Charles Taylor tells us, in a “secular age”, but if so we nonetheless owe several of our most central political commitments to an age that was anything but. And it seems reasonable to suppose that we will not be able to understand the peculiar fault lines and dissonances of our contemporary political discourse until we come to terms with that basic paradoxical fact. (Eric Nelson The Hebrew Republic Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 1, 3)

Nelson is suggesting that the traditional historical narrative “will have to be significantly revised, if not discarded”. His challenging interpretation can be accessed “here”.

My point however which I have tried to elaborate in an autobiographical way  in previous posts has been somewhat more “personal”.

Consider what Charles Taylor says about the rationale for his above-mentioned book The Secular Age (Harvard Uni.Press 2007). His aim, he says, is to chart the historical change “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” (p.3) That formulation is convenient for my purposes even if I begin to suspect that this view is framed by a post-modern Christian equivocation in which his statement seeks to be (objectively) in solidarity with his “secular age” fellow citizens, even while he sees his mission (subjectively) as a Christian public intellectual who would seek to recognize the transcendence within the “immanent frame”.

What I have suggested is that “secularisation” is not something simply to be grasped by an abstract and theoretical understanding history and societal differentiation – although we certainly need deepened scientific understanding of the manner in which the full gamut of our many-sided responsibilities are given to us to love God and serve our neighbours with the love that draws from us. We find our calling – our work, our job – in complex networks of ongoing societal development that presupposes all the amazing developments the globe has witnessed in the last five centuries. How are we to understand these developments if not to view them within the framework of the Bible’s revelation of our mandate before God to form and cultivate what He has given?

I have suggested in earlier posts, that learning “personally” about what was involved in “secularisation” was strangely ignored in university. We were effectively encouraged to forget the faith (we thought) we had from earlier years, and simply adopt a utilitarian approach to life.

“All these religious and philosophical questions can wait until later. It’s urgent that you get qualified so you can get a job.”

My observation is this. “Secularisation theory”, however that is understood, needs to see the inner connection between that taken-for-granted view of what living in this society means and “secularisation”, meaning, in this instance, the manner in which education and public life are organised with the assumption that a disciplined forgetting of one’s religious past is indispensable to “life in a secular age”.

Look again at that quote from Taylor. Is there not a way of reflecting upon this in “personal” terms? The personal, self-reflective question is this: Was there a time for a child (for some children at least) growing up in Australian suburbia in the 1950s when it was virtually impossible not to believe in God? Were they not surrounded by the combined impacts of Christian family life, church and Sunday School? And then, as this person matured and confronted the 1960s, was there not an urgency to stand as a fully responsible believer, a genuine follower of Jesus Christ? But was it in reaction to “secularisation” that prompted family and church people to encourage the young Christian to make a “choice”? Was all this childhood and youthful faith to be viewed as a believing that derived from grabbing what was but one human possibility among all the many others that siren-like were making their pitch for the young person’s “choice”?

We began this post by asking whether “social media” could be viewed as an agent of “secularisation”. And we said immediately that an answer will have to depend upon what we mean by the term. But then the overall discussion seems to be somewhat disjointed. We might want to reflect upon how “social media” should be formed as part of Christian discipleship. How should a young Christian avail him or herself of these technological gadgets?

It is clear that “social media” places new communication technology in our hands. And in our hands it certainly allows us to send message (here is a post!). And so yes this technology is part of our life and undoubtedly it participates in our efforts to form relationships, disseminate information, encourage other to fulfil our diverse responsibilities. But then that kind of “human flourishing” also followed the development of the printing press. In time restrictions were removed not only from publishing the Bible in the vernacular, but also from the personal publishing of political tracts, let alone the diverse artefacts of literary art. Establishing a delivery service by which people could write letters to each other has also played an important part in fomenting and developing discussions of all kinds between people. There was a time when newspapers became an important part of public life and political discussion, and letters to the editor still carry some, if reduced, civic weight. The invention of the telephone enabled people to keep in touch, and we do so even if we live far apart. A few decades back radio broadcasting developed talk-back radio and these days radio station are encouraging listeners to download their apps into mobile phones. The technology of social media is evident all around us.

We have also been discussing how “social media” has, in latter times, filled a political vacuum that has arisen in polities around the world that claim to be parliamentary and democratic. What we see is not pretty. We have also suggested that the political vacuum has come about because political parties have become committed to winning office rather than articulating a particular political outlook, philosophy or world-view.

And now “social media” in its variant forms has become part of this problematic  political situation around the world. But it is also in times dominated by the threats of Islamist Jihad that give voice to a determination to extend the reach of Islam, the Dar al-Islam into the Dar al-Harb. The threat, regularly repeated, is that they will do so by violent means. We have also noted that it is not a phobia to be afraid of a person or group who threatens to kill you.

In the last few years we (i.e. not only we in the “west” but also we global citizens, including the “rest”) have seemingly entered this new era of instant global communication. Could Twitter texting be embraced as a valid dimension of “deliberative democracy”? Quite apart from the fears generated by the Jihadist threats, it seems that “social media” also confronts us with new kinds of dangers and threats. The advent of the i-phone and texting may enable people to stay in contact but there is also a nasty side to such communicative technology.

Recently, the occupant of the White House in the United States of America used his Twitter account to “tweet” a warning to a guy he had just fired. He had better watch out and not say the wrong thing. The 140 character limit on “tweets” may have constrained him, but what we should be asking is why we were made privy to this statement by a Commander in Chief to the former head of the FBI. If there really were recordings of White House conversations then why couldn’t this have been conveyed in the letter in which the man’s tenure was terminated? What business did we have knowing about this threat? And why should be learn of it in such a manner? What kind of transparency is this?

The fact that the President of the most powerful State would try to bounce a message off his Twitter “followers” to threaten this man not only indicates lack of manners, it confirms this act as brazen bullying. Any Grade 6 Primary School child would see it this way. It is bullying! In that sense we might suggest that this style of Presidential politics has shown a disregard for proper standards of behaviour. And did we see whoever it is in control of that paragon of superficial communication cancelling POTUS’s Twitter account? Hasn’t Twitter, let alone POTUS, heard about the way “social media” is used in highly inappropriate, offensive and criminal ways? It is not only the POTUS “Code of Conduct” but what about Twitter’s civic responsibilities? Who will step forward to say that this was merely a matter of POTUS exercising his right to free speech?

The actions of Jihadi Islamists are criminal and need to be legally resisted in the interests of public justice, nationally and internationally. We have learned the bitter lesson of a language that seeks to redress 9/11 by claiming to embark upon a “war on terrorism” to maintain America’s pre-eminence in perpetuity. But when we now see the leader of that most militarised and most powerful (and most indebted) nation of the world providing a precedent for the improper and threatening use of “social media”, we realise that our  work in crafting a Christian political option must also be vitally concerned with doing justice to inter-personal and informal relationships, just as must as we focus upon institutional impacts, corporate service and global networks. We also need to develop a healthy fear of the hurtful and dangerous consequences of social media usage and find ways to resist social media perpetration of injustice, however that is expressed. Social media that resorts to “hairy chested” threats in 140 characters does not respect its own proper contribution to life on this planet. We are not called to theatrically call attention to ourselves but to a faithful stewardship.

Nurturing Justice claims to be promoting a Christian political option. Here in this post however we do not formulate the ongoing public policies in relation to social media that we will need to develop if we are to stand as faithful servants of God’s Kingdom in the years ahead. We will need to grow wise, to find ways to contribute to public education – particularly to political education in which we discover anew the path of public justice. And we are certainly not going to consign “social media” to the trash heap. Our task is biblically-directed reformation with the recognition that computer, I-pad and mobile phone are all given to us and retain their value because Christ Jesus is the God elected Redeemer. He retains his sovereign claim upon us and, with the entirety of creation, these creatures as well.

BCW 2 June 2017



2 thoughts on “Social Media and the Secular Age

  1. The thing that separates social media from earlier technological innovations is its capacity for distraction. Social settings are constantly undermined by the presence of phones, Ipads, etc. If we take the Biblical advice that ‘our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit’ then we must ask whether this distraction, which is practised for so long a time and affects our social relationships by making them shallow and inconsequential, is in fact, dishonouring to God by taking us away from meaningful communication within our spiritual lives. Is God frozen out by us spending so much of our time staring at a screen? This innocent activity contributes greatly to our secularisation and is probably more of a contributor to distancing us from our spiritual lives. God, unlike President Trump, does not have a Twitter account. How many times have we been in Church or at a funeral when the proceedings have been interrupted by the ringing of a mobile phone? This says something about priorities. Christians are instructed ‘be in the world but not of it’. This advice should apply also to how we utilise social media. -Allan Carter

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