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Modern Religion & Human Control

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The subject of the societal order is closely intertwined with that of religion, going back thousands of years. The relationship between religion and order is a complicated one with many commentators seeking to understand how they relate. Was religion created to bring order? Or did religion just happen because order somehow happened when people lived together then gradually developed into a religion? Most importantly, was religion instilled in people to bring them to a certain form of order, or did people create religions for themselves because they desired to be better? Karen Armstrong’s answer to the question is that humans need religion as “religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of relentless pain and injustice of life” (Armstrong 5).

A close reading of Franklin Foer’s ‘Mark Zuckerberg’s War on Free Will’ support’s Armstrong’s argument to some extent, although Foer sharply disagrees with Armstrong when it comes to the subject of paternalistic alteration. It is noteworthy that Zuckerberg may control policy at Facebook but people willingly join the social network. However, Foer’s work can be used to support Armstrong’s contentions that humans desire to be controlled in order to be better versions of themselves. Armstrong argues that the concept of gods, religion, and religious rituals arose because inanely, humans aspire to be good, hence they create religion as a tool for the manifestation of that goodness; “the purpose of the ritual is not simply to turn him into an efficient killing machine rather, it is to train him to kill in the sacred manner” (Armstrong 5). Circumstances may change, leading to people selecting a different God, but the need for God remains. Similarly, the fact that billions of people have joined Facebook means that Zuckerberg is meeting a need, not just a want in the people, just as religion does. Billions of people in the world are religious just as billions of people have joined the new religion of social media, meaning that the need for religion among humans is primal.

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Ritualized beliefs in religion affect humans in the same way that having a Facebook account affects social media users in that it gives a secondary meaning to everyday events. Most modern Facebook users do not live in the real world but instead, live in the Facebook world. What they dress, what they say, how they behave and their primary activities are in part driven by the knowledge that most of it can and will be published on social media under the concept of “radical transparency” (Foer 60). Foer Quotes Zuckerberg as saying that his intention is to have a fully transparent society: “having two identities for yourself is a lack of integrity” (Foer 61). Facebook does not absolutely change their lives per se but it changes their opinion and approach to life. Eventually, the change of opinion and approach will change the lives of the users, more than the same users would be willing to admit. For example, the users may spend more time and money on their dressing, adopt a different kind of dressing, come early or late for functions, spend more time with friends and relatives and many others. The fact that they are on Facebook will eventually cause their lives to be different (Foer 76). Facebook is only a few years old while religion is thousands of years old but at one time in history, religion was as nascent as Facebook is today. According to Armstrong, religion did not start as an organized system of rules and regulations but rather as an avenue to give meaning to everyday activities: “Shaman’s visions give meaning to the hunting and killing of animals on which these societies depended” (Armstrong 4).

People wanted to believe that what they did was part of something larger. The animals they killed as a sacrifice, for example, were more than just meat and bones. To give life meaning, people started performing rituals as they carry out day to day activities. Armstrong gives the examples of Southern African hunters who would imitate the death throes of their animals as part of the hunting rituals. Being kind and nice to the hunt is also described as part of the ritual. Gradually, a formally accepted system of carrying out the mundane activities of life developed into a formal religion based on whatever force of nature that the community believes to be in charge of the world (Armstrong 5). Every person behaves not the way they want, but the way they are supposed to in honor of that Supreme Being or set of supreme beings. The common denominator between religious ritual and Facebook, therefore, is the eye in the sky, or rather the fact that someone is watching.

According to Foer, one of the main ways that Facebook controls behavior is through the knowledge that someone is watching: the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives” (Foer 60). Facebook uses algorithms to select through the wide array of content that is continually placed in it in order to determine what content to prioritize for its billions of users. Based on this prioritization, a concept of what is right and what is wrong will gradually develop. The eye in the sky, or rather the billions of microphones, camera lenses and typing fingers then enforce the right and wrong. On the other hand, when it comes to religion, members of the community, more so the more influential ones depending on the currency of influence in the community set the rituals: hunters feel profoundly uneasy about slaughtering the beasts to assuage this anxiety they surround the hunt with taboos and prohibitions” (Armstrong 4). Because of the belief that a god or gods are watching, the rituals will be followed religiously until they become a way of life. In both Facebook and religion, people start acting in a certain way because they believe that they are supposed to act as such but eventually, the expected action becomes a norm.

Foer and Armstrong differ exponentially when the issue of whether or not it is justifiable to paternalistically alter human behavior if the result is a more virtuous society. To evaluate the concept above as per the two respective commentators, it is important to evaluate what they consider to be paternalistic alteration and also what they consider to be a virtuous society. It is important to state from the very advent that the opinions of the two commentators on each respective issue above vary exponentially. According to Foer, paternalistic alteration has always been an instrument of control used by the powerful against those who are not in power: “we are the screws and rivets in the grand design” (Foer 77). Further, any form of paternalistic alteration is geared towards the sole benefit of the person who controls the alteration. For example, by stating that: “Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that thoroughly addicts them” (Foer 57), Foer paints a picture where Facebooks’ corporate interests are more important to the company than societal good. Based on this argument, paternalistic alteration in itself cannot per se create a virtuous society as there is no virtue in it in the first place. Conversely, Foer’s idea of a virtuous society does not relate to a society where people are directed or compelled either actively or passively to do the right thing but rather one where there is a free will for everyone to do what they want. A free society is a virtuous society hence any element of paternalistic alteration cannot be condoned, according to Foer, as it will eliminate, not instill virtues.

On the extreme end of the opinion divide lies Armstrong, who holds that paternalistic alteration to create a more virtuous society is not only justifiable but also desirable. In this context, justifiable means that it is the right thing to do, while desirable means that man wants and indeed needs to be paternalistically altered to instill virtue. Beginning with the desirability, religion has been an instrument of paternalistic alteration and based on available literature, people will go hunting for religion, if ever they feel it is being taken away from them. For example, in Greek mythology, Uranus was a god who lived in the skies. He was killed by Kronos his son who was much closer to the people. Eventually, “Kronos himself was overthrown by Zeus who lived accessibly in Mount Olympus” (Armstrong 11). The people desired a god who was near enough to be in active control of their lives, as opposed to a god who lived in the heaven which is what Uranus means. Further, according to Armstrong, people need a closer god who, through ritual can control how they carry out day to day activities: “No God can survive unless he is actualized by the practical activity of ritual” (Armstrong 11). With regard to justification, the combination of Foer’s opinion on the issue above can be used to reflect what Armstrong considers paternalistic alteration as justifiable as long as it results in a more virtuous society. For a start, Foer considers a virtuous society as one where there is free will, meaning the people are given what they want. As Armstrong considers paternalistic alteration based on religion to be what people want, then the same can only be justifiable. Further, in all instances where Armstrong presents people being altered by their gods, they end up being more virtuous. For example, the hunting rituals depicted by Armstrong show ancient hunters becoming kinder to their kills, due to the rituals associated with killing them. In this regard, paternalistic alteration to make a society more virtuous is justifiable, according to Armstrong.

Based on the above, there does seem to be a congruence between religion as defined by Armstrong, and Facebook as outlined by Foer. Both instruments are used to indirectly control the behaviors of people. Traditionally, religion would control pockets of people in different corners of the world. With modern advancements in technology, the world has gotten smaller and religion has a wider control over people across the world. Social media in general, more so Facebook works in an eerily similar way. Algorithms determine what is right and wrong, then Facebook pushes people to act according to these standards: “Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information” (Foer 56, 57). The difference between Foer’s Facebook and Armstrong’s religions come from their opinion of whether it is right or wrong to control people. Foer finds behavioral control and alteration as undertaken by Facebook as an attack while Armstrong considers the same as undertaken through religion as a necessity.

Works Cited:

  1. Armstrong, Karen. “Homo Religiosus”The New Humanities Reader (pp. 2–18) 5th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.
  2. Foer, Franklin. “Mark Zuckerberg’s War on Free Will”. From World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (pp. 56-77).

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