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Religion as an App
How tech products might beat God
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I spend my Sunday mornings kneeling at the alter of my Twitter feed, giggling at lip-synced hymns on Tik Tok, and praying that Mum didn't see last night's Instagram Story. 'Swipe up to unlock' opens my bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have all "liked my photo". Good Lord I have 2,013 unreads in my Gmail! It's time to confess: Religion is out, technology is in.
If this sounds sad to you, you're probably right. As it now stands, technology is a lousy replacement for a millennia-old tradition that increases happiness, strengthens our social networks, and provides us with a sense of purpose. But could the next big religious or spiritual movement soon be available for download in the AppStore? Let's see...
Religion has been rapidly declining since the early 1990's, around about the same time the dot-com bubble started forming 🧐. Last year was the first time 'No Religion' topped a survey of Americans' religious identity. But religion has important functions in society — helping with social cohesion, offering psychological support, affecting positive social change, to name a few. The decline of organized religion has also coincided with the rise of the loneliness epidemic. Without regular congregations, familiar community, and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves, we're more socially isolated than ever before.
Who or what is going to take the place of these vital institutions of faith? Some say it's politics. Some say it's Burning Man. Some say it's our work or the brands we buy from. And at least one guy on the internet thinks it's technology. Stan Stalnaker’s take is that the foundations for the growth of digital religions are governed by three factors: the internet, which allows for rapid scale; quantified-self technologies, which promise self-betterment; and new surveillance methods, which ensure a whole new type of peer-pressured submission. Yikes!
Stan The Internet Man contends that all major religions were born from movements that addressed social injustices. Today's social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #ClimateStrike are often propagated by technology. Instead of wearing crosses around our necks, we post black squares on our Instagram. Confessions look like millions of #metoo status updates on Facebook. Prayer is 10 minutes on Headspace. We practice our beliefs in public, not by sitting in a Sunday congregation, but by live streaming a vigil for George Floyd on Twitch or TikTok. With these new belief systems, our collective social pain is the tinder (honestly no pun intended), and technology is the accelerant. Tech-led social movements aren't yet religious movements, but they establish a doctrine and create fertile ground for digital religions in a way we've never seen before.
But what on earth would this digital bible/church/prayer look like as a product?
Meera Clark in her essay 'A Religious Realignment' calls out seven holes (or seven product opportunities if you're an opportunistic designer 😉) left in the wake of religion:
Inspirational engagement — What does a new-age sermon look like?
Ritual — What can we perform regularly, together?
Morality — Under what code should we operate?
Charity — How can we help each other?
Mindfulness — How can we find peace in ourselves?
Meaning — What's my purpose for being here?
Community — Where do I belong? Who are my people?
Brands and businesses to-date have unbundled religion, each attempting to satisfy some dimension of our spiritual inquiry. As a product designer, this feels messy to me. What if you could bundle all these forces for good into a single mobile app? What would that look like? What feature set would we need? I've taken a hilarious swing...
Inspirational live streams from modern philosophizers and coaches.
Daily community check-ins. See and track aggregated answers.
A common code of practice.
Vote on how a portion of app revenue should be spent charitably each day.
Regular group meditations.
Questions that prompt inner investigation, or allow us to reach out and help others.
Group chats that are specific to our values, beliefs, or lifestyles.
What would you want to see in a new religion app?
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Lots of love,
(Your techno cult leader)