Faith on Facebook

godjoinsfacebook-thumb-400x384There was a curious post on the Utne Reader web site entitled "Overloading God's Servers" that warns:

"On Sunday, November 8, atheists will launch a coordinated prayer attack against God. Nonbelievers around the world will hurl a bevy of meaningless prayers at God, coordinated by Facebook, in an effort to inundate God's prayer receptors and force them offline."

Hmmm. Not sure what to make about that.

But does it provide sufficient reason to finally comment on an earlier Washington Post article focusing on the more than 150 million Facebook users (out of 250 million total users) who filled in the "Religious Views" portion of the social media site's user profiles?

Staff writer William Wan set out an ambitious agenda for himself in his article, "Soul-Searching on Facebook: For Many Users, Religion Question Is Not Easy to Answer."

Now Facebook users announce their spiritual identity with the stroke of a few keys. And what they are typing into the open-ended box offers a revealing peek into modern faith and what happens to that faith as it migrates online...

Amid the endless trivialities of social networking sites -- the quotes from Monty Python, the Stephen Colbert for Prez groups, the goofy-but-calculatingly-attractive profile pics -- the tiny box has become a surprisingly meaningful pit stop for philosophical inquiry.

One college student spent days to create this summary: "Love God, Love Others, Change the World." Some take a lighter approach, like the young woman who filled in the blank in her profile with "Pastafarian." Others wrestle with the challenge of summarizing their spirituality in 100 characters or less.

Wan asked Facebook representatives to provide him with statistical analysis. The results were less than scientific:

Not surprisingly, the most popular faith professed is "Christian" and the various denominations associated with it. The category is so dominant that for this list, Facebook's statisticians insisted on combining such other designations as "Protestant," "Catholic" and "Mormon" under the "Christian" label. As a result, the second most popular entry on the list is "Islam," followed by "Atheist."

"Jedi," interestingly enough, makes an appearance at No. 10.

The complete catalogue of entries easily numbers in the thousands, Chin said. But even offbeat answers like "Seguidor del Wiccanismo" and "Heavy Metal" garner more than 2,000 users each. There is also, Chin noted with a laugh, a surprising number of people online who identify themselves as Amish.

Readers who may have expected more from Wan's promised "revealing peek" into modern online religiosity finally get some good stuff near the end where he explores the concerns some Facebook users have about how their views will be judged by others. For example, one woman described her views as "Matthew 25" rather than Catholic.

"It's a bit of code," she said, "so people can make of it what they want."

Such fear of judgment plays an outsize role in how young adults express their religious views online, said Piotr Bobkowski, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina who is in the midst of a two-year grant-funded survey of religion on MySpace. He has found that a significant portion of privately religious young adults -- almost a third in the case of Protestants -- avoid identifying themselves by their traditional sects.

Many teens, Bobkowski said, prefer to portray themselves as spiritual but not religious: "That's why you see all these little one-line creeds popping up."

But why worry? Can't one always edit one's "Religious Views"?

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