By Andrew Brown
If Facebook were a religion, it would be the largest in the world. With a claimed 3 billion active monthly users, it has more than Christianity (2.3 billion) or Islam (1.8 billion). But its trial of a special prayer request interface has caused unease among believers of all sorts.
Starting in January this year, Facebook has been experimenting with additions to the interface it provides for religious groups in the US. These changes were not announced publicly and were first noticed in the spring, when Robert P. Jones, the director of a Washington think tank on religion and public policy noticed that he had the option to allow formal prayer requests in his Facebook discussion group.
If he did so, members could click a special button to say that they had prayed as requested. This is not, perhaps, what Jesus would have wanted. He told his followers: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” He didn’t say that Mark Zuckerberg, who also sees what is done in secret, will reward you with personalised advertisements.
People have been asking for prayers and assuring others that they have given them since the birth of online religion — there are nearly 50 million Google hits for “Facebook Prayer requests” — but the existence of a button to click would make the process even easier. There have been previous efforts to mechanise transactions with the divine, centuries before computers. Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, which are driven by the wind, are the most obvious example.
The Facebook prayer button shows how religion is both intensely personal and extremely social. Prayer is meant to be directed at God, meditation at the ultimate reality. In both, the soul is alone with the divine. But both of them are often done in company. They are a way to signal your social position. In the case of prayers for other people, they can express everything from heartfelt sympathy at a funeral to the gross manipulation of an “exorcism” of a teenage gay person.
The notorious YouTube clips of the American pentecostalist Paula White praying to overturn the result of last year’s presidential election show what really theatrical prayer can look like.
Ms White, whose operation straddles the divide between faith and showbusiness, represents the kind of religion that Facebook has been making a real push towards. The prayer button is only a small, eye-catching part of the effort. Facebook’s real ambition is to become the channel through which religious leaders and their congregations interact.
Throughout the pandemic, people have talked about “religion on Zoom”, and not “on Facebook”. This represents millions of advertising dollars going to waste from Facebook’s point of view. That religion might involve individual people in private moments is something the company seems unable to grasp.
Last month, The New York Times reported, the company held a “virtual faith summit” in which it pitched its marketing expertise at religious groups ranging from Hillsong to the South Bay Islamic Association of California. The company has a “director for global faith partnerships”, Nona Jones, a nondenominational minister. Earlier this year, she said: “Our mission to give people the power to build community extends to the world’s largest community: the faith community,” language which suggests a blithe indifference to the often-violent relationships between different faiths.
In Myanmar, where Facebook is for most people the only means of accessing the internet, the platform was used to whip up Buddhist hatred against the Muslim Rohingya minority, resulting in an internationally condemned campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Facebook is also offering some religious clients a subscription service, which would enable believers to pay for regular access to sermons, and another tool that enables worshippers to pay in donations during virtual services. According to some reports, it also offered to stream advertisements during sermons. So far, this offer has not been taken up.