This week I wanted to look at how social media and the internet disrupt culture and tradition. I thought an interesting lens through which to look at this topic was via an interview with one of my best friends, Cale, who was in my dorm freshman year. Below is his story:
Could you summarize the transformation in your faith over the last few years?
I came to Stanford essentially unchallenged in my faith. I grew up in a family that was incredibly active in the mormon church and took their faith quite seriously. Through high school, I probably spent 12-15 hours a week on purely church-related endeavors and was praised for it by a community that uses spirituality and religious commitment as a form of social currency.
Coming to Stanford, people were naturally curious about by beliefs and upon sharing them with people I realized that I had some serious concerns about certain parts of the church’s doctrine and culture. Because it was expected of me by friends and family at home, I left school to go on a mission to proselyte in Japan. As my date to leave approached, the cognitive dissonance between what I had been taught my whole life and the concerns I had became too big and I left the mission process getting somewhat exiled from my home and community. I left because I didn’t want to commit to two years unless I was fully invested in the church, so once I left, I spent the entire following summer researching the mormon church as well as religions specifically and in general. After being exposed to other ways of thought I am currently agnostic in belief and trying to focus on the questions that I believe I can answer rather than trying to debate religious questions, many of which I believe are unanswerable.
While you were growing up at home, what was your social media presence like? If you had one, would you say most of your friends were mormon or non-mormons?
I’ve moved a whole lot throughout my life and only in high school was I surrounded by mormons, so I would say that my friend pool was probably equal parts mormon and non mormon. I would note though that my mormon friends are significantly more likely to post about their personal beliefs than my non mormon friends (whether about religion or not). I think this is probably because many of them have a fairly homogenous social media scene and there is little threat to their beliefs within the circles they exist in.
How would you describe the church’s feelings and approaches on social media?
The church has a really really strong social media campaign and marketing campaign in general. They spend a huge amount of money marketing in Time Square, the London rail systems and sending thousands of missionaries across the world each year so they certainly aren’t messing around. Recently, they’ve really tried to up their social media game primarily with mormon.org, a website where mormons can create profiles describing their faith and how they worship. It’s meant to be a place where people interested in the church can get answers directly from members of the church see that mormons are normal people. They also had a fairly successful “I’m a Mormon” video campaign on youtube that partnered with mormon.org and served a similar purpose. I think that generally, what the church does is harmless (a lot of their videos are about spending time as a family, gratitude, service, etc), but the recruiting aspect is a little more troublesome. I don’t think that social media full of hastags is a way to discuss really critical and important questions that religions often try to tackle. It’s superficial nature glosses over many of the troubling aspects of the church’s doctrine and misleads a lot of curious people who don’t do more thorough research into the church. I often hear stories of people saying “I wish I would have known more before I joined the church.” I think the church is aware of this and intentionally fails to mention controversial topics to people to increase the likelihood that people join.
Additionally, it seems as though there is a growing effort of the church to address some of the more controversial topics (i.e. the church’s position on same-sex marriage, their racism in the 60s-70s, and polygamy) however I think the church is largely unapologetic for their past mistakes and still fail to address the key components of these controversies.
What role would you say social media and the internet played as you began to separate yourself from your faith?
I think that one of the biggest helps to me leaving the church were websites like exemormon.org and mormoncurtain.org. They fairly address the many problems in the church and bring to light things that mormon culture has managed to conceal for a long time. They are also full of stories similar to my own, offering advice and direction for people questioning the church or considering leaving. They attached me to a community of like minded people with similar backgrounds. This was huge for me because I believe that there is a brainwashing aspect to the church. The church generally condemns anything that they consider “anti-mormon” which to them is anything that they didn’t publish that they don’t agree with so it can be really scary looking at websites like that because they make you fear for your soul if you do. Controlling what you can read is a scary scary thing and these online communities helped me remove that fear and allow myself to honestly look at the church with a clear mind. If I hadn’t read many of their stories, I may not have ever had the courage to break rank and leave the church.
Would you say it was a valuable resource for you as you underwent this transformation? Or was it more of an unfriendly place based on the non-Stanford (Mormon) contingent of your network?
Social media, like many things, seems to be a double-edged sword. The online communities on exemormon.org and the like definitely provided me with a lot of answers that no one in the church could/would provide. But, my social network full of mormons on Facebook is constantly bombarding me with mormon messages trying to get me to question my current beliefs and seems to have effectively done that to many people. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if Sunday school lessons started to include sections on “proper use of the #churchistrue hashtag” or “Establish a profile, even a profile of God”.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t think mormons are bad people, I just think they’re misled in a bunch of important areas. The increasing prevalence of social media in the church marketing campaigns worries me because it may continue to stick with the superficial, especially dangerous because it’s a lot easier to share a link than it is to have an intellectual discussion.