Professions of faith are never not a big deal. Even preachers and imams and rabbis, who get paid to talk about God, share something intensely personal when they talk about their religious beliefs. Most faith traditions have rituals dedicated to declaring, this is what I believe: Catholics repeat the Nicene creed; Muslims recite the shahadah; Jews say the sh'ma.
All of which feel very different, of course, from #godtweets.
“Christian? Yeah. Perfect? Nope. Forgiven? Yeah. Worthy? Nope. Accepted? Yeah. Deserving? Nope. Loved? Yeah.” #Godtweets— Lanie McAlpin (@LanieMcAlpin) February 12, 2014
It's so casual: With 140 characters and the click of a button, anyone can declare their fundamental beliefs about the metaphysical nature of the universe. It's a little disorienting to think of any tweet in the same category as a formal religious ritual—being in church feels very different from scrolling through a newsfeed full of selfies and emojis.
But really, faith-related tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts are just a tech-y form of witnessing: When people share their beliefs publicly, they're affirming their own faith and offering it up to their community. Every part of life has its echo in social media; why should religion be any different? Just as some people choose to trumpet their baby announcements or relationship status on Facebook, so some choose to tweet their daily thanks to God.
But according to a new report from Pew, the way people talk about their faith online actually is different from how they talk about it in real life. In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 Americans, only 20 percent said they had "shared something about [their] religious faith on social networking websites/apps" in the past week. Twice as many said they had talked about faith in person within the same period.
Although people from different religious backgrounds reported different levels of what one might call faith-sharing, this relationship between on- and offline sharing was roughly the same across Christian denominations and the religiously unaffiliated: Twice as many people talked about their religious beliefs offline vs. online.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that there's hardly any variation among age groups: People younger and older than 50 were nearly equally likely to say they'd talked about their faith on social media within the last week. That's remarkable for two reasons: In general, younger Americans are less religious than older Americans, and they're also much heavier users of social media. Across two demographics who think about both faith and the Internet very differently, the mores of talking about God online seem to be similar.
This survey doesn't say much what those mores are. But it does suggest that people like talking about their religious beliefs face-to-face more than they do online—or, perhaps, they're more willing. Broadcasting your faith to all your Facebook friends is a very public act, and religion is a very personal thing; it may be that people feel more comfortable discussing God in communities that exist offline, like youth groups or book clubs. These spaces can feel much less vulnerable: It's possible to know exactly who will hear you and maybe even have a sense of how they'll respond. On Facebook or Twitter, that's impossible.
It's not that faith and technology don't mix. The Bible app YouVersion has been downloaded more than 157 million times since the company was founded in 2008; by comparison, Instagram has 200 million monthly users.* But reading the Scriptures is private in a way that tweeting or using Facebook can never be, and perhaps that's why people are less likely to look to those kinds of networks as outlets for exploring their faith. Even offline, the social rules that govern how people talk about faith are complex; online, those rules are mediated through layers of irony, exposure—and, potentially, judgment.
* This article originally misstated the name of the Bible app YouVersion. We regret the error.