Thursday, February 7, 2013

Who needs heaven when we have social media?

"Hell is other people."

Jean-Paul Sartre

In my Introduction to Philosophy class this morning, we discussed the Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

In most of my classes over the last couple of years, there have always been a strong and vocal contingent of religiously devout students (I shall call them "the religious contingent" for the rest of this post) who are quite passionate about their faith and happy to speak freely about their belief in God. Some philosophy professors I know discourage the expression of personal religious belief in class, for understandable reasons: Very often, proclamations of religious belief come down to the relating of certain subjective religious experiences (revelations, being in the presence of God, etc., etc.), which are objectively unprovable, and therefore, not easy to incorporate into a rational discussion.

But I have no objections to expression of religious belief in class; in fact, I encourage it. I've always believed that if people are not comfortable saying what they feel about a particular subject (whether or not what they are saying is objectively provable), they probably won't be open to hearing what I have to say either, and will then just "switch off" and not engage in the class at all.

Which is the last thing I want to happen. So, in most in-class discussions on philosophy of religion, my default position is that of the friendly devil's advocate (i.e. the pagan non-believer who is nevertheless sincerely curious about what it would be like to be a God-fearing person). I figured that this stance of the friendly devil's advocate is the most productive position for me to take, pedagogically speaking: If I come across too strongly as a non-believer (say, as an angry, ranting atheist), I'll end up alienating these students, there'll be no common ground between me and them, and fruitful discussion would then be impossible. 

I'm telling you all of the above to give you a sense of how my classroom environment is like, and to set you up for the little story I'm about to tell (can't write a short blog post even if I try :-)). At one point during this morning's class, the discussion turned to the topic of Heaven. Again playing the role of the friendly devil's advocate, I posed a question to the religious contingent: "What is Heaven like?" A young woman answered: "Heaven is a place where I am surrounded only by people I love and know well and care about." A couple of other people in said contingent nodded their heads or made some noises of approval.

"Funny", I thought to myself, "I've never heard this definition of heaven before." But I decided to run along with it. So I answered, "But doesn't this sound like Facebook?" That got a hearty chuckle from everybody (or at least most people) in the room. "So isn't Facebook then a gift from God?' More chuckles.

But seriously, who needs heaven when we have Facebook? I mean, think about it: I've actually overheard conversations here and there in which people confess that these days, they don't even read the papers anymore. The first thing they look at when they wake up in the morning--and in some cases, the only thing they look at throughout the rest of the day--is their and their friends' Facebook pages. Which means that many people in the world today have effectively created a social media cocoon around themselves, one which consists only of their friends and like-minded people who share their specific worldviews. They have, in other words, created "a place where I am surrounded only by people I love and know well and care about." They have, in other words, created Heaven. Hmm... who, then, is the God in this heaven? (Jesse Eisenberg/Mark Zuckerberg?)

I'm not saying any of this to pass any judgment ("judge not, lest ye be judged...") on anybody or anything. In any case, if creating your own Heaven/media cocoon makes you a happier person, improves the quality of your life and those of others around you, and gives you the strength to get up in the morning and do what needs doing, who am I to judge? But being the kind of person that I am, I just can't help making these idle observations anyway...  


  1. Mainstream newspapers aren't that useful for informing us about the world anyways. Why does Beyonce's outfit at the Superbowl get more media coverage than say, some major situation going on in Syria? I'd rather be informed about my friends' statuses more than the status of Kate Middleton's pregnancy.

    1. Good point, Yyogini. I wonder if more people are turning to social media over mainstream media because the reporting standards and content of the latter have fallen so much over the years...