Artwork By Paula Gonzalez
A targeted ad popped up on my Instagram feed showing me a page for “awakening minds”. Naturally, I was drawn to it—targeted advertisement usually gets that right—and before I knew it, I had spent the last hour scrolling through endless “spiritual” accounts devouring information on ascension cycles, expansions of consciousness, how to clean my aura and the occult ways angels and spirits communicate with me. Then through the unknowing workings of the universe, I ended up on a post with a unique message meant just for me: It was my higher self, trying to communicate. He didn’t have anything interesting to say really, but for a minute I was completely engulfed by the idea, convinced that there was transcendental meaning in those words.
Anyone paying attention has noticed how social media has been taken over by this new spiritual movement, and it is so appealing because it appears to work in a magical and predetermined way. They travel across virtual space to find you at just the right moment and connect you to other wandering souls in an abstract, boundless region of the world. You have finally found a community of spiritual people just like you, and now you can join hands in your quest for enlightenment. But where exactly has this movement sprung from?
For starters, millennials. Religious disaffiliation has always been around, but researchers have found that the number of people who identify as having no religion, or “nones” is on the rise. This trend was first observed in the 2000s, when millennials started to be surveyed. The Pew Research Center found that the “nones” now comprise 23% of the population in the US, compared to just 16% in 2007. In Germany and the UK, 1 in 4 people nowadays identifies as a “none”. Jean Twenge, professor at San Diego University, points to a rise in individuality that shaped the millennial generation as a likely cause. Others signal to the generation’s distrust of institutions and their strong political views.
This phenomenon has further intensified among people aged 18 to 29, with 36% not identifying as religious according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that our generation was nurtured by this ever-growing virtual space, overflowing with information and identities. Sociologists say social media has made people “less community-focused but more likely to find compatriots with shared interests” (Yellin, 2021).
But people’s longing for deeply spiritual life, their desire to subscribe to a greater good, or maybe just their need to belong, hasn’t really gone anywhere. As much as 61% percent of “nones” still believe in a universal spirit, and 34% consider religion to be very important in their lives, per the Pew Research Center. The term “spiritual but not religious” is heard everywhere these days. And quite paradoxically, as it has prompted so many to flee organized religion, the internet has simultaneously stimulated the desire for a spiritual life.
As early as the 90s, authors such as Bauwens and Wertheim theorized about the effect that the digital revolution would have on spirituality, claiming that the “magical” aspect of technology would prompt people to develop a renewed spiritual fervor, that would see “cyberspace” as a vehicle for spirituality.
Bauwens put forth two concepts to explain this: The God Project and Electric Gaia. The first one refers to technology as humanity’s main tool for spiritual practice, with the “magic” powers of worldwide communication becoming a substitute for spiritual powers. The second one sees the internet as an instrument to create a “collective mental space” or a “global brain” that connects all of mankind (Bauwens, 1996).
Wertheim argues that the projection of religious dreams into cyberspace is not something that we should be surprised about. “Cyberspace makes an almost irresistible target for spiritual and religious longings”. As she explains, western culture has always had a deeply rooted dualistic culture, associating immateriality with spirituality. The internet, with all of its immaterial glory is, in her mind, a “repackaging of heaven in a secular sense” (Wertheim, 1999).
So finding solace from the dread of modern society in this infinite digital realm, people disillusioned with organized religion have been able to continue their spiritual journey in an immense variety of virtual spaces. Heidi Campbell, scholar at Texas A&M, refers to the rise of the “spiritual pilgrim” (2004).
And no site has lent itself better for this purpose than Instagram. Whether it’s sharing images and videos that add to your spiritual experience and awaken your higher self, or tailoring your feed to get your dose of spirituality and keeping it “good vibes only”, Instagram holds all the tools to help the pilgrim on their journey, or to help recruit them.
What is also fascinating is the variety of new spiritual movements that originate by the minute. As Campbell points out, “there is no unified spiritual belief online, so the internet functions as a marketplace of religions” (Campbell, 2004). Much in line with the cultural factors informing these movements, some place a huge focus on the individual, and the spiritual journey as a personal one. In their rediscovery of axial philosophies, new movements tend to reproduce the idea of spirituality being centered around the self, with the purpose of spiritual practice being to reach an “awakened” or “divine” form of our self. Other movements, in line with Bauwens’ observations, see spirituality as taking place inside mankind’s collective mental space, with social media serving as a tool to take it to a transcendental place, one where the borders between individuals disappear as we all embrace the universal energy.
One of the criticisms of these movements is that spirituality is almost a simulation, as, according to the narrative of the evolving self, a big part of the cyber-spiritual life is sharing it. Everyone is doing their shopping for all types of practices that advance their journey, but it has little to no value if the “spiritual journey” is not shared with others. Some people will emerge claiming that they are further up in the journey, and become “gurus” or spiritual influencers overnight. Then you have pages recommending the best influencers to aid you on your journey. Some will surely lead deeply spiritual lives, and some will be absolutely full of shit, but you can’t tell for sure. The traditions they borrow from will emphasize leading a simple life absorbed in menial tasks, but they’ll spend 8 hours a day on Instagram. Whatever, it’s sacred space now.
Then there are those spiritual masters who go so far as to monetize the sacred teachings they have acquired or the instruments that provide enlightenment. They really want to help you reach your higher self, but it’s going to cost you. Enlightenment nowadays is not only impeded by the toils of modernity, but also by a paywall in your favorite sacred cyberspace. Some people will be just one retreat away from reaching their higher self and losing all interest in material things, but they can’t afford it.
As much as some of these spiritual movements deserve criticism, and they do, the rise of spirituality in cyberspace is a movement of epic dimensions. The internet has irreversibly changed the way we organize our world, and the spiritual sphere is no exception. The trend points to religious disaffiliation getting greater and greater, and the spiritual cyberspace seems only to be growing. Organized religion is clearly losing its grip on society, but go ask someone else if that’s a good thing. The fact is that people are choosing when, where, and how they get their religion, having sovereignty over their spiritual experience like never before.
The chaotic nature of Cyberspace does make for a crazy and overwhelming spiritual market. New movements, good and bad, are crawling out of every corner of the internet, occupying the same abstract space as cat memes and sneaker giveaways, smothering unsuspecting users with “transcendental” knowledge. Should we do something about it? Maybe we should focus on improving ourselves first. I know some very good pages for that.
Yellin, D. (2021, September 21). One in four Americans identify as “Nones.” Why are millions leaving organized religion? USA Today News. Retrieved October 15,2021, from https://eu.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/nation/2021/09/21/religiousnones-religiously-unaffiliated-americans-increasing/5795850001/
Bauwens, M. (1996). Spirituality and Technology: Exploring the Relationship. First Monday. From https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/496/417
Bishop, N. M. (2016, January 16) When dogma goes digital: the new insta-spirituality. i-D Vice. From https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xnb4z/when-dogma-goes-digital-the-new-insta-spirituality
Wertheim, M. (1999). Is Cyberspace a Spiritual Space?. Cybersociology Magazine, Issue 7. From https://www.cybersociology.com/files/7_wertheim.html
Lipka, M. (2015). Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing, they’re becoming more secular. Pew Research Center. From https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/religious-nones-are-not-only-growing-theyre-becoming-more-secular/
Foley, K. E. (2015, June 2015). Millennials are losing their religion—and social media might explain why. Quartz. From https://qz.com/416973/social-media-may-be-helping-millennials-lose-their-religion/
Campbell, H. (2004). The Internet as Social Spiritual Space. Exploring citizenship in the Internet Age. St Andrew’s Press. From Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265264456_The_Internet_as_Social-Spiritual_Space