Praise the Lord and Pass the Algorithms

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One of the most persistent themes in the academic study of religion has been the portrayal of America as a religious marketplace. With the unprecedented disestablishment of tax-supported churches during the early republic, the argument goes, America became one grand spiritual bazaar. Ecclesiastical innovators, religious entrepreneurs, and other prophetic disrupters all competed with each other for a share of America’s faith-based market. From their efforts would emerge the nation’s many denominations. And at the center of this market stood the believer—a rational, fully-informed individual who was free to choose from the nation’s devotional abundance. The “winners” of American religious history, the argument inevitably suggests, have been those traditions that have most successfully marketed their worldviews to a discerning religious public. The “losers,” by contrast, are those who lacked an appealing brand.

Recent interest in the study of what fellow contributor to this series Heidi Campbell concisely identifies as “digital religion” continues to be framed by this metaphor of the market. The web, many argue, is the greatest of all emporiums, a place where preachers and believers alike are placed on something of a level playing field. Through the power of social media, even the most obscure religious figure can disrupt established religious traditions and quickly amass a following with nothing but a tweet and a prayer.

But in many respects, our contemporary digital moment is also the most cogent critique of the notion that American religion follows the dictates of a market. How can a model premised upon the free exchange of information interpret a world increasingly governed by algorithms? What good is the focus upon autonomous religious consumers in an age of automation? Because while most everyone might have access to the web—in the same way most everyone has access to a religious market—digital media’s modes of production also significantly shape and constrain the exchange of information and the formation of identities. Social networks reinforce, rather than expand, our presuppositions while search engines tailor their results to manipulate our browsing. Indeed, at a time when it appears that even presidential elections can be swayed by targeted Facebook advertisements and an army of Twitter bots, it is worth wondering just how free the American religious marketplace really is.

I encountered the limits of this market-based metaphor firsthand recently. In 2015, I built a Twitter bot called @Preacher_Bot that took the tweets of the five most-followed evangelical preachers and remixed them. The goal of this digital religion project was to poke at a problem in the study of evangelicalism. Where some scholars argue that evangelicalism is, at its core, discursive, I wanted to highlight just how difficult it would be for an evangelical simply to speak themselves into being. The gibberish @Preacher_Bot frequently generates—a recent tweet, for example, proclaimed that “The tombstone will be confident in a more secure group but evidently not secure enough”—mischievously performed the importance of individual creativity and lived experiences in fashioning an evangelical identity. It was, in short, the automation of a scholarly argument.

 

 

But something funny happened while developing the account. As the creator of a profile that was ostensibly that of a preacher, I suddenly became privy to the automated, inner workings of the evangelical twittersphere. Within moments of launching @Preacher_Bot, the account suddenly garnered a handful of unsolicited followers. All of these accounts were bots themselves, built by companies that offered a variety of pastoral support services, from relevant worship music to church-friendly budgeting programs. As the bot began to generate content, this kind of promotional interaction continued. Twitter itself got in on the act, “suggesting” I follow a number of other evangelical entrepreneurs based on those who interacted with me. But the project soon took an interesting turn when other, seemingly “regular” people began interacting with the account. Seemingly ordinary Twitter users, these accounts voiced their appreciation for the Bible verses @Preacher_Bot shared or even asked the account for prayer. I found the latter in particular to be troubling and wondered if I should notify these users of my account’s experimental purpose. But upon closer inspection it became clear that even these “real” accounts were bots who interacted with other users in the hopes that they would see the product they were pushing in their profiles.

I found the experience profoundly disorienting. While I had set out to build a machine that could help me algorithmically explore the contours of American religious life, I instead ended up inside the matrix of an automated religious world. Prayers, praise, and promotional material were all being exchange by computer programs, in the absence of any living person save those who created them. Whatever product evangelicalism might be in the American religious marketplace, its promotion, as I experienced it, was an automated process driven by programs who were saturating the market to the point of monopolizing it.

This is not to say that people are absent from this world, for the bots who found @Preacher_Bot are also finding countless of other accounts and shaping their religious world. But my encounter with this automated religious discourse does suggest that the digital turn might offer new interpretative paradigms in the academic study of religion. Indeed, the prevalence of digital culture to the religious worlds people make and the scholars who study them might necessitate it. Because the digital economy that companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google trade in is not about the buying and selling of products. It is about the generation of users whose data can be harvested and monetized for the company’s wellbeing. Perhaps religion works the same way; perhaps it has always worked the same way. Perhaps, as Rosemary Avance also suggests in her piece for this series, religion is a kind of technology, an algorithm whose human designers aim not to sell a product but to produce believers through a variety of automated means—from rituals to writings to the promotion of church-friendly budgeting software.