Photo by René C. Nielsen, Flickr CC
Photo by René C. Nielsen,
Flickr CC

While it is well known that social media sites can create and enable “social media bubbles” in which users are only exposed to news that reinforces their beliefs, sites like Facebook and Twitter have also been lauded for expanding our social networks and exposing us to new ideas. This increased exposure to diverse opinions and cultures can, so the thinking goes, challenge pre-existing assumptions and push individuals to reevaluate their beliefs. And a recent study by Paul McClure finds that this is indeed the case for religious beliefs — young adults who use social media are much more likely to find truth in many religions rather than adhere to a strict set of traditional religious beliefs.

McClure uses three waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion to test whether time spent on social networking sites (SNS) affects the religiosity of young adults over time. He focuses on two measures to assess whether SNS reinforce or expand religious beliefs  — syncretism and pluralism. Syncretism involves “picking and choosing” different beliefs and practices from a variety of religions to construct a personalized belief system, for example being raised Methodist but also practicing Buddhist meditation. Pluralism, in contrast, is the perspective that all religions are equally valid and that their differences should be minimized. While these terms are related, they are distinct ways of approaching religiosity. As McClure explains, “The judicious syncretist must discern which beliefs and practices to borrow, whereas the pluralist believes that all religions are the same anyway.” Despite these differences, both concepts denote a more open approach to religious differences, and McClure tests how SNS use influences the levels of both in young adults over time.

McClure’s analysis reveals that young adults who use social networking sites are more inclined to exhibit religious syncretism than non-SNS users, but they are not any more or less likely to be religious pluralists. McClure calls this the “Facebook effect” on religion — on social media, religious and spiritual options can become vehicles for self-expression and they are often less constrained by tradition or doctrine. In other words, many young adults treat their religiosity like they do their other “likes” and preferences on social media, and religion functions as a malleable and often inconsistent expression of their personality, morality, and spirituality. Interestingly, social media use does not make young adults any more or less pluralistic. McClure concludes that this is due to the nature of social media itself and the “modern consciousness” that it has enabled. Being syncretistic means that you can be both pluralistic and exclusivist, picking and choosing depending on the situation, and updating your status along the way.