Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer, opined in a recent TV appearance that a “religion of growth” pervades Facebook, preventing its founder Mark Zuckerberg from taking responsibility to thoroughly rid Facebook of its fake news, and its susceptibility to destabilize America’s electoral integrity and democracy. That “religion” pursues user growth at any cost, promoting an absence of moral responsibility to fix the platform’s flaws, and to restore the line between truth and falsehood.
Religion – the way Osnos uses it – can be applied to myriad other scenarios: religion of nationalism, capitalism, or communism; or religion of prosperity, or money; or religion of self, or of politics. Of course, though now either dead or off the scene, there remain the religions of Warren Jeffs, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Alexander Bedward, and Adolph Hitler – all with varying outcomes of the same moral deficiency and bankruptcy attending Zuckerberg and Facebook (excepting perhaps Bedward, whose “religion” was widely considered the result of lunacy, not deficient morality).
Without reference to a dictionary or some treatise on religion, a fair definition of religion might refer to a person’s unswerving fervor of allegiance to something, someone, or some idea, which is most frequently, most prevalently, and ultimately, the shaper of one’s thinking and convictions, the motivator of one’s actions, and one’s raison d etre for living. Even where religion doesn’t include the dimension of belief in the unseen, or matters exceeding scientific proof, or the ontological, it is often tethered to allegiance.
Religion often brings like-minded devotees into a community; however, if religion shall escape becoming evil, one of the steps its devotees should avoid is to impose their religion upon others. When religion is imposed upon others, it becomes a major challenge to community; not only that; it places leaders, who utilize religious imposition and coercion, on the fast track to badness and evil. Wherever injustice is found in society, entrenched through laws, a diligent search is quite likely to dredge up some religion’s horribly misinterpreted or misapplied idea, often steeped in the unseen and the unscientific, now imposed upon others, via law, as the bugbear. In America, prohibition and its outcomes are one such disaster; while segregation (and its concomitant racism), attitudes toward and treatment of women and LGBTQ folks, are a few of many injustices, the source of which appears to be religious convictions.
Leaders, or those who seek leadership, who demonstrate even a semblance of demagoguery (let alone much of it) should be held with great suspicion; for demagoguery has been a well-used tool of cult leaders, bad leaders, despots, dictators, and evil leaders, since time immemorial. At the heart of their mission is the exploitation of people whose primary religion-ideology-allegiance is somehow linked to the demagogue, or the demagogue’s promises, or the demagogue’s lies or vacuity, regardless of what anyone might think is theirs or the demagogue’s primary religion. This is why some persons who say they are “true” Muslims, become extremist demagogues or fall prey to them; or why some who said they were “true” Christians, became demagogues, or fell prey to the likes of Hitler, or still fall prey today to profligate and money-fleecing televangelists on the one hand, or political figures who say they love Jesus, on the other.
Leaders, or those who seek leadership – whether they are in religious organizations or in the public sphere – whose real religion is a pledge of allegiance to self, money, power, nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism), triumphalism, parochialism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, classism, misogyny, disrespect, vitriol, deception, and pretense, shall never serve those whom they have been selected or elected to lead – no matter what they promise, or what vows they take – for they cannot lead. Neither their “religion” nor “leadership” has anything to do with wide collaboration or collective wisdom. They are uninterested with genuinely identifying with their constituents, or with developing their constituency’s human capital or infrastructure. Such leaders eschew self-giving, sacrifice, or sharing power. Regarding intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, idealized influence, and individualized consideration – those four indispensables of transformational leadership – they know little or nothing, want to learn nothing, or are completely unable to learn anything, about them. Should they even understand those concepts, their real “religion” disallows their practice of them or enables the corruption and abuse of them. Add poor emotional intelligence and such leaders become exponentially worse. Such leaders shall quickly and thoroughly disappoint, whether they are in business, churches, non-profit institutions, community agencies, or government; and the only folk who shall continue to follow and rabidly defend them, regardless of the monumental evidence of their unsuitability, are those who resolutely share such bad leaders’ real “religion.” Often, that kind of supporter remains with that kind of leader until the organization, entity or community becomes dysfunctional, or keeps supporting them until they become mass-homicidal or genocidal.
One Bible writer (James) defined true religion as care for the vulnerable, while avoiding the vestiges and polluters of religion such as greed, selfishness, profligacy, prejudice, hate, deceitfulness, deception, and more. Another writer (Micah) might add the love of justice, mercy, and humility: three fundamentals which, if absent in those selected or elected to lead or represent, constitute a harbinger of woe. Wise and vigilant people know this and vote intelligently.
If Osnos is right, Zuckerberg and Facebook’s “religion” (of growth) will continue to facilitate destruction instead of development. If his concept of “religion” is valid, people who have voting rights anywhere, in any place, for anything ranging from high school student rep, to church leader, to prime minister or president, are required to search their hearts about their real religion, while searching their candidate more carefully, to determine his or her real religion. This, because people never deviate in thinking, reasoning or behavior, from their real religion. To expect them to do so, is folly.
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Michael Friday is an organizational leadership specialist, working through Transition Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA. He is author of And Lead Us Not Into Dysfunction.
(Photograph is of the Jonestown Massacre, Guyana, 1978. Retrieved from https://www.bizarrepedia.com/jonestown-mass-suicide/)