BOSTON (RNS) On my first Patriots’ Day in Boston, I was enjoying lunch with several colleagues when someone rushed into the restaurant: There had been an explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Moments later, caravans of ambulances and police cars raced, and the reports of casualties rolled in.
In the hours and days that followed, social media became for me, and many others, a sacred space to share our prayers and words of disbelief.
The scene gave personal immediacy to research I’ve been conducting with a colleague about the use of social media as public memorialization in the wake of last year’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Over the past nine months, we’ve spent countless hours sifting through thousands of tweets, amateur photos, and related media coverage that appeared in the aftermath.
Our research can be framed as a simple question: Is using Twitter a religious act? I’m convinced it can be.
— Kellie Kotraba (@kelliekotraba) August 27, 2013
Our research on Sandy Hook indicates that following a national tragedy, social media creates new possibilities for religious practice, allowing us to directly access firsthand accounts and to express our faith and solidarity in the face of unimaginable suffering from essentially anywhere on the globe. We found that Twitter provides us a place both to offer condolences and compassion to those who have been directly impacted and to make meaning of such events for ourselves.
For example, in the wake of Sandy Hook, the hashtag #nowords, which began as a social commentary on the ridiculousness of the Internet, took on a more solemn and profound sensibility. Indeed, many of us did not have the words to make any sense of it.
Social media offers a solution to this “speechlessness.” Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow users to express in images what they might struggle to express with words. We discovered that these visual articulations offer a surprisingly powerful tool for prayer.
When we compared tweets about Newtown, we found that tweets designated as prayer used photos and graphics 50 percent more than general condolences. These included photo memorialization of the victims, photos of prayer vigils and other images filled with religious significance. Twitter and smartphones provided an unanticipated and soul-stirring alternative to conventional words of prayer, inviting us to forgo language altogether and bring the poetry of silence to our contemporary religious practices.
Beyond such creative practices of prayer, Twitter also provides a forum for human solidarity among people of diverse faiths. Following the Newtown shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings, we observed thousands across faiths “gathering” on Twitter and other social media, demonstrating their presence by proxy.
Some might suggest that the ease of sharing a photo on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook cheapens the religious significance of the act. But we found the opposite to be true — social media creates new avenues for innovative religious practices, like photo sharing as an offering of prayer. It is important to note that these new religious practices don’t replace religious communities; rather, they add to them.
After the Newtown shootings, many Twitter users documented their participation in a crowd-sourced memorialization by sharing photos of candles lit inside white paper bags they’d placed in their driveways, a symbolic gesture to guide “home” the innocent souls of the victims. In this case, participation via Twitter didn’t replace traditional religious practice; it improvised it.
— @tytyjohn (@tytyjohn) December 25, 2012
These emerging religious practices documented through social media suggest something interesting to us about faith in America. Recent studies from Public Religion Research Institute and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicate that religious affiliation is declining in America. But those same reports also found the majority of those who claim no affiliation still say they believe in God. Our findings suggest that religious practices and faith may not be declining, but they are shifting in surprising and exciting ways.
When religious leaders and everyday people of faith turn to social media to express their commitments to creative offerings of prayer, solidarity in the face of suffering, and love in the midst of violence, they demonstrate a positive use of religion in the American public square.
Religious leaders can learn from the ways people use social media in the aftermath of national tragedies. These folk practices point to the durability of contemporary faith and suggest our shifting world may require new ways of understanding religious belief and commitment.
(Timothy Snyder is a doctoral fellow in practical theology at Boston University. Snyder was a 2013 Coolidge Fellow in the CrossCurrents Research Colloquium at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com)