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Press: Gods, cults, myths, and the almighty Google

04 February 2022

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A COUPLE of excellent leads from last week’s crop: one from The Guardian’s book pages — “Just one glance was enough. In 1974, Prince Philip was returning from a holiday in the south Pacific when he became a god”; and one from The Sun: “I hunted vile preacher who whipped, stripped & abused school kids in his garden shed — what came next left me sickened”. All human life is there, as we used to say.

The Sun’s story was, I hope, a payday for Andrew Graystone, pegged to the release of Winchester College’s report on the depredations of John Smyth (News, 21 January). “Over six sickening years, Smyth — a top British barrister — was allowed to wander in and out of a leading boarding school, choosing boys to abuse. When Church of England clergy were told, they turned a blind eye and allowed him to carry on. Many were thrashed with canes until they bled, groomed through an extensive network of ‘Bash camps’ and forced to wear nappies to cover their horrendous injuries.”

It was interesting to see how much bleaker and less snobbish the story seemed when stripped down to its essentials like this. By treating it all as if it happened in a foreign country — that of the rich and privileged — the humanity of those involved became paradoxically clearer.

The Guardian review is full of interesting snippets and inversions. Abhrajyoti Chakraborty was dealing with Accidental Gods, a book on deified Westerners, of whom Prince Philip was only one example. The most famous and, perhaps, most interesting was Haile Selassie, who became the centre of the Rastafarian cult after National Geographic ran a 68-page report on his coronation in 1931. “Never mind that Selassie didn’t consider himself ‘black’, or the fact that National Geographic routinely ran pieces that referred to indigenous people as ‘savages’, and African Americans were forbidden from becoming members or using its library in Washington DC.”

We think of QAnon as a purely internet phenomenon, and it’s true that it wouldn’t have developed without the internet, any more than the schism in the Anglican Communion would have done. Yet the example of the Rastas and other similar cults shows that you don’t need the internet to generate them. Once a community forms around a myth that expresses something that its members need to make sense of the world, it will grow organically. All the internet did was to widen greatly the pool from which the community might be drawn. Almighty Google, unto whom all hearts are opened and all desires known, will always find you friends just like yourself.

 

AND so, two stories of what happens when there are giant advertising companies that know about us things that we hardly know about ourselves. The first comes from Crisis Text Line, not itself an advertising company, but a non-profit New York-based company that, rather like the Samaritans, lets teenagers reach out for help on their phones.

Partly because the interactions with the service are all typed text, it is easy to analyse them at scale. Politico quotes its co-founder as saying as far back as 2015 that “We know that if you text the words ‘numbs’ and ‘sleeve,’ there’s a 99 percent match for cutting. We know that if you text in the words ‘mg’ and ‘rubber band,’ there’s a 99 percent match for substance abuse. And we know that if you text in ‘sex,’ ‘oral’ and ‘Mormon,’ you’re questioning if you’re gay.” That was six or seven years ago. The company’s knowledge can only have increased since then.

So, what to do with this knowledge? Crisis Text Line, though itself non-profit, owns a for-profit company which sells data to people who make software for customer- service interactions. Although this is anonymised, such anonymisation is helpless against a determined attack, and, once sold, the data can, of course, be sold again. The trade has now stopped, after Politico’s exposé. But that leads to the other much more shocking story.

Pray.com is a site that urges you on its front page to “join millions of other Christians experiencing stronger faith, a better prayer life, and deeper sleep with the Pray.com app.”

And, of course, people join in deep distress. Buzzfeed found a woman they called Katie, whose 24-year-old son had drowned: “Thanks to Pray.com, Katie found solace in a community of what she calls ‘prayer warriors’ — thousands of people who share their deepest fears and hopes in a public Facebookesque feed of prayers and prayer requests. Katie posted prayers for her son, for her former husband, who died by suicide in 2008, and for her youngest child, who struggles with addiction. . .

“As Katie laid out her spiritual anguish, Pray.com was data mining it, matching her actions in the app to details about her that it purchased from data brokers.” This, then, is used to personalise the ads that the victims see on Facebook and elsewhere. I don’t think anything could better exhibit the absolute moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the billion-dollar American Christianity business.

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