Dawkins, Paris and Digital Luminaries: How Paris calls us to a different way of being on social media


With a rapidly rising death toll and hundreds of injuries the Paris attacks are the worst terrorist attack in western Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004 which killed 191 and injured thousands. Paris hits us hard because it's on our door step. The streets of Paris are filled with the same shops as London, Birmingham, Newcastle or Glasgow. Large scale terror attacks are again just a train ride away. The Paris attack brings memories of both 7/7 and 9/11 to us. But sadly around the world these kinds of killings are becoming increasingly common place. Reports of ISIS killing hundreds of children, executing people by throwing them off of tall buildings, driving a tank over them, beheading children or of Nigeria's Boko Haram bombing marketplaces or abducting school girls and forcing them into sexual slavery are so common that they no longer make headline news.

Some will blame religion for what took place in Paris. In deed Richard Dawkins has taken to twitter early to post the following in response to the Paris attacks:

"If you don't like your religion's fundamentalists, then maybe there's something wrong with your religion's fundamentals"

Dawkins has a long history of pointing the finger to blame religion for tragedy. Back in 1996 he said in a statement to the American Humanist Association:

"It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus... but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's greatest evils, comparable to the small pox virus but harder to eliminate."

For the early Dawkins, religion was to blame for the most serious problems in our world. But to me, he sounds like the luddites that blamed the 2011 London riots on blackberry messenger or attributed the Arab Spring to Facebook. Like a car on a speeding highway commandeered by an FBI agent so that she can pursue an escaped assailant; both social media and religion have often been conscripted for personal and political ends. Neither religion nor social media are to blame for what happened in Paris or Beiruit, an ideological and cynical commandeering has taken place as warped men and women seek their own ends.

In a more recent book "The Devil's Chaplin" Dawkins nuances his position significantly, and actually advocates a position that has a lot of merit. Dawkins takes up a position ironically very similar to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues in his recent book "Not in God's Name." Dawkins argues:

 "My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all."

Both Dawkins and Sacks realize that in order for terror to take place, a dehumanization and a demonization of the other needs to occur. Religion and the media are often used to make this possible. For example, just before the 1991 Rwandan genocide took place the radio airwaves were used as an indoctrination tool:

"You have to kill the Tutsis, they're cockroaches.... All those who are listening, rise so we can fight for our Rwanda. Fight with the weapons, you have at your disposal: those who have arrows, with arrows, those who have spears, with spears. We must all fight the Tutsis. We must finish them exterminate them , sweep them from the whole country."

With language that objectified people and turned humans into vermin it became easier for a population to kill a million people in a hundred days. It is a horrific transformation that turned former neighbours, class mates and colleagues into people willing to kill each other. But the process of dehumanization meant that people no longer saw their neighbor as a person but rather as an insect in need of extermination. The same thing happened in the second world war with the Nazis and the Jews. Sadly, in some of the rhetoric around the refugee crisis we have used similar language when we talk about "a flood" or "a swarm."

The morning after the terror attack I was speaking to around 500 Christian digital creatives and I called them to make use of their media for good. Here are the three commitments I asked them to consider in order to us use our social media influence for God's honour.

1. Be a digital luminary

Social media has been hijacked by terror. The horrors of the holocaust were committed in secret; indeed many ordinary citizens didn't seem to know it was taking place. ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda on the other hand find glory in the public spectacle. These groups deliberately record their attrocities and then broadcast them for maximum impact. Sadly we have become willing spectators lapping up their news with a potentially perverse interest. Christians are called to be salt and light in every sphere we are placed. We are called; as the folk musician, Bruce Cockburn used to sing "to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight." Our digital footprint needs to make an impact for good. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can't blame the darkness for being dark – but Jesus does hold us accountable for shining. In dark days we need to shine more brightly. Modelling compassion and kindness in face to face relations and using our voice on social media to speak up for good and the gospel is a way we can fight the hatred and dehumanization.

2. Be a digital kingdom seeker not empire builder

In the end our online presence can't be about our brand, our name or our platform. I struggle with the balance of this myself for sure. I love the organisations I work with and for and am passionate about the work we do. I believe in the message that I seek to share about theological education and finding foster carers and adoptive parents; but in the end my online presence has to be about building the kingdom, not my empire. The kingdom of God is all about God getting the honour he deserves and if we seek it together we can be an incredibly strong force for good in the world. If we are more generous in our social media usage, the church can help share the powerful message of the common dignity of all human beings, the incredible power of the gospel to bring peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

3. Be a digital peacemaker

Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children on God." Making peace is the family business, we follow Jesus the prince of peace. Our online presence can make peace by helping to change the way that people see each other. Take for example Nilufer Demin, not a household name to be sure, but this 29 year old photo journalist took a digital picture of the washed up body of 3 year old Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi and it transformed the way many of us saw the refugee crisis. The picture helped us see refugees not just as a problem to be solved or as an object to be dealt with but as people in need of assistance. Our online presence needs to help do the same.

In face of terror, evil and injustice our social media presence can be part of the response. It is increasingly the determinant of how people form opinions about what is going on in our world. It is not the only way we can respond. I know I for one get it wrong on social media all the time, but perhaps as digitally active Christians before we write an article, make an image, send a tweet, update facebook or post a photo, perhaps we should ask:

How does this help build the kingdom?

How does this shine the light of Christ in this situation?

How does this make peace more likely?