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Mark Zuckerberg Takes a Timid Stab at Theology

Mark Zuckerberg, having discovered humility, is actively seeking to understand Facebook’s and his own position in the universe.
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Mark Zuckerberg news, Mark Zuckerberg Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg spirituality, Mark Zuckerberg God, Mark Zuckerberg net worth, Mark Zuckerberg Hawaii, Mark Zuckerberg latest news, Mark Zuckerberg presidential bid, Mark Zuckerberg ethics, Mark Zuckerberg companies

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February 05, 2020 09:19 EDT
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Everyone wants to know what Mark Zuckerberg believes, just as everyone wants to hear the songs Elon Musk records and releases to the public. When you’re that rich, that famous and that powerful, the world is curious to know everything there is to know about your beliefs, hobbies and desires. Who, for example, wasn’t impressed two years ago upon learning that Warren Buffett splurges as much as $3.17 on his breakfast every day at McDonalds, and that when he’s “not feeling quite so prosperous, [he] might go with the $2.61?”

And now the world and the media have had the chance to discover the profound truth about Zuckerberg’s hitherto unexpressed religious beliefs. These details, whether it’s about breakfast menus or religious beliefs, are things the world needs to know because they may supply people who aren’t rich, famous and powerful with the keys to becoming any or all of those things.

Business Insider reports that during an on-stage interview Zuckerberg gave at a conference in Utah, the founder and CEO of Facebook for the first time revealed his deepest thoughts on spirituality. “I think there’s a comfort in knowing and having confidence that there are things bigger than you … it’s why I have so much faith in democracy overall, it’s why I care so much about giving people a voice.” He added: “You have to believe in things that are bigger than yourself.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Bigger:

Having a power in the universe even more absolute than Mark Zuckerberg’s control of Facebook and his dominion over the billions of Facebook subscribers.

Contextual Note

Religion has always had a direct link with morality and ethics. In recent years, some critics of Zuckerberg’s critics have allowed themselves to question his sense of public morality. Nobody suspects him of shameful private morality, in the style of a Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein, though the media have signaled scandals that concern his less than “neighborly” behavior in various places where he owns property, notably in Kauai, Hawaii, where he built a wall that has disfigured the landscape.

As one of his Hawaiian neighbors complained: “It’s really sad that somebody would come in and buy a huge piece of land and the first thing they do is cut off this view that’s been available and appreciative by the community here for years.”

Zuckerberg takes the attitude that extremely wealthy people are role models for the entire world, not for their neighbors. If his the neighbors in Hawaii had followed Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s advice to Greta Thunberg, who said he would take the Swedish teenager seriously after she has enrolled in a college economics course, they might have understood that the property taxes Zuckerberg pays contribute handsomely to their community’s prosperity. This means that his wealth is somehow trickling down to them. It’s win-win, so they have no reason to complain. As Woody Allen might say, “Take the money and run,” rather than insist on having scenic walks in the neighborhood.

Measured by his impact on the world as a whole or on his neighbors specifically, Zuckerberg may not be a paragon of civic virtue, but he is wildly successful, extremely rich and immensely powerful. Whether seeking it or not, he has an unquestionable impact on global and US politics. But what can we learn from Zuckerberg the religious thinker? 

It all seems to be concerned with the notion of bigness. No social network is bigger than Facebook. No billionaire CEO has a bigger, more protected stake in the control of the empire his firm has become. So when Zuck tells us that there are things that are “bigger,” we should pay attention and look to the heavens.

The rest of us more ordinary people know that there is something bigger out there, something that constrains our power and limits our action in the world. Zuckerberg reigns over Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — the networks that structure contemporary civilization. When someone who feels little constraint on his actions and initiatives inside a social network universe that now encompasses every nation on earth and touches close to half the world’s population, we should listen carefully to his testimony that there is something bigger.

The first thing we learn is that it’s about personal comfort. He tells us “there’s a comfort in knowing … there are things bigger than you.” Perhaps this means that Zuck finds it comforting to ponder the idea that he’s not the only being in the universe with that degree of power. With all that money and power, he should have the right to feel comfortable.

He offers some specific insight about bigger things when he explains, “it’s why I have so much faith in democracy overall, it’s why I care so much about giving people a voice.” It isn’t only about his comfort. It’s also about democracy. Communicating with something that is bigger may be important, but Zuckerberg wants to hear the voice of the people who, in our global democracy, use Facebook to say what they have to say — and pay what they have to pay, even if the payment is indirect, in the form of data that Facebook can sell to others.

Historical Note

It’s rare in the history of capitalism for the public to show any serious curiosity about the religious convictions of CEOs and founders of successful companies. Their role is to consume their products, not to understand or judge their characters. 

That hasn’t always been the case. For centuries, the European Christian tradition expected that those who ran the economy — mostly aristocrats — were guided or at least influenced by the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil. The European nobility focused more on power than money. The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages condemned usury — charging interest on loans — which put a serious brake on the development of banking or even the advantage of hoarding money (liquid assets).

Thing took a serious turn in the 16th century, when the Reformation spawned multiple Protestant denominations, each with its own beliefs, practices and morals. The new churches collectively challenged and individually rivaled with what had been the universal authority of the Catholic Church. Their rivalry led to more than a century of religious conflicts and outright war, culminating in the catastrophic 30 Years’ War begun in the early 17th century. 

By the time the dust finally cleared from that conflict and the Treaty of Westphalia emerged in 1648, Europe perceived the advantage of building a wall separating religious identity from economic behavior. Once the question of moral scruples regarding greed and economic injustice could be confined to the private domain, capitalism could finally prosper. No universal set of rules existed to impede any individual actor’s or group of actors’ enterprising behavior. 

On the contrary, society encouraged a sometimes unbridled spirit of enterprise. Banking evolved into a science rather than a service. Eventually, the trend culminated in the emergence of a new morality late in the 20th century that offered society a new credo: It was most pithily expressed by the fictional character, Gordon Gekko, in Oliver Stone’s film “Wall Street”: “Greed is good.”

Unlike Gekko, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t preach greed — he prefers practicing it rather than preaching it. At the same time, he applauds what he sees as the political system that supports and indeed monetizes his practice: democracy. He expresses his “faith” in it. This could be taken as a sign that he regards democracy as a god — the god of economic opportunity in a consumer society. That god has shown him particular favors.

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But is that god a divine personality or an abstract idea? Zuckerberg doesn’t reveal much about the picture he has in his mind of the something that he calls “bigger.” He claims democracy is part of it, but it can’t be the whole story. His “bigger” entity could be the universe itself, which is visibly bigger than Facebook and everything he owns because all those things are firmly pinned down to the surface of the earth. Could it be a supreme being, presumably a somewhat flexible one that could accommodate Zuckerberg’s Jewish faith and his wife’s Buddhism? Or could it be the kind of god once popular with 18th-century philosophers: a first cause or even the principle of panpsychism? It’s a difficult question to answer, since Zuckerberg has shown no particular talent at philosophical speculation.

The one thing he does reveal, though more as a joke than a serious reflection, is that his deity apparently doesn’t have an operational role at Facebook, either as a member of staff or a consultant: “I did not mean to say that God is a mentor.”

How his conversion from materialistic atheism will influence his management of the social media so many humans are addicted to remains to be seen. He does reveal the two major factors that led to this change of theological perspective when he confesses that “the birth of his daughters and the challenges his company have faced have influenced his faith.” Perhaps his experience as a father has taught him that it’s more difficult to manipulate a single infant than the billions of Facebook’s subscribers he has no personal reason even to care about. 

A few lawsuits against Facebook may have contributed as well. But perhaps the most important factor was his realization that his dream of becoming president of the United States was no more than a hubristic illusion. There was serious talk in 2017 that Zuckerberg was preparing a 2020 presidential campaign. We don’t know when, but sometime in the interim he seems to have realized that that was no longer a credible hypothesis. That may be what he was referring to when he said: “The last few years have been really humbling for me.”

Who, after all, would vote for Mark Zuckerberg? The trend seems to be toward billionaire presidents, at least in the eyes of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Many suspected back in 2017, after Zuckerberg hired a presidential pollsters and photographers to accompany him on a tour of America, that he was testing the waters for a presidential bid. The experiment seems to have faded quickly and definitively. 

Perhaps with both Bloomberg and Steyer in the race, he sees no hope for his candidacy. But now that we are in 2020, he can claim to have one prominent supporter who voiced his potential approval just over a week ago in Davos, at the World Economic Forum: “I heard he was going to run for president. That wouldn’t be too frightening, I don’t think.” That was the voice of another billionaire who had some success at a similar exercise: Donald Trump.

The two men have been very friendly and seem to share a similar “faith in democracy overall” and in “giving people a voice.”

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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