© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 8, 2012

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A few weeks ago I was winding down at the end of a long day, Eliza was finally all tucked in for the night and Nicole and I were having a well earned period of zone-out time in front of the television before calling it a night. We were watching the evening news and yet another segment about the Iowa caucuses. The newscaster cut to a scene from a Ron Paul event earlier that day, and to my surprise the sound bite they played had Ron Paul making the case that he was mainstream. I was flabbergasted. I am not making a statement here in favor of or against voting for Ron Paul, but merely reflecting on the fact that the views this man holds are regarded by most Americans as rather extreme - far outside the scope of what almost anyone would consider to be mainstream. Yet Ron Paul saw himself as being right in the middle of American thought.

And then I realized that I wasn't actually too different from him in this respect. Don't get me wrong; our views on just about everything except withdrawing our military from its worldwide engagement are miles apart. But like Ron Paul I hold many extreme views yet often consider myself to be thoroughly in the mainstream of my country's viewpoints. This feeling, I am increasingly reminded these days, is not so much based in reality as it is based on my filtered experience of reality. Because I, like pretty much all of us, live inside my very own filter bubble.

The idea of filter bubbles is nothing new. For decades social scientists have been aware that people generally surround themselves with people and information sources that agree with them. We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. The myth of the internet is largely anchored on the principle that anyone with a modem or a smartphone now has access to every viewpoint that could ever be expressed. One cab simply google a term and the unfettered search of information begins. This has resulted in our time being known as the Information Age.

But an interesting and unexpected phenomenon has had a profound and stultifying effect on this unfettered search of information. That phenomenon is called personalization. You see, the major web portals that the vast majority of people now use to gain access to information - Google, Yahoo news, Facebook, YouTube - all use algorithms to personalize the search results you get back when you go looking for something. It is quite amazing. If you want to see this phenomenon in effect for yourself it is quite easy. Set up your laptop or smartphone next to someone else's and at the same moment put the same search term into Google and hit submit. What you both will receive will surprise you if you are assuming that you will get the same search results, because Google uses over 50 different factors to determine what to send you at any one moment. Some of those factors are based on what you have searched for in the past; some are based on what time of day it is, what part of the country you are searching from, and what links you have recently clicked on.

The way this works in Facebook is, at least to me, even more disturbing. Facebook also uses dozens of factors to learn what it believes you want to see. One way this works is if it notices that you click on a lot of liberal articles, it will literally start giving you less status updates in your news feed from your friends that it has learned tend to post about conservative topics. It will quite literally erase that viewpoint from your news feed.

You can quickly see that this personalization that is going on all around us is having a dramatic effect on what we see and hear and think. It is actually causing some to stop calling this the Information Age and to begin calling this the Affirmation Age because that is the end result of all this personalization. It creates an echo chamber wherein the more you believe something, the more you are surrounded by voices that support that belief and the less you have access to voices that articulate a different way of thinking about things.

This is not only disturbing, it is dangerous. There is nothing wrong with liking to be around people that agree with us. It is often exhausting to experience different viewpoints. But as exhausting as it is, it is also essential to both a healthy functioning human and a healthy functioning democracy. We all know the danger of surrounding ourselves with yes men, but what if invisible algorithms have already taken it a step beyond this and, whether we realize it or not, we are increasingly surrounded by yes-search results, simply affirming the ideas we already hold as true, and never challenging them with information that may broaden, alter or shift our views? If this were to happen, we might just find ourselves slipping further and further into a divided populace, not able to bridge differences, not building the essential muscles of growth that propel us beyond what is easy and comes naturally. It might look like a country divided between red states and blue states on Electoral College maps. It might look a whole lot like where we are right now.

I truly believe that on its best days, Unitarian Universalism is the antidote to this problem. But we are in real danger of falling into this same trap of mindless affirmation.

Currently there is a blog post making waves in our denomination written by one of my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues, Rev. Peter Boullata. It's entitled "The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It's Not About You" and it speaks directly to this. The post begins with a story that many UUs can relate to. Rev. Boulatta was in his office at church one day when a man they had hired to do some work on the church building stopped by to say hi. At one point in the conversation the man said to him, "You know, I should tell you this story. I have a thirteen-year-old son who has been asking a lot of religious questions lately. I was raised Catholic, but we're not involved at all, and haven't really given him a religious education. One day, my son was with me in the car when we drove by another Unitarian Universalist church. He asked me, because he knew that I had done some work for them, what kind of a church it was. When I told him, he asked what Unitarian Universalists believe. So I told him, 'Well, they don't really believe anything specific. It's a religion where whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about.' And my son said, 'That's the kind of church I want to go to!'"

Rev. Boullatta then goes on to relate the horror he felt inside upon once again hearing this description of our beloved faith tradition. I myself have heard this same description or one like it, many times. To me and to Rev. Boulatta and most who believe we could be the antidote to the Affirmation Age, this is tantamount to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.

What we as Unitarian Universalists do affirm is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This is very different from "whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about." But people like Rev. Boulatta and myself are not innocent in this mixed message; none of us are. We have all been guilty of underselling our movement's core values in an often misguided attempt at bringing someone new into the fold. It turns out this does not only happen at the individual level. In his post, Rev. Boulatta points out an interesting fact about our denominational commitment to that search for truth and meaning. Apparently in 1961 when our principles were originally adopted, that line read: a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning. But in the 1980s we voted to change it from a free and disciplined search to a free and responsible search.

On the one hand it is all semantics. What is the difference between 'responsible' and 'disciplined' really? On the other hand, it is a revealing change. I believe it is the very thing that has led us to the point where people casually refer to us as the place where "whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about" - the place where it is all about you. One big filter bubble where nothing but what easily works for you is on the menu.

To me that change indicates an attempt, however subtle and unconscious it may have been at the time, to water down who and what we are and what it is we are trying to accomplish with this wild experiment in liberal religion. No doubt it was done with the intention of making us seem like a more welcoming place to the masses fleeing hierarchical religion. But this was, in my estimation, a real miscalculation. People were not fleeing a commitment to a disciplined search for truth and meaning when they left mainline religious communities. For the most part they were fleeing the hypocrisy of the leadership and the inability of those who were in the professional ministry to live up to the values of their faith.

By setting the bar so low for what this search for truth and meaning needs to look like in our own tradition, we have allowed for a damaging misperception to dominate the way we are thought and talked about.

A real search for truth and meaning is a bumpy road. It is often the exact opposite of it being all about you. It is having a mirror held up to you that reveals that which is imperfect within us rather than somewhere else out in the world. This mirror is created through a full and robust engagement with issues, questions and real-life action in the real world. It is good, theologically challenging adult and children's religious education; it is worship with diverse and multiple voices and styles; it is engagement with the surrounding community and within small groups internally. It is a full-spectrum engagement with the tougher questions in life and it can not happen in a bubble. Rather, it can occur only in a rich environment that welcomes a diversity of opinions, experiences and truths.

This is what we strive to be as Unitarian Universalists and here at Mission Peak.


We are on that road, but we are not there yet.
May we continue to walk towards that lofty goal together.
May it be so, ashe.

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