Two people, on Twitter, posed an interesting question about the ability to have a parasocial relationship with god. I think it’s quite possible. However, I want to go further and question whether or not peoples’ relationship with god is parasocial, even under the assumption that god is purely fictional. Please be aware that these are just some ideas that I wrote down quickly, in the few hours following the initial discussion on Twitter. I won’t guarantee that the argument makes sense. But feel free to leave a comment or two.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities, organizations (such as sports teams) or television stars. (Source)
That’s a really interesting question! Can you have a parasocial-esque relationship with something that is a cognitive construction? There are external influences shaping the conceptualization of the construct. You would assign it personal properties and personality traits. Humm? https://t.co/WAhahzJlXM
— Shannon Q (@Shann_Q0) December 15, 2018
Shown above is the series of tweets which began my consideration of the issue. I want to start by saying that I do not believe that a god exists nor that one does not exist. But there is a presupposition in Shannon’s discussion. It suggests that gods are purely imaginary and that they do not interact with us. Of course, if a god does exist, then we can certainly have a parasocial relationship with it. One might worship the a god, but this god-thing might not want anything to do with a mere human. And of course if a god does interact with us, it’s just social, not parasocial. But what if this god-thing is purely fictional? Is there even a parasocial relationship? Not only can someone still have a parasocial relationship with a god, I ague that they can have a two way relationship with this god-thing.
Before talking about gods, I want to consider the example of a celebrity. Our relationships with celebrities are generally one sided. Our interaction with the celebrity is essentially all media driven. We receive information about the person, hear what the person thinks, how they look, and so on, from indirect sources, such as the TV, through stories about the person, and so on.
We receive very similar types of information about this god-thing. I asked Shannon what she thought of when she heard the word “god.” She said that she envisions a “typified Christian beard cloud guy.” It’s interesting that she would envision the same type of being as so many others, unless there is a god. Well, unless of course she formed her perception of a god from the same body of information and stimulus that others did. And that is what happens. Our models of things, whether they truly exist or not, are formed by sensory information that goes well beyond personal interactions with the thing. It includes what we absorb from all forms of media.
It is also clear that there is a strong social relationship, on the side of the believer. The way that a believer acts, when this god-thing is criticized, can be very aggressive. The believer will often take the criticism personally. The same can be true with other characters related to gods. Consider how some Muslims react to depictions of Muhammad. It’s hard to argue that the believer isn’t expending emotional energy.
However, is the relationship between believers and gods really one sided? I argue not. This is especially true, if this god-thing is indeed imaginary. In fact, I argue that no matter how much a person needs a god, the gods need people even more. Consider the following. Homosexuality was once highly criticized among Christians. But that view is changing. While homophobia has not been eliminated, Christians are becoming more accepting of homosexuality (PEW). More is changing than just the personal view of the believe however. The very concept of what god accepts and does not accept is changing. Soon people will come to believe that god accepts homosexuality, not because it is what they want, but simply because “god” has changed. God is mutable, especially if it doesn’t really exist. And if this god-thing is purely fictional, then its very existence rests on our own involvement with it. For this reason, gods are far more dependent on us than we are on them. This makes the relationship two sided, rather than one sided.