Is Google Making Us Ungodly?

You Are What You Scroll

In August 2008, writer and researcher Nicholas Carr published an essay in The Atlantic entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” At the start of the essay, Carr offers a lament for his mind. It remains one of the most important paragraphs I’ve ever read:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.1

Carr’s search to discover the cause for his mental distress led him to a revolutionary conclusion. The internet, which had become for Carr (like millions of others) the most normal, most immersive, most consuming medium of communication and learning, was changing his brain. Referring to the net as a “universal medium,” Carr described it not simply as an extreme expansion of traditional written word tools but as something different entirely, something that, particularly through repeated immersion, shaped the human brain to be more net-like.

Digital Liturgies

Samuel D. James

People search for heaven in all the wrong places, and the internet is no exception. Digital Liturgies warns readers of technology’s damaging effects and offers a fulfilling alternative through Scripture and rest in God’s perfect design.

Two years after his essay appeared in The Atlantic, Carr expanded his argument into a book. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains makes a clear, persuasive, and important argument that the form of the web is a neurologically powerful tool for rewiring how human beings learn, feel, and process information. If Carr is correct, then it’s not just the messages that we find on the web that influence us; it’s the web itself, the process through which the web puts us as we engage its powers. As Marshall McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.”2 And in the case of the web, it is one of the most powerful messages in the world.

Carr begins by unpacking cognitive research that demonstrates the human brain’s “plasticity.” This refers to the ability of our brain to make significant changes to itself: new neural patterns and different kinds of synapses that retrain our brain how to interpret input. “Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental,” Carr writes, “a set of neurons in our brains is activated.”

If they’re in proximity, these neurons join together. . . . As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones, such as the generation of new neurons or the growth of new synaptic terminals. . . . What we learn as we live is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads.3

That’s an intimidating-sounding paragraph to most of us. But the point is simple enough: the human brain possesses within itself the capacity to change. The neural phenomena that are associated with one set of attitudes or behaviors can change into a different kind in response to repeated practices or consumption. In other words, our choices matter in shaping us into a certain kind of person. Carr concludes, “Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live—and . . . through the tools we use.”4

The plasticity of the brain helps to explain the phenomenon of how major technologies can create different kinds of societies that end up shaped around the technologies. Part of the reason this is true at a cultural level is that it is true at an individual level. New technologies do more than give us new ideas or methods; they can create new neural pathways in our brains that transform how we conceive and respond to reality. Carr cites political scientist Langdon Winner as saying, “If the experience of modern society shows us anything, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.”5 In particular, Carr specifies that “intellectual technologies”—technologies that directly influence human language and thinking—communicate by their design and function certain ideas about “how the human mind works or should work.”6 In other words, our intellectual technologies are constantly preaching to us, and over time, their sermons transform how we think and act.

Carr’s category of intellectual technologies is helpful for making distinctions between certain kinds of technology. A wheel, a rifle, and a jet airplane certainly reshape cultures through the possibilities they unlock and the vision of life we embrace as we use them. But this effect is significantly different from the effect that language-based tools have. Devices and practices that alter our habits of speaking and reading consequently alter our habits of learning and thinking. It is these technologies that tend to have the most power over us.

Talking about any technology this way may sound strange to you. Over the last few months, I’ve been asked many times what my book is about. When I tell someone that it’s about the spiritually formative power of the web, I can almost always see a mixture of understanding and confusion in their faces. The confusion may owe to the fact that many evangelicals do not intuitively attribute spiritual significance to things. Objects, places, and other material realities don’t seem morally or spiritually important. We tend to emphasize the limits of material things, what they are not. The church is not a building. God’s word is not a leather-bound book (but the canonical words within that book). Our attention is fixed on the immaterial often to the exclusion of the material.

Yet a strict material/immaterial dualism is not what Christianity teaches. Neuroplasticity and the formative power of technology are profoundly theologically relevant because human beings, created in the image of God and belonging to God “body and soul,”7 are irrevocably physical. While our bodies and souls are not equally central to our spiritual lives, our souls depend on our bodies,8 which means that our spiritual lives—our pursuit of sanctification, of wisdom, and of virtue—are bodily lives too. What’s more, habits and practices, while carried out externally by physical means, are spiritually significant because they shape us into particular kinds of people.

In Psalm 1, the blessed man is described as one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night (Ps. 1:2).

He is like a tree
      planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
      and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Ps. 1:3)

Here, spiritual blessedness is connected to the physical (neurological) practice of meditating on the law of the Lord with delight. To drive home the point, the psalmist compares the blessed, law-meditating man to a tree whose roots drink deeply of a rich stream. While the blessed man’s relationship to God’s word is certainly more than a physical matter of hearing and meditating on it, it is not less.

Carr’s insights into the power of material things to change us resonate deeply with a Christian view of spirituality. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith makes the case that our conformity to the image of Christ is a process expressed through the formative effect of repeated actions and rituals:

In our culture that prizes “authenticity” and places a premium on novelty and uniqueness, imitation has received a bad rap, as if being an imitator is synonymous with being a fake (think “imitation leather”). But the New Testament holds imitation in a very different light. Indeed, we are exhorted to be imitators. “Follow my example,” Paul says, “as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Similarly, Paul commends imitation to the Christians at Philippi: “join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). Like a young boy who learns to shave by mimicking what he sees his father doing, so we learn to “put on” the virtues by imitating those who model the Christlike life. This is part of the formative power of our teachers who model the Christian life for us. It’s also why the Christian tradition has held up as exemplars of Christlikeness the saints, whose images were often the stained glass “wallpaper” of Christian worship. . . . Such moral, kingdom-reflecting dispositions are inscribed in your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition to an end (telos) that becomes a character trait—a sort of learned, second-nature default orientation that you trend toward “without thinking about it.”9

In other words, becoming people more like Jesus involves far more than intellectual recall. We become more like Jesus as we give ourselves over to practices that push our hearts closer to him in love and trust. As we pursue these Christian habits of virtue in our lives, the Spirit uses them to bring about genuine change in our hearts. This is one of the major reasons that Christians throughout the years have held out the practices of Scripture reading, private prayer, and corporate worship as essential for spiritual growth. Intellectually speaking, many of these practices are highly repetitive. We read the same passages and pray the same kind of prayers and hear the same kind of sermons over and over again. If the essence of becoming more like Christ was attaining novel information, these repetitive practices would make little sense. But new information is not the point. It’s not merely an issue of knowing the right things, but of having our hearts positioned in the direction of holiness.

Habits and practices, while carried out externally by physical means, are spiritually significant because they shape us into particular kinds of people.

But there’s a dark side to this equation as well, and here’s where we come back to Nicholas Carr and the formative power of the internet. Our habits drive certain values deep down in our hearts to change the kind of people we are. Physically, this change is very real because our brains are plastic and form new neural pathways in response to our behavior, and these pathways shape our desires and intuitions. The question then becomes, What happens to us if our habits are not positioning our hearts toward God’s truth but toward something else? What if we are what we scroll?

What Makes the Web Different

Before moving on, it might be a good time to answer another big question, namely: How are the heart-shaping effects of the web meaningfully different from the heart-shaping effects of other things? For example, watching television likewise immerses us in stories, and most of the stories we encounter through TV are pressing us away from biblical wisdom instead of toward it. If what we need is to inhabit environments and practices that remind us of who God is and who we are as his embodied creatures, why not focus on the many other things that keep us from doing this? Why single out digital technology?

The answer is closely connected to what Nicholas Carr uncovered about the web as a shaper of our minds. Ours is a thoroughly, relentlessly digital age. As mentioned earlier, the web has revolutionized nearly every aspect of our lives. How we learn, how we communicate, how we consume, and even how we worship as a society looks much different now than it did even forty years ago. Because of this, the web is quickly becoming more than just another epistemological or spiritual habitat that competes for our attention and presence. It is becoming the foundational medium, the superstructure of nearly every other experience.

We demand shorter and shorter books that will accommodate our diminished focus and present to us more like what we read online. We are becoming less tolerant of friends who voice opinions we dislike, so accustomed we are to being able to mute or delete that which discomforts us. We are becoming much more anxious, unable to accept stillness or silence that cuts against our daily intake of new noise. These real, offline effects emerge from our online habits because, in God’s providential design, our minds are also brains—physical objects with pathways and neurons and adaptability.

The spiritually formative nature of the web is incredibly powerful precisely because it is so immersive and so assumed in our modern life, and we are becoming—physically and psychologically—different kinds of people because of it. And because Christian teaching will not let us divide what happens to our minds and affections from what happens to our spirits, the web’s ability to reshape us as people becomes a spiritual ability. The values that the web imparts to us color nearly every day of our lives, not to mention the social fabric of contemporary culture.

Very few people crave to be affected in these ways by their technologies. It’s something that simply happens. We can observe that our technologies, especially internet technology, “speak” to us. How so? It communicates a vision of what we should be capable of, of what the good life really looks like. Just as the invention of a clock creates certain economic and social values (like punctuality), internet technology has a moral language that dictates certain other values. The moral language of our technologies is so easy to miss precisely because the technologies change the way we see them. We don’t realize when we’re being pushed toward rhythms, patterns, and attitudes that undermine Christian formation because we usually only look for that in explicit worldviews, not in our devices. But they are there.


  1. Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” The Atlantic, July/August 2008,
  2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Berkeley, CA: GingkoPress, 2013), 29.
  3. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010), 27.
  4. Carr, The Shallows, 31; emphasis added.
  5. Langdon Winner, cited in Carr, The Shallows, 47.
  6. Carr, The Shallows, 45.
  7. Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1 (1563),
  8. The human person cannot exist without a soul, but it can exist without a body. Nevertheless, humanity’s destiny is embodiment.
  9. James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 18–19.

This article is adapted from Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age by Samuel D. James.

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