too fast for love… derek raugh / Flickr 


MercatorNet: Why are we so busy? After all, our cars move faster and our emails go faster than snail mail ever did. We ought to have lots of time to spare.

Massimo Introvigne: Sociologists call it the paradox of the washing machine. They noticed that in developing countries, when the washing machine replaces traditional ways of washing, after a while women complain that they devote more time to washing rather than less. This happens because their husbands and children ask them to wash more clothes more often.

It is the same with emails. We get more emails than we did letters and we are expected to answer immediately. And cars cause traffic jams. It was quicker to go from one to the other end of Manhattan by horse-drawn carriage two centuries ago than by car at rush hour today.

Do different cultures and different economic systems perceive time in different ways? 

Yes. Our way of perceiving time is basically Judeo-Christian. The Biblical story of salvation is about linear time while in most other cultures time is cyclical. Linear time generated the possibility of segmenting time according to the liturgy. Clocks appeared firstly in Christian Europe and not elsewhere.

Some sociologists say that the frenetic activity in which we live is the key to understanding modern culture. What do they mean by that?

The sociology of time is indeed an exciting new field of sociology. We can distinguish modernity from other periods in many ways but one key feature is acceleration.

There are different kinds of acceleration. One is technical acceleration, going from horse-drawn carriages to cars and from mail to email. Another is cultural acceleration, changing jobs, places where we live and even spouses several times in our lives, while our ancestors lived most often in a fixed and unchanging identity.

But the most typically modern is psychological acceleration, the constant feeling that we do not have enough time in our days, weeks, and lives.

The most prized skill of a good employee is the ability to multitask. Are we prizing the wrong things?

Multi-tasking is a need in modern economy and culture. We cannot go back to a pre-modern environment – I mean permanently, although we can spend a few days on a retreat living in a different way. However, studies prove that we should multitask with moderation or we risk losing our capability to focus on what we do.

What are strategies that people use to “decelerate”?

I mentioned spending a few days in a farm or even in a monastery for a retreat. This is becoming increasingly popular, as we feel more and more stressed by acceleration processes. Depression is another reaction to acceleration by our bodies and brains. It is also increasingly widespread.

But there are ways to decelerate and avoid depression. For instance if we are in love we learn how to “lose time” with our beloved. And the same is true for spirituality – we learn how to “lose time” with ourselves and with God.

You argue that religion provides “islands of deceleration”. Does this mean that people will increasingly embrace religion?

Prayer, meditation, rituals are all forces for deceleration. Both traditional and new forms of religion also offer institutionalized “islands” for  decelerating such as monasteries or retreat centers. I believe that spirituality is not disappearing, quite the contrary, although which forms of religion will prosper and which will fall victims to an acceleration that does not leave much time to be spent in church is an interesting question.

What is the special significance of time spent with the sick?

This is an interesting comment by Pope Francis, whose documents and speeches show that he is both familiar and concerned with the scholarly literature on acceleration. The sick and the elderly live in their own different time. When we spend time with them we can enter a “holy time” that is in itself an antidote to excessive acceleration.

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’ suggests that we need to renegotiate our relationship with technology. But won’t technology eventually solve the problems created by acceleration?

Precisely the encyclical wants to dispel this myth. Technology can help but can never solve anthropological problems. We need to consider our lifestyle and see what changes are needed. This is an anthropological, a political and perhaps a theological problem, not a purely technological one.

In his book Faster, the pop science writer James Gleick gives hundreds of examples of our culture of instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant replay, and instant gratification. But no solutions! Can our lives possibly go faster and faster and faster?

Some believe they can. One of the sociologists who created the field of sociology of time, Hartmut Rosa, believes acceleration will most probably lead us to a catastrophe, both ecological and political – because those excluded from the mainstream of acceleration will revolt and cause wars which may ultimately put the very survival of humanity at risk.

I am less pessimistic and believe religion may play a role in waking us up to the risks before it is too late. And what I particularly like in the last encyclical is the idea that aesthetics and the arts will also play a crucial role. If we learn how to stop before beauty, a landscape, a work of art, then surely there is still hope.

Massimo Introvigne is professor of Sociology of religions at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, and the author of some sixty books on the contemporary religious landscape. 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...