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Peter Thiel and Instapray: Is He a True Believer?

An app devoted to prayer and positivity touts his involvement. What does it all mean?


A press release made the rounds yesterday: Instapray, an app partially backed by venture capitalist and Founders Fund partner Peter Thiel, has passed the “30 million prayer mark.” Pegged as a social network devoted to positivity, prayer and emotional support, Instapray aims to promote kindness and eliminate online bullying, at least within its network.

The Community Guidelines put respect front and center, invoking the Golden Rule (thanks, Hillel!) and warning that rudeness, self-promotion and illegal content will get you bounced. It’s like the opposite of free-speech-obsessed 4chan and its even-more-free-speech-obsessed upward denominations.

Why, then, is the press release stressing the financial involvement of dedicated libertarian Peter Thiel?

Thiel is a study in contradictions. A 2011 New Yorker profile of him points out that he was raised in an Evangelical home and quoted him saying, “I believe that Christianity is true.” Of course, in the same article, he said “I think it’s true” of Darwinism and deemed global warming “probably true.” This is not a guy who’s putting all his belief-eggs in one dogma-basket.

More recently, he was asked about religion in a Reddit AMA, but regarding Christianity, would only talk about Jesus as a historical figure who, in that context, was “the first political atheist,” since he stood in opposition to the existing faith-based political system. From there, he seemed willing to discuss how political atheism and libertarianism aligned, but nobody took him up on it.

He has donated heavily to Tea Party organizations and hosted a fundraiser for a gay conservative group that featured an appearance by Ann Coulter, hardly a purveyor of kindness and understanding. He donated to or raised funds for Ron Paul, John McCain and Eric Cantor, though he has backed away from politics since the 2008 election.

As for his other investments, he has shown plenty of interest in hard science, even when directed at seemingly fantastical goals like indefinite life extension (the now-shuttered Halcyon) or more realistic ones like creating nanotechnology (Nantronics Imaging), shrinking tumors (StemCentrx), or connecting scientific researchers (Research Gate).

Alas, the press office at Thiel’s Founder’s Fund would give no comment other than to point out that the funding round was not very big (no numbers were forthcoming from Thiel’s people or from Fryderyk Ovcaric, Instapray’s CEO) and that it happened two years ago.

The Founders Fund’s manifesto used to declare, at its outset, that “we were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.” But that much-repeated phrase has been removed, leaving readers to note that “the best founders want to radically change the world for the better” and turn away from “cynical, incrementalist investment.”

The bottom line is, it’s next to impossible to monetize a prayer app. Therefore, the only logical explanation for Thiel’s involvement is that it’s a sort of tithing: A donation to a religious organization for the sole purpose of doing good.

If only Silicon Valley were a logical place. Guess it’s one of those eternal mysteries, like “Why are there so many Travises?” or “Why six seconds, Vine?”

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