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Is the Internet killing religion?

Generic Religion (CNN Photo)

We can blame the Internet for plenty: the proliferation of porn, our obsession with cat videos, the alleged rise of teen trends like — brace yourself — eyeball licking.

But is it also a culprit in helping us lose our religion? A new study suggests it might be.

Allen Downey, a computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, set out to understand the national uptick in those who claim no religious affiliation. These are the “nones,” which the Pew Research Center considers the fastest-growing “religious” group in America.

Since 1985, Downey says, the number of first-year college students who say they’re religiously unaffiliated has grown from 8% to 25%, according to the CIRP Freshman Survey.

And, he adds, stats from the General Social Survey, which has been tracking American opinions and social change since 1972, show unaffiliated Americans in the general population ballooned from 8% to 18% between 1990 and 2010.

These trends jibe with what the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project reported in 2012. It said one in five American adults, and a third of those under 30, are unaffiliated.

Downey says he stepped into the ongoing debate about the rise of the “nones” not because he has a vested interest one way or the other, but because the topic fascinates him. He says it’s good fodder for study and appeals to students who are learning to crunch real data.

In his paper “Religious affiliation, education and Internet use,” which published in March on arXiv – an electronic collection of scientific papers – Downey analyzed data from GSS and discovered a correlation between increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation.

Internet use among adults was essentially at zero in 1990; 20 years later, it jumped to 80%, he said. In that same two-decade period, we saw a 25 million-person spike in those who are religiously unaffiliated.

People who use the Internet a few hours a week, GSS numbers showed Downey, were less likely to have a religious affiliation by about 2%. Those online more than seven hours a week were even more likely – an additional 3% more likely – to disaffiliate, he said.

Now, Downey is the first to point out that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

But he was able to control for other factors including education, religious upbringing, rural/urban environments and income, to find a link that allowed him to “conclude, tentatively, that Internet use causes disaffiliation,” he said.

“But a reasonable person could disagree.”

The Internet, he posited, opens up new ways of thinking to those living in homogeneous environments. It also allows those with doubts to find like-minded individuals around the world.

He believes decreases in religious upbringing have had the largest effect, accounting for 25% of reduced affiliation; college education covers about 5% and Internet use may account for another 20%.

That leaves 50% which he attributes to “generational replacement,” meaning those born more recently are less likely to be religiously affiliated – though he doesn’t attempt to explain why that is.

The Pew Research Center has offered its own theories.

One explanation Pew gives is that our nation is experiencing political backlash – “that young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics and do not want to have any association with it.”

More specifically, Pew explains, this brand of religion and politics is out of step with young adult views on same-sex rights and abortion.

Postponement of marriage and parenthood, broader social disengagement and general secularization of society may also play a part, according to Pew.

But to be religiously unaffiliated doesn’t require a lack of faith or spirituality, researchers say.

Yes, the “nones” group includes those who might call themselves atheists or agnostics. But it also accounts for many – 46 million people – who don’t belong to a particular group but are, in some way, religious or spiritual, according to Pew.

This is all part of the changing face of society and faith, and where the Internet fits in is just part of a complicated puzzle.

The evolving landscape includes plenty of people who go online in search of spiritual and religious sustenance, said Cheryl Casey, who delved into the issue for her 2006 dissertation.

Casey, now a professor of media, society and ethics at Champlain College in Vermont, wrote about the “revirtualization of religious ritual in cyberspace” and the morphing relationship between technology and religion.

That Downey would find a correlation, that the Internet is increasing disaffiliation, makes perfect sense to her.

“The institutional control over the conversation is lifted, so it’s not just a matter of more churches to choose from but more ways to have that conversation and more people to have that conversation with,” she said Wednesday.

People move away from formal affiliation and toward what she calls “grass-roots religious exploration,” where “the nature of the medium allows for those conversations to grow organically.”

Innovations have long played a part in influencing religion, she said, and will continue to.

Something she wrote back in 2006 said it best.

“When a new technology, such as the printing press or the Internet, unleashes massive cultural change, the challenge to religion is immense. Cultural developments change how God, or the ultimate, is thought of and spoken about,” she wrote.

“The dynamics of this transformation, however, await continued investigation.”

28 comments

  • sonya

    I feel that there has been so much bad publicity of religious people abusing their power or causing sin, This leaves a bad taste in peoples mouths wondering who they can trust and believe. Also so many churches are comprised of the old way of thinking and all the rituals you are supposed to follow. In this day and age I think we have to come up with unique and creative ways to get teens and other people interested in learning about God. Even if it is through the Internet. We must use every resource available to reach out as often as possible and to as many people as possible.

    • dewey

      and it’s the reaching out most people can’t stand….they show up at the door, on Saturday no less, believing the universe is 6000 years old…… they sin, but your sin is worse…they use candy, hotdogs and gun giveaways to get people in, how is that any different than a blue light special at K-Mart. why does God need so much money?? Does he have a banker?? A money manager?? I was under the impression that your Jebus preached against the trappings of wealth

      • Chris Boyles

        Your right, He did…His name is Jesus. Just because someone claims to be a Christian does not make him one just as a person sitting in a garage is a car. Jesus said by their fruit you will know them. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5…The fruit you mention is not Christian.

        12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 13 and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. Matthew 21

        God doesn’t need no money, He owns the earth. Psalm 24.1

  • Lynn Thompson

    No,TV pastors talking politics and using hate and bigotry are.
    Judge Not- seems to have a double standard these days.
    The rich can judge us all…

  • Billy

    The sooner that human beings as a species evolve away from religion the better. Many people, normally rational in their everydays lives still cling to fairy tales and are stuck in a sort of infant stage of mental development. The Muslims will take the longest since they’re still in the Stone Age mentally but we’ll get there.

    • Christian 1

      And when we get there all of the unbelievers will face their judgement while the righteous will have their reward of eternal paradise. All of you unbelievers don’t understand what you are doing.

    • JT

      Nietzsche couldn’t have said it better himself, Billy. Morality, in a religious context, is based entirely on fear. I mean, you can see it in the “repent before you burn” posts on here. And that’s what makes this so scary–I don’t need the threat of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to make me be a good person, but those who do practice religion are basically admitting that were it not for this fairy tale, they would be out robbing, raping, murdering, etc. They need this threat from an imaginary character in a book to make them be good. I swear, these people get scarier every day…

  • Mark Stabler

    A country like the United States, built on religious freedom, now does everything within their power to prevent religion from being a part of it’s citiziens lives. It’s not the internet, it a power much greater and stronger that guides the hands of the masses. Someday you will get to meet him, and it will not be so pretty.

    • dewey

      and what if you’re wrong?? you’ll have spent your life living with unnecessary restrictions…never having reached your full potential because of Bronze Age myth…and I’m willing to bet you’re wrong…it’s the reason your bible is incomplete….how do you reach your spiritual destination with on 3/4 of the map??

      • Chris Boyles

        So Dewey, your a betting man. Then you might want to take into consideration the great mathematician Pascal.

        Pascal’s Wager has three premises: the first concerns the decision matrix of rewards, the second concerns the probability that you should give to God’s existence, and the third is a maxim about rational decision-making. Specifically:

        Either God exists or God does not exist, and you can either wager for God or wager against God. The utilities of the relevant possible outcomes are as follows, where f1, f2, and f3 are numbers whose values are not specified beyond the requirement that they be finite:

        God exists God does not exist
        Wager for God ∞ f1
        Wager against God f2 f3

        Rationality requires the probability that you assign to God existing to be positive, and not infinitesimal.
        Rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility (when there is one).
        Conclusion 1. Rationality requires you to wager for God.
        Conclusion 2. You should wager for God.

        We have a decision under risk, with probabilities assigned to the relevant ways the world could be, and utilities assigned to the relevant outcomes. The first conclusion seems straightforwardly to follow from the usual calculations of expected utility (where p is your positive, non-infinitesimal probability for God’s existence):

        E(wager for God) = ∞×p + f1×(1 − p) = ∞

        That is, your expected utility of belief in God is infinite — as Pascal puts it, “our proposition is of infinite force”. On the other hand, your expected utility of wagering against God is

        E(wager against God) = f2×p + f3×(1 − p)

        This is finite. By premise 3, rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility. Therefore, rationality requires you to wager for God.

      • dewey

        @ Chris….I was the first one around this site to mention Pascal’s Wager….because most Christstains here are that way not because they love goD, but because they fear hell…I have no use for myth, no use for “a good story”….I outright do not believe…I will not believe….because there is nothing that proves that there is anyone there to hear prayers…much to the contrary…all these fools bending knees hoping for luck

  • Cripes_A_Mighty

    Everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, but we should not be giving anyone special advantages for doing so. There is no proof whatsoever that a “God” exists other than stories passed down from one generation to another. Stories are not proof but science is. Science has plenty of proof to show that our species evolved from lower life forms over the course of millions of years.

    Personally, I’m tired of churches and religious people getting special considerations and advantages that others do not get. For instance, tax avoidance and laws based on religious beliefs.

    • dewey

      “B-b-but it’s that tax exempt status that allows us to do so much charity in the community”…..says the preacher as he drives off in his new Cadillac

      • Cripes_A_Mighty

        The Cadillac looks too stupid these days but the Mercedes Benz is more typical for the wealthy. Also, ever notice how Christians build HUGE churches and buy HUGE amounts of property? Every wonder why? Because the individuals are greedy and always want the most and the best. Pure human greed…

    • Chris Boyles

      So science is proof. Maybe you had better look at my mathematical response to Dewey in the above post… please cite me a scientific proof text of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation, Experiments that confirm evolution based on the 2 requirements that define science; the other component being observation. If you are assuming that fossils are the proof of evolution, then my creationist apologetic would be that the animals that were “evolved” were actually rendered extinct by the worldwide flood.

      • dewey

        simply put, your god does not exist, you have no proof outside of the bible which is already a broken book…you can copy and paste all you want, the fact is the laymen here will never get it so you pretty much wasted your time

      • dewey

        every civilization has a flood myth, why is it so hard to accept that there were other civilizations and religions long before our present BS….they came and went…and so will this pox on humanity

  • Jack Carter

    Historically, the church has served as the primary social outlet for many people, particularly in the American “Bible Belt.” It is no surprise that, with the internet serving to meet people’s needs for social contact that they would not be walking through the doors of the church to find it.

  • ELI

    ALL RELIGIONS FROM CATHOLISM TO ISLAM AND THERE’S ONLY 1 THAT’S NOT A RELIGION, AND THAT’S CHRISTIANITY! CHRISTIANITY IS A RELATIONSHIP, NOT A RELIGION! RELIGION MEANS: MAN’S OWN UDERSTANDING OF GOD! GOD DON’T NEED MAN’S UNDERSTANDING! MAN IS THE ONE THAT NEEDS GOD’S UNDERSTANDING OF GOD HIMSELF!!!

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