Belief

Is the Internet Killing Religion?

Computer scientist at MIT hits on a compelling correlation between growing internet use and the decline of religious affiliation in the US.

New research conducted by Allen Downey, a computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts suggests there is a correlation between the rise in Internet usage and a decrease in Americans with religious affiliation. Downey hit on something when he was reviewing a survey done by the University of Chicago called the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey data going as far back as 1972, when he noticed a declining trend in religious affiliation.

The survey asks such questions as “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” Aside from that it collects data on age, race, gender, level of education and many other factors that play into peoples lives. So armed with this data Downey got to work.

Downey looked at what causes people to generally be religious and found that most people are religious because of their upbringing, they are raised in one religion and often remain in that religion into adulthood.

However given the increase in people claiming no religious affiliation Downey went looking for causal factors. What he found was that in 1990 less people had a religious upbringing than previous years but could only get that to account for about 25 percent of the drop.

The next obvious place to look was at higher education. Downey found that since the 1980’s there has been an increase in adults receiving a college education by 10 percent. Yet Downey says this only accounts for about 5 percent of the drop in religiosity.

Yet a more prominent leading factor he found in looking over the data was the Internet. Starting in 1980 to no surprise he found Internet usage was next to non-existent, though by 2010 Internet usage had increased dramatically. Over 53 percent of people spent at least 2 hours online per week and 25 percent spent more than seven hours. This finding Downey says represents 25 percent of the drop in religious affiliation.

While Downey says here that he found correlation he is not claiming causation. He says that while an increase in Internet usage is not the direct cause of a drop in religious affiliation there is a clear relationship. Downey told the MIT Technology Review, “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.”

Downey's conclusions make sense on their face: Claims made by church leaders are easily checked online, myths such as the great flood are dispelled with a simple Google search revealing archeological evidence against the Biblical claim and things like evolutionary biology that have ruled out creation myths.

The Internet also opens up people to learn about other cultures and religions, something not as easily done in the past, Downey says, “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally.”

This means someone living in a more closed off religious community may meet an atheist online and learn they are not the evil devil worshippers they may have been told they are. This means they may realize people worship thousands of other gods around the world and realize maybe their upbringing was wrong. This also puts videos from sites such as YouTube into the hands of people are able to watch debated between atheists and apologists and lectures from some of the worlds top skeptics.

The Internet takes much of the mystery out of life, something that the church used to be able to fill; the church had all the answers. Today though, you only need to jump to your favorite search engine and the answers are in front of you.

As reported in the MIT Technology Review, in 1990 only 8 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, and that number has since more than doubled to 18 percent according to 2010 data.

While correlation does not always equal causation, the data Downey reviewed is remarkable and shows that since 1980 the increase in Internet usage is closely aligned with the decrease in religious affiliation.

It is worth noting that a similar pattern could be inferred in a chart that shows an increase in both ice cream sales and drowning deaths for example. This does not mean ice cream causes people to drown but that warmer weather increases ice cream sales and when the weather is warmer more people go swimming. Weather being the third factor in this case. Though as Downey pointed out, in certain cases evidence does provide a link, as it very well might in this case, and no third factor has been found.

This does leave 45 percent of the drop unaccounted for though and Downey has said there could very well be third factor causing both an increase in Internet usage and a decrease in religious affiliation, though he says it is hard to imagine what that factor would be. During the study they controlled for obvious factors such as income, socioeconomic status, education and rural/urban environments. Ruling those out as third factors.

So while it is easy to imagine that the Internet is a leading cause in the declining number of people claiming a religious affiliation it is also easy to speculate. 45 percent is not small number and unless Downey or another team of researchers can come up with a plausible answer the real reason behind this trend will remain something of a mystery.

 

Dan Arel is the author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.