(RNS) A new paper draws an intriguing conclusion to a question scholars have wrestled with for several decades: Why are Americans dropping out of church?

One reason? They’re logging on to the Internet.

A man working on a computer and sitting on a cloud.

A man working on a computer and sitting on a cloud Photo courtesy of alphaspirit via Shutterstock

Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Massachusetts’ Olin College of Engineering, found that between 1990 and 2010 the share of Americans claiming no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent to 18 percent while the number of Americans connected to the Internet rose from almost nothing to 80 percent.

Downey cautions — as do his critics — that correlation does not equal causation.

“We can’t know for sure that Internet use causes religious disaffiliation,” Downey said. “It is always possible that disaffiliation causes Internet use, or that a third factor causes both.”

But Downey,  whose paper, “Religious affiliation, education and Internet use,” was published late last month at — where else? — an online site dedicated to scientific papers, is pretty sure he’s onto something.

Examining data from the General Social Survey, an ongoing and multigenerational study of Americans, Downey draws a link between higher levels of education and income and lower levels of religious identification.

His study shows that as Americans reported more Internet use, their religious identification dropped. Those who reported only a few hours of weekly Internet use were 2 percent less likely to claim a religious affiliation than those who use no Internet. And those who use the Internet more than seven hours weekly are even less likely to adhere to a religion — by an additional 3 percentage points. “That effect turns out to be stronger than a four-year college education, which reduces religious affiliation by about 2 percentage points,” he said.

Other scholars say Downey’s finding may be too pat.

Stephen O’Leary, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who studies religion on the Internet,  thinks the situation is more complex and nuanced.

“Let’s call it the influence of the religious marketplace,” O’Leary said. Since the 1960s, with the influx of non-Christian immigrants to the U.S. and the increased mobility of society, Americans’ exposure to a wide range of spiritual, religious and nonreligious ideas has burgeoned.

“Internet use is part of that, but what it really does is magnify to a dramatic level the degree of choices one has,” O’Leary said.

Other forces unrelated to the Internet are at work, too. O’Leary said younger Americans are less likely to trust religious authority in the wake of the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandals.

“That has, more than almost any other thing, alienated a whole generation,” O’Leary said. “And it is not just Catholics. It goes to all religious authority by extension.”

Still, O’Leary cautions that the decline in religious affiliation — due to the Internet or otherwise — does not mean an equal rise in atheism.

“They haven’t given up their belief in the supernatural. They just don’t feel they need organizations or institutions to bring it to them,” he said. “And you don’t have to believe in any god to light a candle or hold hands and utter a mantra or chant.”

Downey’s findings dovetail with those of the Pew Research Center’s 2012 look at the “nones,” the terminology for Americans with no religious affiliation. That study found that almost 20 percent of all Americans — and a third of those under 30 — are nones.

By examining data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, conducted among first-year college students, Downey discovered that between 1985 and 2013 — approximately the same amount of time that the GSS measured Internet usage — the percentage of freshmen who identified as nonreligious tripled, from 8 percent to 25 percent. He predicts on his blog that number will reach almost 26 percent next year — more than the share of students who identify as Catholic.

“I think this is an underreported story,” Downey said.

Still, Downey is cautious about blaming the Internet, which he figures accounts for only about 20 percent of the overall decline in religious affiliation. An additional 25 percent, he says, can be attributed to fewer people being raised with a religious affiliation, and 5 percent might be due to increases in college education.

“That leaves 50 percent of the decrease unexplained by the factors I was able to include in the study, which raises interesting questions for future research,” he said.

YS/MG END WINSTON

9 Comments

    • **over-exaggerated sigh** You’re right. I cannot pursue my medical career until I forsake my Faith. I cannot learn anything from my myriad of books (a good portion of which are written by atheists anyway) unless I don’t believe in a deity. I cannot help someone on an emotional or intellectual level until I stop going to Mass. Daniel, there’s this thing going around, and it’s quite beautiful. Some call it sensitivity – I just call it thinking before you speak.

      • People are able to hold completely contradictory opinions and be perfectly honest with both. So yes, you obviously can be a well educated doctor and be religious at the same time. It doesn’t say anything about the compatibiity. It only says you are a hypocrite and you have double standard.

  1. While the internet is an easy target–and I’m not saying it doesn’t contribute–I think society has trended this way for some time. Robert Putnam famously chronicled the demise of social institutions and levels of community engagement and service in his book “Bowling Alone” which was written in 2001 years before the inexorable rise of “social” media. A snippet:

    “Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values–these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.”

    Yes, incessantly watching cute kittens on youtube (or fornicating foursomes on porntube) is effecting society’s engagement, but I wonder if it is less a cause than one of many symptoms of greater societal ills: apathy and social disengagement. Chicken and egg perhaps.

    • Since you brought up the chicken or the egg, I’ve found reading about it quite interesting -
      “A simple view is that at whatever point the threshold was crossed and the first chicken was hatched, it had to hatch from an egg. The type of bird that laid that egg, by definition, was on the other side of the threshold and therefore not a chicken—it may be viewed as a proto-chicken or ancestral chicken of some sort, from which a genetic variation or mutation occurred that resulted in the egg being laid containing the embryo of the first chicken. In this light, the argument is settled and the ‘egg’ had to have come first. However, whether this was defined as a chicken egg or proto-chicken egg is debatable. So technically the egg came before the chicken, but the chicken may have come before the chicken egg. So it depends on whether the question is “What came first, the Chicken or the egg” or “what came first, the Chicken or the Chicken egg””

  2. Sure. Religion flourishes best in a bubble. (Look at OTHER religions, if you don’t want to apply that to your own.) The faith-based home-school or send their kids to religious schools, and generally socialize with fellow believers, too, in order to stay in that bubble.

    Outside education and the internet alike expose people to other information, other views, other arguments. Now, if you’ve been raised from infancy to believe in your religion, you’re naturally going to be resistant to reality. Most people will not abandon their treasured beliefs. Most people will rationalize away any contrary arguments, if they listen to them at all.

    But with more opportunity to hear what your religious leaders would prefer you didn’t, more people will discover both the understanding and courage to walk away. Even then, most people won’t walk very far. They might cling to some nebulous spiritualism, for example. True rationality is hard. But it’s a start.

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