(RNS) A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.

He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”

It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).

Or maybe the impact of Brown v. Board (1957), which launched a wave of white-flight suburbs and crippled two rings of inner-city and neighborhood churches. Or maybe it was suburban shopping malls (1960s), which gave people something else to do on Sunday morning, and repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that once had guaranteed Sunday morning to churches.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday (Oct. 15). RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Here’s a primer on what I think actually is going on.

Q: Is the Internet killing religion?

A: No. Religion in the U.S. went into decline 30 years before the Internet became commercially available.

Q: Is anything killing religion?

A: Not directly or deliberately. Cultures change; people’s lives, needs and expectations change. Therefore, institutions must change. Religious institutions were slow to recognize fundamental changes in their contexts and constituencies. Many fought change, in fact, as if change were unholy. By now, many religious institutions have adapted, and they are doing fine. Others refused to adapt, and they are closing their doors at a rapid clip.

Q: Are Americans losing faith?

A: No, by all measures I’ve seen, Americans are as faith-filled, faith-interested or faith-seeking as ever. What people are losing is a desire to sit in a pew on Sunday morning. This cuts deep. Many church leaders remain stuck in a belief that Sunday worship is their reason for being. They keep hoping that when they open the doors next Sunday, magic will occur. When congregations look beyond Sunday, however, and beyond worship as primary activity, they are amazed at how responsive people are, even the generation supposedly known as “nones.”

Q: If the Internet isn’t killing religion, what is it doing to religion?

A: Saving religion’s bacon. The Internet is providing new tools for creative faith leaders to use. Blogs, e-letters, social media posts, videos, data management, Web conferencing, mobile apps — radically affordable, familiar to constituents, trusted and relatively easy to learn. They are making it possible for churches to reach people with an immediacy and intensity that they didn’t have before.

Q: What, then, is the problem?

A: The problem is noncreative leaders who fear new ways and have concluded that new means wrong. Even though Christianity has benefited tremendously from technology — printing press, modern libraries, sound systems, video systems, computerized record-keeping and now Web-based tools — these leaders fear the new and feel incompetent when presented a new tool, and they mistake those feelings with the will of God.

Q: Does religion have a future in the U.S.?

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A: Not without adapting to changed circumstances, contexts and constituencies. Refusal to change is a death wish. But if congregations can embrace people, the needs they know, the tools they use and the hungers they experience, and if they can get outside themselves, religion can have a great future. In many places, that future is already breaking in.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

YS/MG END EHRICH

26 Comments

  1. One way religion has hurt itself is that it embraces social divisions and playing upon fears at a time when these things are not as powerful as they used to be. Peace, openness, and connections are killing religion. The internet helps that kind of situation, but it is the means, not the cause of such things.

    Sectarian animosities are slowly being erased by a more open and pluralistic society. Economic and social mobility has hurt it as well. As populations get more mixed, the cohesion of religious communities wanes. Religion loses its ability to produce the “Us vs. Them” dynamics and fears which entrenches ideologies and beliefs. The massive increase of interfaith marriage (45% increase from last decade) has made personal religion less important to families and more a point of strife and conflict. Religion is seen as more likely to divide and create conflict among people these days than it binds them.

    However, probably the greatest shot in the arm for religion these days was the spread of fundamentalist terrorism. The paranoia and hatred sparked by conflict has served religious belief well. Islamicist terrorism spurs Christian Fundamentalist fearmongering. Fear gets people to reinforce their belief and defend it from “the other”.

    But in the end, the excesses of these camps drive people away from this sort of thing. Since both fundamentalists essentially feed off each other, neither contributes towards the end of the conflict. People fed up the violent nonsense will turn away from it. Either driving people away from religion entirely or towards more moderate faith.

    If religion is going to stay relevant, it has to do something besides divide us and create conflict.

  2. Larry, I agree with you in that religion should stop dividing people to stay relevant. However, I don’t think that’s even a possibility due to the very nature of all monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe and preach “one true god” (kinda like saying, “my imaginary sky daddy is truer than your imaginary sky daddy!). This extraordinary claim made by each religion invites conflict and in fact, they have been in conflict over 2,000 years. All organized religions are in a very competitive and lucarative spiritual market, e.g. over 40,000 denominations within the Christian faith alone compete with each other for more souls (for some, money) to convert over. In this kind of market condition, the only ones with careful, smart and relevant marketing decisions/product will survive in the future.

    • I believe you can reach a point of detente. A sort of live and let live attitude.

      Where you have religion clearly separated from the reins of government, sectarian animosities reduce dramatically. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious beliefs of another to be civil towards them. Most of the existence of the US has involved people of various faiths being able to coexist without trying to kill one another (for the most part).

      In the developed world we no longer see the sectarian violence among Christians which typified their existence for centuries. Even in Northern Ireland Christians and Protestants no longer hash out their theological differences with bombs and drive-by shootings. The more democratic and peaceful the society, the less dangerous the divisiveness of religion becomes.

  3. Tom, your answers are interesting but
    you missed biggest hammer blow to religion – IT IS RELIGION ITSELF!

    Muslims blow up planes because….God.
    Christians kill gays because….God.
    Jews steal land from Palestinians because…God.
    Palestinians kill Jews because…God.
    Shiites kill Sunnis because….God.
    Sunnis kill Jews because….God.
    Christians preach hatred toward lesbians because…God.

    When people stop to think about how to solve the world’s problems
    we discover that God interrupts all of the progress.

    As nations attempt to work together
    to deal with terrorism, Climate change, etc….

    We find religion is always in the way. “God” is tribalistic, primitive nonsense.

    • I sympathize with atheists; you’re smart people who think critically and analyze the information you gather, which you often gather quite well. However, the other common thread I see among you is that you like to mischaracterize so you are able to react dismissively. You did this when you say each religious group did this or that because of God. This is ridiculous and you know it. You know God didn’t make anyone do any of that. We each make our own choices.

      • @Really?

        “God didn’t make them do that. We make our OWN choices”

        But suppose you were to CHOOSE TO DO WHAT GOD TOLD YOU TO!!?

        ISLAM SAYS KILL FOR GOD:
        “Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another.” (Surah 48:29)

        CHRISTIANS SAY KILL & DIE FOR GOD:
        “bring to me my enemies….Execute them” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)
        “….but whoever loses their life FOR ME will find it.” – Jesus (Matthew 16:25)

        JEWS SAY KILL FOR GOD:
        “Everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” (2 Chronicles 15:12-13)

        Who is being naive here?

    • Yes, if there were no religion, etc. etc., everyone would be happy and get along wonderfully and never fight and stuff. Because, you know, people never get into conflicts over, I don’t know, economics, political power, ethnic differences, ideologies and nationalisms, class differences, etc, etc. Nope. In the vulgar-atheist fantasy world, ‘religion’ alone explains everything, and must be stopped. Frankly, while I doubt most of the advocates of such a simple-minded atheism are capable of anything more than internet activism, such totalizing, demonizing views are reminiscent of far too many ideologies of exclusion that have caused so much pain and suffering in the world. Feel free to keep your irrational hatred of religion- you no doubt have your own personal reasons- but please be careful with how you express it, and how you think you ought to express it politically.

      • @Jonathan,

        Religion is the root of totalitarianism.
        If the majority abandoned religion we would no longer be fighting about whose God is the real one.
        That alone would reduce global conflict by 90%.

    • retired pastor

      Dear Max,
      No Christians following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth kill or hate. Yes there are extremists who claim the name Christian who do those things (maybe one hundredth of 1% at most.) Unfortunately some religions can’t honestly say that their religion abhors violence and hate, but Christianity can and does. I know that many atheists and agnostics deny that truth but read the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, there has been violence and even warfare in the past in the name of Christianity but that has been contrary to the teaching of the faith. Also I invite you to visit a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and see if you can find any officially sanctioned teaching of hate. (No doubt there are other denominations who would also meet this standard but I am speaking for the one I know.) God’s blessing to you.

      • Dear Retired Pastor,

        Thanks for the invitation. I have no doubt that the congregation is full of loving people who would welcome me. I grew up in a warm Christian house where priests were made at home and we were close to the church.

        I also know that “God’s Blessings” are the warmest possible wish someone can send, I return the warm sentiment to you as well.

        But Jesus has at least two
        dangerous aspects which I no longer can accept:
        1. He manifests an absolutist and merciless message of His own*
        2. He manifests a Validation of Yahweh’s countless hateful messages.**

        2000 years of Theologians have argued how it could add up to a “loving combination”. I can no longer find a way to believe it is possible.

        Jesus is dangerous:

        Not likely to lead to evil: “Love thy neighbor as yourself”
        Very likely to lead to evil: “Remove your blessings of peace”
        Not likely to lead to evil: “Behold the lilies of the field”
        Very likely to lead to evil: “Execute them”

        These blurbs are out of context but my point is to say that once a reader has decided to use the Bible, there are no checks and balances in its pages to guide the reader.

        And if it is ultimately the reader’s job to INTUIT which interpretations are correct – why refer to the Bible at all?

        If I am to read Jesus’ words, “Execute them” and decide for myself, “no, Jesus didn’t really mean that” then why refer to Jesus at all on any question?
        If my morality is already going to be employed as the arbiter to INTUIT the meaning – the Bible becomes superfluous.

        Despite my love of the people at my parishes I cannot endorse these things. The Bible – and God – have become nothing more than interesting man made metaphors from long ago. Completely optional and best avoided.

        —–
        * See John 6:53-54 and Mark 16:16.
        Jesus says one must “Eat of his Body” and “Be baptized AND believe” or “be condemned to Hell”, accordingly the beatitudes and doing good works are not relevant to avoiding Hell. People of other faiths will not enter heaven

        **”Now go and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” (1 Samuel 15:3)
        “Then the LORD said to me, ‘Even if Moses and Samuel stood before me pleading for these people, I wouldn’t help them. Away with them! Get them out of my sight!” (JEREMIAH 15:1-7)

  4. Larry is right. The church in the USA, at least, has been so encultured and entwined with political and social divisions that many Christians can’t see the differences between Christianity and conservatism. The other issue killing the church is what I call “phariseeism.” The word “evangelical” has been commandeered by fundamentalists who came out of isolation with a very narrow model of orthodoxy and decided to become socially-engaged. This started over abortion when Francis Schaeffer came back to the US from Europe and later convinced Jerry Falwell to get involved. Then, the people who ran the Reagan presidential campaign pushed for a relationship between their candidate and Falwell’s followers. The rest is history, but going all the way back to Billy Graham’s crusades during the Red Scare, the version of Christianity that we now know as a commodified version, has always been nationalistic.

    • Mike- The word pharisee does not apply to people who stick to what
      the Bible/religion says about sin. Bad mouthing religion backfired and
      now people are spiritual instead of Biblical plus if you preach against
      sin/stick to what the Bible says many try to say that it’s legalism/being
      a pharisee and that is not true! Jesus said you are one of Mine only if
      you follow Me/continue in My teachings and that many will say to Me
      Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! If people say they love Jesus and
      then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in them! We must follow!

      • Karla, you have provided an excellent example of what Mike was referring to. The kind of judgmental, holier than thou, divisive, egotism which has a nasty habit of turning people away from religious belief in general.

        Seriously, why would anyone want to take your religious views seriously or as something they would want to believe in? What are you offering them? Fearmongering mostly with a side order of pouting.

        • Larry- What Mike was talking about is why so many people are
          still lost! If people say they love Jesus and then don’t follow
          the Bible/religion no Truth is in them! Bible says Repent or
          perish not keep practicing sin! Jesus said many will say to Me
          Lord,Lord and not enter heaven because many people that
          claim to be Christian aren’t really Christians/followers of Christ.
          They want blessings/to go to heaven and that’s it. Why do
          think so many false teachers/preachers become so popular?
          It’s because people want to have their ears tickled instead of
          hearing they are wretched sinners who need to Repent and
          turn from their sin! Read 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 whole chapters.

          • Karla A.,

            Just “follow the bible”?
            You can keep slaves and still go to Heaven (Eph 6:5).
            You can kill for Jesus and go to Heaven (Luke 19:27)

            What sort of ‘goodness’ do you think you are endorsing?

          • Karla – Excuse me, darling, but I will tell you what I was referring to. Because of Calvin’s legal training being used as a filter for his interpretation of scripture, he devised the penal side of substitutionary atonement, adding a dash of wrath to what Anselm of Canterbury had developed six centuries earlier (satisfaction atonement). Both are rooted in Temple Sacrifice, which paints a picture of a god who is angry and requires blood to be spilled before this deity can forgive. This worked great for Calvin, who saw God first and foremost as a judge. Love came later, for him. Well, you can start with law and try to fit grace in where you can, but law won’t leave much room. It will crowd it out. Or, you can start with grace and fit law in where you must. Early on in life, you have to start with law – remember what Paul wrote in Galatians, referring to the Law as training wheels. However, each of us must move into flipping the order in reverse if we are to move into maturity. Modern day pharisees are the fundamentalists who won’t flip the order and become adult Christians. Though fundamentalists, who espouse this atonement doctrine, believe sacrifice has ended, but still believe in the picture of God the sacrificial system painted – and it doesn’t comport with the way in which Christ represents the Father.

          • I can see why you believe as you do. It satisfies your pride and ego. Gives you an opportunity to proclaim your self-righteousness in public and gives a false sense of superiority over others. Everyone but you has false beliefs, you are bound for heaven due to your overwhelming sense of piety.

            But making declarations and blathering on is hardly a reason to take your views seriously.

        • Larry- You are way off base again! The reason you can trust
          the Bible/Jesus is because of the prophecy accuracy that came
          true! Psalm 118:8 is the exact middle of the Bible and it says
          it’s better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man! You
          don’t have a clue what you are talking about and you don’t want
          the Bible to be true because you don’t want to live right…Period!
          How did the world come about? People who don’t want to believe in
          God/the Bible always say the things you say because you don’t
          want to Repent and that’s why when a real preacher proclaims the
          Truth/sticks to what the Bible/Jesus says you resorrt to the name
          calling because you have no solid ground to stand on…Period!
          Only one God went to the Cross and died for our sin and that’s
          because there is only one God…Period! Bible prophecy accuracy
          can’t be refuted and that’s why people try to undermine the Bible
          because they know it’s the Truth but they just don’t want to submit
          to it so they twist Scripture/create a false god/idol to suit themselves
          which is called idolatry and no idolater will enter heaven…Period!
          Why do you think there is so much confusion? God/Bible says have
          no other gods before Me! Why does it say that? It’s because God
          doesn’t want people to stray/be fooled and wants people to listen to
          Him so they won’t be deceived but that’s what has happened to the
          world because they didn’t listen/stick to what God/the Bible said!
          The Bible says for people not to subtract from it or they go to hell so
          people who teach that there is no hell will go to hell because of that
          teaching! Ironic. Jesus is the Messiah/only way to heaven…Period!

          • Karla –
            I know you are talking to Larry but…Look….

            I truly repented and gave my soul to Jesus.
            But 44 years of repentance, contrition and prayer didn’t make these Bible recommendations true:

            Slavery is good. (Ephesians)
            Rape is good. (Samuel)
            It is right to execute God’s enemies (Luke 19:27)

            When you say to Larry “You don’t want to follow Jesus” you are telling him to agree with this nonsense.

            Instead it is you who should consider things.
            And the Bible is truly nonsense. I regret it took me 44 years to figure that out.

          • And by the looks of it, you consider yourself a modern day Jeremiah. Exhorting all others to heed your pronouncements of the Lord or they shall face divine wrath. You think declaring something, no matter how silly should be taken as if coming from the hand of God almighty himself.

            I can see how that makes you feel. It gives you a smug sense of being above the realm of all those vile sinners who do not take you seriously. There is no humility, no reflection, no thought to your spiel. Merely giving you something to do that makes you feel good about yourself.

            A subway preacher doesn’t annoy commuters with their obnoxious displays of piety because they think anyone bothers to listen. They do it to feel comfort in their belief. As you do.

  5. Tom,

    You brush off the internet’s destruction of religion too breezily.
    We are witnessing a die off of religion that coincides far more dramatically with the increase in people’s access to Google and Wikipedia.

    And you cannot dismiss the astounding deleterious effect on religion of being able to search the Bible online for nonsense like this:

    “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

    And you cannot dismiss the harm to religion
    of being able to go to places like
    religiousjokes.com :-)

    • retired pastor

      Max,
      Your reference to Luke 19:27 has nothing to do with what you suggested. Not sure what you meant the reference to be but I don’t think you can find one in the gospels unless it is taken completely out of context – maybe a phrase.

      • @retired pastor,

        If Jesus was truly God, all-knowing and loving, it is hard to understand how he could not have known what any normal person would know. This sentence would bring death to millions:

        “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

        Context may explain Jesus’ intentions somehow.
        But it does not explain the resulting hell which it brought on earth.

        What better line to excuse the killing of Jews? They rejected the Messiah King and became, by default, the target of the Parable of the Minas.

  6. I am plagued with a good memory for dates. Brown v Board of Education was in May 1954 not 1957. The statistical decline in church attendance started in 1968 and 1969, not 1965. It was related to that magical moment when the GI generation children were going away to college or the military or work. Between 1946 and 1967 people went to church so that their children could receive a proper religious education. As the kids left home, parents gradually stopped attending. Attendance tends to go up during wars. People came back briefly during the 1991 gulf war and after 9/11. People say away when the economy is bad. During the great depression of the 1930s church attendance was down as it is again during our current great recession. As always, church leaders who see the Sunday service as entertainment, with popular music, dramatic preaching and (today) screens, draw more people. Positive thinking theology draws the biggest numbers. Currently Joel Osteen is the positive thinking king.

  1. […] If the Internet Isn’t Killing Religion, What Is? Is anything killing religion?  Not directly or deliberately. Cultures change; people’s lives, needs and expectations change. Therefore, institutions must change. Religious institutions were slow to recognize fundamental changes in their contexts and constituencies. Many fought change, in fact, as if change were unholy. By now, many religious institutions have adapted, and they are doing fine. Others refused to adapt, and they are closing their doors at a rapid clip. (Religion News Service) […]

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