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Is the Internet killing religion?
A new study suggests that the Internet may play a role in the demise of organized religion.
April 9th, 2014
12:17 PM ET

Is the Internet killing religion?

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) 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.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Internet • Technology

soundoff (1,629 Responses)
  1. rwolfman3000

    Yeah, if you think about it we're not that far off from Genesis 2:17 because the Internet compartmentalizes minds as much as it does to broaden them and in the end–its the bad apples that end up spoiling things or everyone else: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Not only is the Internet and associated technology hurting our economy, it is continually displacing human-based work: robots in warehouses, robot-concierges now in NYC hotels, drones soon-to-replace delivery-persons at Amazon, etc etc etc.

    August 27, 2014 at 7:50 pm |
    • Cybershaman

      The Internet is hurting our economy? Sorry. It's the biggest boon we've had in a long time. And technology shift is nothing new. I'm sorry but robots aren't taking jobs en-mass. It's a typical argument of the technophobe that the machines are going to make us worthless. On the contrary, they free us to accomplish more and do more things with our minds rather than continuously doing drudge work. The Internet and the technology in and around it are the greatest thing to happen to humans since the control of fire.

      August 27, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    yes ... the internet IS killing religion.

    August 26, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
    • jonathanlk

      and more people are becoming aware of how ridiculous it is too.

      August 26, 2014 at 5:50 pm |
  3. jaydavid666

    Death, life life, is a natural process.

    Prehistory = little accurate information, few great ideas, little discourse,mythology

    History = more accurate information, many great ideas, lots of discourse (including across space and time), religion

    Posthistory (today) = accuracy is irrelevant since we are overwhelmed with the trivial and the inaccurate, there are no more great ideas, the ideas that were once greater no longer are, and discourse has been replaced with shouting trivial and inaccurate ideas and information

    We sought Utopia (prehistory). We found Dystopia (history). But now we live in Topia (posthistory).

    End of -story.

    August 19, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • jonathanlk

      I thought Topia was a fish they served in Chinese fast food restaurants. Anyway as long as it isn't religion. See you later, now back to the Internet.

      August 26, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
  4. observer

    kermit4jc,

    If a circle has a diameter of 10, then the circ-umference is 30.

    TRUE or FALSE?

    August 14, 2014 at 2:42 am |
  5. otphan

    The Internet isn't the one killing religion.

    For years and years, humans have just gone along with what their parents have told them. Oh, your mother is a Christian? Well, I guess you are too. We never really questioned it until we could access the Internet. Now, we can finally explore other religions and think for ourselves for once.

    August 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
  6. 19covenant19

    Jesus Christ has returned

    with BIBLICAL EXCELLENT MIRACLES

    for all Nations on earth now.

    19covenant19.com

    August 10, 2014 at 6:40 am |
    • fascinatedspectator

      Oh Really?

      YAWN!

      August 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
      • Cybershaman

        I'm still not sure those are real people that post stuff like that. Could be bots or cut/pastes from some poor kid in a suburban cyber sweatshop somewhere. They'll often use religious or inflaming comments to get people to go to their sites in the hopes that they can install some sort of malware or get money for click-throughs or some such nonsense. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't individuals out there who really think they are on some sort of cyber-jihad or something. Attempting to "Save" the huddled Internet masses with their insipid posts......

        August 13, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
    • inachu

      I suspect religion killed off all forms of exotic life. That is if the Bible really is the truth. Kinda sad to think its only humans and non speaking animals. The jerks killed off the unicorns and bigfoot and other mysterious life. Every once in a while we get a peak at what life could be but then there are reports of poachers killing them off and such. Good example is that super sized ostrich that stood taller than 10 feet tall and our heads would only reach its knees which was located in new zealand.

      Humans do not care for other forms of life. Only human life matters.

      August 20, 2014 at 2:53 pm |
  7. inachu

    With vasts amount of readily available data with only taking moments to search we can see many truths that are not lies at all.
    For instance if you wanted to see the very first instance of Ashkenazi you would find it in OLD KING JAMES in Genesis 10:1-5 and the word of GOD mentions they are all gentiles.

    Great information!

    August 7, 2014 at 9:43 am |
    • Cybershaman

      Well, that's an open and shut case right there, boy. Thanks for answering THAT question. I can now sleep well at night knowing that I found the Ashkenazi right there in the "old" King James Bible. I'm going to throw out my new King James right in the trash and go garage saleing. And who would of thought they were Gentiles to boot. Amazing. Just freaking amazing...

      August 7, 2014 at 11:17 am |
    • fascinatedspectator

      I think you meant to say "With vast amounts of readily available data with only taking moments to search we can see many lies that are not truths at all."

      That makes FAR more sense.

      August 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm |
  8. codenine75a

    Do you remember the movie tron? Well there was this guy that was a little strange in the tron universe. He did not have his disk on his back, it was just floating above his head. He could not figure out why that donut was above his head. So he grabbed it and started to gnaw on it with his teeth. This person was a little big for being in
    tron and he had this producing forehead and a strong jaw line. He also used to grunt and have short conversations with a select few words. He also looked like a big brute so it was easy to make fun of him. One day as the tron players made fun of him while he was gnawing on his disk, they pointed him out and said that was a sin to just chew on your disk. One said, "The sin is called sloth." Now the big ancient looking tron player got a little angry because they started calling him bad biblical names. The ancient tron player knew how stupid they were because their disk was fasten to their backs and his floated above his head. He grew so angry because they started to incarcerate him for just gnawing on his virtual floating disk. He
    took one step back and tossed his ring at some of the tron players and it sliced him in half and he disintegrated back into tron's digital grid. The crowd became silent and the ancient tron player smiled as he caught his disk. They had this look on their faces which the open mouth that only a seasoned combatant loves.
    "Amen"

    August 6, 2014 at 6:53 am |
  9. v2787

    Here's what's killing religion: 1) media access to facts, research, and ideas, and 2) religion itself. Humans are spiritual creatures, which is great, but religion is a scam. All religion does is scare people into giving their money to the religious "leaders." People are learning that they don't need religion–they can get along just fine without it. The internet is just a tool to help them come to that realization.

    July 31, 2014 at 7:33 pm |
    • ptsloan

      That's right. The internet is the best thing to happen to religious deprogramming.
      All those people that were indoctrinated into a religion since birth, now have a tool to do their own research and find answers to all the questions that where denied to them. Once they start looking into it and see what a bunch of hog wash it is, then they finally realize that they have been lied to since they were kids.

      August 7, 2014 at 1:28 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.