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Are You More Likely to Lose Your Religion if You’re Online?

The more we’re online as a society, the less religious we are.
According to MIT’s Technology Review, a new study by computer scientist Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering concludes, “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”

Downey’s study analyzed statistics from 9,000 respondents to the University of Chicago’s general social survey in 2010.

In 1990, only about 8 percent of the U.S. population checked the “none” box when asked about their religious affiliation. By 2010, the percentage of “nones” had risen to 18 percent.

The increase in the religiously unaffiliated has sparked numerous articles from church thinkers about the reason for this sudden shift.

After all, America is, and has been, among the most religious of all nations worldwide. Evangelicals particularly have increased their profile in the public arena.

However, despite America’s conservative turn, Downey’s data confirms an almost parallel increase in Internet usage and lack of religious affiliation.

In 1990, Internet usage was virtually zero. Although the Internet was active, individuals had to access it through portals like AOL or CompuServe.

In 1994, two factors boosted Internet usage.

First, new servers were added to increase the traffic capacity of the World Wide Web.

Second, the Mosaic web browser, the first popular Internet interface, facilitated the quick ascent of Internet usage.

Netscape’s browser added search capability, thereby revolutionizing Internet surfing in 1995.

From that point, Internet usage in America climbs dramatically. Coincidentally, at about that same time, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated – the “nones” – also begins to rise in an almost identical arc.

However, as in most studies, Downey identifies more factors in play in the increase of the religiously unaffiliated than just an increase in Internet usage.

He concludes that 25 percent of the rise in “nones” can be explained by a decrease in those who are raised in a religiously affiliated home.

In addition to religious orphans, 5 percent of the increase in “nones” can be attributed to an increase in the number of college-educated Americans.

Downey’s study contends, however, that the increase in Internet usage explains at least 25 percent of the increase in the religious “nones.”

Adjusting for other factors such as age, rural or urban residence, and socioeconomic status, Downey is convinced the data points to Internet usage as the new cause for the drop in religious affiliation.

What does this mean for churches and denominations? I think the study has three implications:

  • It’s not the Internet’s fault.

The increase of the “nones” may be one of the unintended consequences of the Internet, but religious institutions should not begin a campaign to demonize Internet usage.

After all, Internet access is an essential component of our increasingly digital lives. From email and search functions to Twitter and Facebook, the Internet is our always-on gateway to the world of information.

  • The Internet enables communities of like-minded individuals.

Prior to the Internet, atheists and agnostics were a stark minority in typical American communities. Now, however, atheists and agnostics can find supportive communities online.

In other words, an individual no longer has to believe in God to find social acceptance.

In addition, many people identify now as “spiritual, but not religious” – meaning that they see no need of an institutional expression of their personal faith. These individuals would also be classified as “nones.”

These spiritual “nones” can now cobble together their own spirituality from websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, finding spiritual aphorisms that function as their new inspirational texts.

  • The convergence of Internet usage, religious orphans and higher education holds clues for religious institutions.

The first, and most obvious, implication this triad of correlations reveals to me is that religious institutions cannot live in the past technologically, theologically or educationally if they hope to reach today’s “nones.”

Downey also noted that younger groups reported more “nones” than older groups.

That is not a surprising result, as younger adults are more Internet-savvy, better educated and less likely to be raised in a religious household.

Finally, one interesting footnote to Downey’s findings is this: Adding together the 25 percent of the “nones” who were not brought up in religious homes, the 5 percent who are college-educated, and the 25 percent attributed to the rise in Internet usage, we are still left with about 45 percent of the increase in “nones” unexplained.

The opportunity for churches and denominations in regard to the unaffiliated might be in figuring out the reason for the other 45 percent.

Rather than railing against the Internet, colleges or home life, Christians might be better served to investigate what in our contemporary way of life contributes to loss of faith for about 25 million of our fellow citizens.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.