Is the Internet Making People Lose Their Religion?

Sociologist Paul McClure published a study (SciHub link) in a recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion investigating whether or not technological changes are undermining traditional religious belief. According to the paper’s abstract,

Internet technology presents a new conceptual reality, one that could potentially challenge religion in subtle but distinct ways. Few sociologists of religion, however, have attempted to evaluate whether using the Internet impacts the way people think about and practice religion. This article elaborates on the concept of “tinkering” discussed by Berger, Berger, and Kellner (1974), Turkle (1997), and Wuthnow (2010) to argue that Internet use affects how people think about and affiliate with religious traditions. Using data from Wave III of the Baylor Religion Survey (2010), I find that Internet use is associated with increases in being religiously unaffiliated and decreases in religious exclusivism. At the same time, I find that television viewing is linked to decreases in religious attendance and other time-related religious activities, but these outcomes are not impacted by Internet use. To explain these disparate findings, I argue that the Internet is fundamentally different from previous technologies like television and thus impacts religious beliefs and belonging but not time-related religious activities.

McClure’s analysis (albeit on data collected in 2010) is mixed, suggesting that Internet usage is associated with a decreased likelihood of religious affiliation, but not a decrease in participation in religious activities.

To summarize, I have empirically tested several hypotheses concerning the effects of Internet use on our religious beliefs, b ehavior, and belonging. I have grounded these hypotheses in
scholarly literature that examines religious and technological changes. The researchers whose work guides these hypotheses, though, do not explicitly make these connections. For example,
Smith and Snell (2009) and Wuthnow (2010) extensively discuss the changing religious landscape for Millenials, but they fail to mention technology as a likely source for the change we see from one generation to the next. Likewise, Song (2009) and Turkle (1997, 2011a, 2011b) focus on Internet technology, but their concern is more with its effects on social capital or changing conceptions of self rather than religion. What links all of these scholars, however, is their use of the concept of tinkering, an attitude that they think represents large and increasing portions of the American population. Thus, the foregoing analysis synthesizes these literatures and empirically
tests the following hypotheses:

H1: Internet use decreases the likelihood of being religiously affiliated. (supported)

H2: Internet use decreases the likelihood of participating in religious activities. (unsupported)

H3a: Internet use decreases the likelihood of being religiously exclusive. (supported)

H3b: Internet use increases the likelihood of being religiously exclusive. (unsupported)

. . .

Why might Internet use affect beliefs and affiliation patterns but not participation in religious activities? As a pluralizing force, the Internet creates a new space through which individuals must navigate competing truth claims and ideas about what is ultimately important. Because of the overwhelming variety of worldviews, beliefs, and religious ideas that are part and parcel of one’s online experience, the Internet encourages tinkering with an assortment of spiritual options, and rejecting the exclusive truth claims of any one particular religious tradition becomes more likely.

While these outcomes may appear uneven, we should not expect the Internet to affect all aspects of religion uniformly. Rather, as my results show, Internet use lowers the likelihood of exclusive commitments to any one religious institution and in doing so opens the door to spiritual tinkering. Internet use does not, however, prevent individuals from regularly attending religious services or participating with religious communities in other ways, perhaps because one can engage in such activities without full ideological commitment. Further, rather than displacing religious activities, Internet use may fill in the gaps between previously scheduled events. In sum, being online increases the likelihood of being religiously unaffiliated, and regardless of one’s affiliation, Internet use also reduces the likelihood of maintaining an exclusivist posture toward one’s own religious tradition

It would be interesting to see this research repeated with data collected in 2017. Obviously the Internet was fairly widely distributed in 2010, but today its usage is nearly ubiquitous with the widespread usage of smart phones and other devices (the iPhone hadn’t even been on the market for three years when this dataset was collected).

George Bernard Shaw on Religion and Happiness

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.

-George Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion, 1913