The number of the religious unaffiliated in the United States has doubled since 1990. Almost no Americans used the Internet in 1990, while 87 percent use it today.
Is the Internet causing us to lose our religion?
Yes, says Allen Downey, professor at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. He analyzed data and found that the statistical increase of those who claim no religious affiliation can be partially explained by an increase in Internet use.
Downey found correlations between a decrease in religious affiliation and three factors: a drop in religious upbringing, increase in college education, and an increase in Internet use. He controlled for factors such as income, socioeconomic status, and rural versus urban environments. Religious upbringing is the most influential factor — 25 percent of the decline is linked to those raised without religion. Only 5 percent of the decline is linked to an increase in college education. About 25 percent of the decline, however, is linked to increased Internet use.
Confident in his conclusion, Downey says: “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.”
About half of the decrease is unexplained, and Downey is still seeking an explanation.
Who exactly are these religiously unaffiliated? The Pew Research Center released some insightful statistics. One-fifth of Americans claim no religious affiliation. This category includes atheists, agnostics, and people who simply do not choose to identify with any particular organization. However, 68 percent of these people believe in God, while 37 percent of them identify as spiritual, but not religious.
One-third of people under the age of 30 fall into this category. Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew, says, “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders, they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell. This really is something new.”
Could the Internet truly affect us that much? People have suggested that the Internet is creating a “social nervous system” that pressures people to stay connected through social media and impacts our actions in society. Some have referred to the Internet as a “hive mind.”
There are other opinions. Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, points out that since 1990, many have begun to align religious beliefs with right-wing politics, but young people tend to be liberals. As young people move to the left, religious leaders in the public eye appear to be moving to the right. Pew’s findings back up that idea — they report that many of the unaffiliated are democrats. Could the political landscape account for the mystery factor in Downey’s study?
It’s important to remember, as we wade through the inquiries and statistics, that America is still deeply religious. Putnam says, “Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world. The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today.”