A provocative and much discussed article in the MIT Technology Review, “How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion” reviews an analysis by the computer science professor, Dr. Allen B. Downey, suggesting that there is a connection between the introduction and rapid expansion of the Internet and a concurrently steep increase in those claiming no religious affiliation in the United States from 8% in 1990 to 18% in 2010.
This increase in those claiming no religious affiliation is real, but Downey’s approach and the MIT article’s conclusions are deeply flawed. The first problem with Downey’s claim of Internet impact is that of the logical fallacy that correlation is not causation. Two trends can start at the same time and not be related. Downey admits that correlation is not causation and further admits that there are other factors including parents being less likely to raise their children in a faith and rising levels of college education and these two factors account for 30% of the decline. The Internet is only responsible for 20% of the decline. So the MIT article’s headline is greatly overstating the specter of the corrosive impact on religion of the Internet, even if Downey’s claims about the Internet are correct.
Moving deeper into Downey’s claims, I searched for answers as to why the Internet is having some effect. He claims that the Internet challenges the homogeneity of the user and opens them to other perspectives. There are no other reasons? Downey should have consulted people with expertise in fields like popular culture or religion. I would add the fact that the Internet helps to nurture narcissism and superficiality. How can a religion operate effectively in a medium that is too conducive to behaviors that are contrary to religious disciplines and values? The Internet is often immediate, superficial, and visual. Religions are often time consuming, reflective, and written. A moment of contemplative insight or grace is hard to capture visually or in a tweet.
There is another problem for the MIT article and Downey. Downey uses data on affiliation from the General Social Survey from 1990-2010 which reveals that a number of religious groups like Catholics, Jews, and other religions have not seen a decline in affiliation in those decades. The decline appears on the surface to be a Protestants only issue. Are Catholics, Jews, and other religions immune from increased educational levels, the Internet, and a lack of parents passing on of the faith? It seems unlikely, but if they are immune, why is this the case?
There is also the intriguing question of the reasons for the 50% of the decline that is not accounted for by the study. Downey states, “It is hard to imagine what that factor might be.” Really? Let me suggest a number of internal factors like institutional scandals, lethargic leadership, poor educational efforts, and a lack of vision. External cultural factors include relativism, consumerism, sexual promiscuity, and a culture of endless cynicism. While Downey accounts for non-instruction of parents to children, there is the additional factor of insufficient efforts by many families to adequately educate their children in their faiths. There is too often much greater energy on grades or sports than how to live a religious life. The Pew Research Center offers additional reasons including the politicization of religion, delayed marriages, social disengagement, and the general secularization of society.
We would do well to think carefully about the declines in religious affiliation. Thinking carefully, we cannot, however, blame it all on the Internet. Instead, we need to unpack the complex reasons for this problem. Hence, we need better research and more careful reflection on the important issue of the decline in religious affiliation.
Looking ahead, let those of us who are affiliated not despair over our current losses. If you pine for the good old days when everyone belonged to a religion, you might be surprised to learn that the number of religiously unaffiliated in 1900 was 65%.