Internet May Interfere With Religion, Keep Americans From Going To Church: Scholars

Empty Church

Empty Church

 | by  Kimberly Winston

Posted: 05/03/2014 8:25 am EDT        

(RNS) A new paper draws an intriguing conclusion to a question scholars have wrestled with for several decades: Why are Americans dropping out of church?

One reason? They’re logging on to the Internet.

Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Massachusetts’ Olin College of Engineering, found that between 1990 and 2010 the share of Americans claiming no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent to 18 percent while the number of Americans connected to the Internet rose from almost nothing to 80 percent.

Downey cautions — as do his critics — that correlation does not equal causation.

“We can’t know for sure that Internet use causes religious disaffiliation,” Downey said. “It is always possible that disaffiliation causes Internet use, or that a third factor causes both.”

But Downey, whose paper, “Religious affiliation, education and Internet use,” was published late last month at — where else? — an online site dedicated to scientific papers, is pretty sure he’s onto something.

Examining data from the General Social Survey, an ongoing and multigenerational study of Americans, Downey draws a link between higher levels of education and income and lower levels of religious identification.

His study shows that as Americans reported more Internet use, their religious identification dropped. Those who reported only a few hours of weekly Internet use were 2 percent less likely to claim a religious affiliation than those who use no Internet. And those who use the Internet more than seven hours weekly are even less likely to adhere to a religion — by an additional 3 percentage points. “That effect turns out to be stronger than a four-year college education, which reduces religious affiliation by about 2 percentage points,” he said.

Other scholars say Downey’s finding may be too pat.

Stephen O’Leary, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who studies religion on the Internet, thinks the situation is more complex and nuanced.

“Let’s call it the influence of the religious marketplace,” O’Leary said. Since the 1960s, with the influx of non-Christian immigrants to the U.S. and the increased mobility of society, Americans’ exposure to a wide range of spiritual, religious and nonreligious ideas has burgeoned.

“Internet use is part of that, but what it really does is magnify to a dramatic level the degree of choices one has,” O’Leary said.

Other forces unrelated to the Internet are at work, too. O’Leary said younger Americans are less likely to trust religious authority in the wake of the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandals.

“That has, more than almost any other thing, alienated a whole generation,” O’Leary said. “And it is not just Catholics. It goes to all religious authority by extension.”

Still, O’Leary cautions that the decline in religious affiliation — due to the Internet or otherwise — does not mean an equal rise in atheism.

“They haven’t given up their belief in the supernatural. They just don’t feel they need organizations or institutions to bring it to them,” he said. “And you don’t have to believe in any god to light a candle or hold hands and utter a mantra or chant.”

Downey’s findings dovetail with those of the Pew Research Center’s 2012 look at the “nones,” the terminology for Americans with no religious affiliation. That study found that almost 20 percent of all Americans — and a third of those under 30 — are nones.

By examining data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, conducted among first-year college students, Downey discovered that between 1985 and 2013 — approximately the same amount of time that the GSS measured Internet usage — the percentage of freshmen who identified as nonreligious tripled, from 8 percent to 25 percent. He predicts on his blog that number will reach almost 26 percent next year — more than the share of students who identify as Catholic.

“I think this is an underreported story,” Downey said.

Still, Downey is cautious about blaming the Internet, which he figures accounts for only about 20 percent of the overall decline in religious affiliation. An additional 25 percent, he says, can be attributed to fewer people being raised with a religious affiliation, and 5 percent might be due to increases in college education.

“That leaves 50 percent of the decrease unexplained by the factors I was able to include in the study, which raises interesting questions for future research,” he said.


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Categories: Americas, CHRISTIANITY

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2 replies

  1. Christianity depends on Resurrection and that depends on 2000 years old stories

    St. Paul was most effective in crystallizing and preaching the stories of resurrection and claim that Jesus died for our sins. He fully understood the strengths and limitations of his preachings and he shared those with us candidly:

    But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

    Most Christians fully realize that their religion is founded on resurrection and that is why the celebration of Easter and constant study and debate about the details surrounding the Jesus’ last Good Friday in Jerusalem.

    John Shelby Spong, a retired Bishop, explains in his book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?:

    Similarly, when the attention of biblical scholarship was turned to the narratives of Jesus’ resurrection, the anxiety of believers intensified a hundredfold. If there was no literal resurrection, then, it was feared, the whole faith system called Christianity would collapse. As one prelate observed when this battle broke into the British media in the early 1990s, the resurrection is so central to the Christian faith that without it there is no Christianity? But the real question of what constituted “the resurrection” was left unanswered.
    Does Christianity depend on a grave that was empty, on a body that has been resuscitated, on angels that descend in earthquakes and roll massive stones away from the mouth of a tomb, or on a figure who can disappear into thin air after the breaking of bread?[1]

    How and when these stories were collected that later came to be known as Gospels, is known to many now, but, for a quick summary let us turn to the learned Bishop again:

    The dawn of Christianity was connected with the life of one known as Jesus of Nazareth. But there are almost no objective records anywhere that can verify a single fact of his life. There are only things called Christian Scriptures, written by passionate believers, through which we can gain access to this man’s life. Are these sources accurate? At the very least it must be said that none of these Christian writings has either the quality or the advantage of being an eyewitness account. The earliest of these writings are called epistles. Basically they are letters written by disciples of this Jesus, some dated within as few as twenty years after the end of this Jesus’ life, but others as late as one hundred years after his life. These letters, whether early or late, however, tell us almost nothing of the details of this man’s life. From them one would learn only something of the basic claims his followers made for him: This Jesus had been crucified, but God raised him to life. Those who wrote these letters claimed that they had seen this risen life. Names associated with these letters were Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude. Later studies reveal the probability that Paul was the only actual author of the letters that bear various disciples! names and that even some of those that bear Paul’s name are not authentic? Only those called Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, and Philippians remain without dispute today as Paul’s genuine writings. Paul never claimed in any of his letters that he knew the Jesus who lived in history.
    Books about the life of this Jesus did not appear before the seventh decade of the common era at the earliest, and many would dispute that date, maintaining that it was the eighth decade before any Gospel appeared. The range for dating these books, called Gospels, would be 65 C.E. to 100 C.E. Many details recorded about this Jesus in these books are contradictory. There are serious conflicts about dates, names, places, and events. The Gospels make claims to contain the words Jesus spoke. However, none is written in the language he spoke. They are all written in Greek. Jesus seems to have spoken Aramaic.[2]

    Resurrection story is fraught with numerous internal contradictions, especially when we look at it with the claim made that it is described by eye-witnesses. The learned Bishop explains:

    The content of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, which he uttered after leaving Peter, James, and John and going “a stone’s throwaway” (Luke 22:41), was something that Jesus himself must have told the disciples. It was a bit more difficult in this latter episode to determine just when this transmission of the content of Jesus’ prayer took place, since upon Jesus’ return he found his disciples asleep and he was immediately thereafter betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. It was suggested without embarrassment in that believing and literal world that perhaps the risen Christ was the source of these details. In a similar manner the Gospels tell us that all of the disciples forsook Jesus and fled when he was arrested, yet we are given in the accounts of the crucifixion intimate details as to what Jesus said, what the crowd said, what the penitent thief said, what the nonpenitent thief said, and what the centurion said. Who recorded all of that conversation? Who transmitted it? Weare also told what the soldiers did, what Pilate did, what Herod did, and what Simon of Cyrene did. Did any of these people give transcripts to the Gospel writers?[3]

    Because of the importance of this subject to bring the two billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims and 15 million Jews on the same page and similar understanding of our Transcendent God of the Abrahamic faiths, the Muslim Times has several posts on the issues pertaining to resurrection:

    65 Reasons to Believe Jesus Did Not Die on the Cross

    Dan Barker’s Challenge to Every Christian about Resurrection and Ascension

    Did Jesus rise in a physical body or a spiritual one?

    Gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection a source of deep rifts in Christian religion

    The Pope Benedict’s account of resurrection and the hearsay rule!


    1. John Shelby Spong. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Harper San Francisco, Feb 18, 1995. Pages 18-19.
    2. John Shelby Spong. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Harper San Francisco, Feb 18, 1995. Pages 24-25.
    3. John Shelby Spong. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Harper San Francisco, Feb 18, 1995. Pages 7-8.

  2. I don’t think so that Internet is a hinderence in religious affiliation.The important thing is that everything has uses and misuses,it’s upto you how you handle these things.If you have the seed of God’s love and connection to religion ,which most of the time you inherited and only by the sheer grace of God He can change one’s heart too.Internet can draw your attention towards the positive aspect of life to adopt a code of life which only a religion can give ,a person acquiring no religion stumbles more than a person having strong connection with it.

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