A new study has been making the rounds online, appropriately enough, claiming that the Internet is causing Americans to lose their faith. This probably comes as no surprise to web junkies, who have long known that religion is one of the most contentious issues driving the great Facebook, Twitter and comment-section flame wars of our age.
In short, the argument put forth in a paper by Olin College computer scientist Allen Downey is that the beginning of the great downturn in religious adherence and identity that is swiftly remaking all of American society — politics included — coincided with the introduction of the Internet. Correlation is not causation, of course, but holding all other factors constant, Downey estimates that Internet use, by itself, could account for nearly 20 percent of the recorded drop in religious adherence since the 1980s.
This drop, it should be understood, is nothing to sneeze at. In the space of 20 years from 1990 to 2010, Americans who reported having no religious preferences — meaning they were not active members of, nor self-identified as being affiliated with, a particular faith tradition — more than doubled from 8 to 18 percent. That is an increase of 25 million people, an amount roughly equivalent to the population of the state of Texas.
Demographically, what’s most worrisome for those concerned by an America drifting away from organized religion is the huge number of young people who report having no faith or religious association at all. Here, a staggering 30 to 40 percent of those ages 18 to 29 say they have no religious identity, association or engagement with organized religion. America’s young, it seems, have abandoned religion in epic proportions.
This makes perfect sense, given that young people are both more likely to be wired in and are better educated than ever before — a factor that accounts for an additional 5 percent of the change to religious non-affiliation reported by Downey. The question, though, is why the Internet, alongside education, is having such a profound impact on young people’s religious affiliations.
Access to information, like-minded communities
Here, Downy and others have provided a few hypotheses. First, the Internet allows those seeking out information about almost anything, including religion, cheap and easy access to the entire cornucopia of human knowledge. Wikipedia, for instance, is a modern-day Library of Alexandria, but one that anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection can access.
The Internet also allows one to not just quickly access information, but to communicate with others just as easily. With a click of a button, one can text, tweet, email or post comments and engage in discussions, often rollicking, no-holds-barred ones, with similar-minded people or those with completely opposite points of view.
While in-built psychological biases often allow partisans to disavow facts, reason and logic that does not jive with their own strongly held beliefs, these arguments do not take place in a vacuum. Those on the sidelines will see both sides and go with the stronger of the two. Since the logic of unbelief — or non-affiliation, at least — is so utterly compelling when up against the facile arguments of science-denying fundamentalists, it come as no surprise that huge numbers of people on the fence have been converted, so to speak, to the position of non-affiliation.
Third, these ease of communication is also important when it comes to organizing and building a community. Like closeted gays who were initially too afraid to come out in their conservative small towns but did so anyway because of the example thriving gay communities in far-away cities provided, the existence of vibrant online communities of non-believers gives otherwise isolated atheists, agnostics and freethinkers in deeply conservative and religious areas the strength to “come out” to the theists surrounding them.
This, in turn, gives others the strength to profess their lack of belief and so causes a social ripple effect that can, as in the case of the gay revolution, have incredibly powerful effects. The Internet gives non-believers the knowledge that they are not alone, their ideas have merit and that others support and agree with them. There is power, then, in a virtual union.
Pulling back the curtain
The Internet, of course, is not responsible for all the change in religious affiliation that has been observed, but it also no doubt plays a heavy supporting role in assisting these other causes, too. The horrifying abuse of young people at the hands of pedophile Catholic priests and the damning complicity in this horror of much of the official church hierarchy has certainly had a role to play, for instance, in young Catholics drifting away from the faith of their birth — something the Internet had no part in causing.
Imagine, however, how the scandal might have played out in a world where the Internet did not exist. In such a world local media might or might not have picked up on the story, and national media, in turn, might or might not have, either. Coverage would have been spotty at best, and far, far fewer people would have been exposed to the gruesome facts about the scandal, thus limiting its impact. Faced with so few well-informed people, local representatives would be able to use the ignorant loyalty of the local laity to their own advantage and so deflect accusations of institutional corruption and wrongdoing as the complaining of ill-informed malcontents out to destroy the social order.
With the Internet, however, a story about the sexual abuse of minors can spread to millions of people around the world via social media in just a few hours. There is no way to bottle it up — as so often happened with such tragic effects in the era before widespread usage of the Internet. For institutions and belief systems claiming to have universal moral authority over all mankind, the ability to take a local scandal and turn it into a national news story with the clicks of a few buttons is fatal. So long protected by the powers that be, every scandal or institutional hypocrisy is quickly and devastatingly brought to light.
What the Internet provides for the religious and which was so lacking before is near complete and total transparency in how organized faiths conduct themselves in public. They cannot, as they could before, hide behind walls built out of local ignorance and respectability — the twin black holes into which external controversies deeply implicating the local faith in nefarious practices disappear forever. Technology has utterly destroyed faith’s ability to hide among hidebound populations and so avoid the hard questions about doctrine, policy and politics that a particular faith espouses.
The Internet, therefore, is a virtual Martin Luther constantly pounding his “95 Theses” on a closed church door. Unfortunately, just as the old Catholic church ignored Martin Luther, many of today’s religious leaders around the world do not yet understand just how powerfully corrosive transparency of this type can be on their claims to moral authority. When pedophile priests can be easily exposed online, snake-handling preachers shown to be commonly killed by snake bites, prosperity Gospel televangelists uncovered as little more than frauds and family-values fundamentalists proven to be patronizing male prostitutes, the emperor of organized religion is one quickly demonstrated to be lacking in clothes.
The Internet, perhaps cruelly, allows us all to peek behind the curtain and see clearly for the first time what we have long suspected but could not determine conclusively: that there is no “there” there and, in fact, probably never was. It, sadly, was a con man claiming to be a wizard the whole time. When this hard fact is so easily accessible to anyone who wants to see it, religious authority quickly crumbles.
The Internet is, therefore, not merely a virtual Martin Luther — it is more akin to a super-empowered Martin Luther using a nuclear-powered printing press of mass destruction. But instead of churning out Protestant tracts condemning papal corruption, the Internet nails, machine gun-like, to the door of every church, temple, synagogue and mosque the long list of hypocritical corruptions and demonstrable untruths each faith tradition, no matter how old and venerable, would prefer that nobody knows about.