Contrary to what you might assume after hate-browsing Facebook, it seems the internet may have actually made people less dogmatic about religion. A recent study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has found evidence that the more we use the internet, the less likely we are to have a specific religious affiliation or to believe in and practice one religion exclusively.
Paul McClure, a doctoral student in sociology at Texas’ Baylor University, decided to take a broad look at how the internet has influenced our religious proclivities. He was inspired, in part, by previous research that suggested the rise of the internet since the 1990s has contributed to an increase of people becoming religiously unaffiliated (a group otherwise known as “Nones,” which includes, but isn’t limited to, atheists and agnostics). He analyzed data from an ongoing project that’s been managed by his university since 2005, the Baylor Religion Survey. He specifically relied on the 2010 version of the nationally representative survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization, which was the first to feature questions about people’s use of the internet as well as how they felt about religion.
He found that a person’s greater internet use, even after accounting for factors like age, education, and political affiliation, was correlated with a higher likelihood they would endorse statements like, “All of the religions in the world are equally true,” and “All around the world, no matter what religion they call themselves, people worship the same God.” Being younger, identifying as a Democrat, and living in a larger city was also associated with being less religiously exclusive.
“I [also] found that increases in Internet use were associated with decreases in religious affiliation of any kind,” McClure told me in an email. “Of course, one can refuse to be affiliated with religion and still believe in God or a higher power of some sort, but there is obviously a lot of overlap between non-affiliation and atheism.”
McClure suggests that the internet has shaped how we interact with religion differently than other all-encompassing technologies, like TV. For instance, he found that while TV-watching was associated with spending less time on religious activities like attending church in the study, the internet wasn’t. Despite widespread concern that the internet is having a polarizing effect on our beliefs, it doesn’t seem to have sent people into religious echo chambers either. Instead, McClure speculates the internet has incidentally exposed people to all sorts of philosophical ideas and beliefs. That exposure, in turn, has guided us into becoming either religious “tinkerers” who pick and choose the bits we like or those who simply leave the religion box unchecked.
This effect, if it’s real, has been largely subtle for most of us, it seems. The 2017 version of the Baylor Religion Survey, which McClure helped work on, found that 55 percent of Americans don’t use the internet to access religious or spiritual content; another 23 percent said they do so at most once a month. Three-quarters of Americans said they never talk about their religious views on social media. Adding more support to McClure’s theory, nine of 10 Americans also said that technology had exposed them to new perspectives.
For the Ned Flanders of the world, worried that the internet has led us down the path to eternal damnation, there is some solace in McClure’s research. In the 2017 survey, only around 10 percent of people believed that science and technology will someday make religion obsolete, and only around one-third of “nones” (atheists and agnostics) said the same. According to a 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, around 23 percent of Americans currently consider themselves not religiously affiliated, while around 8 percent call themselves atheists or agnostics.
“I hope my research helps us think more about how technology changes us, not just how it helps or hurts us. We normally don’t ascribe to technology the power to change who we are, but that’s what this paper suggests,” McClure said. “Down the road, I hope that we can begin to map out other, less obvious ways that the technologies of the last couple decades impact who we are, how we think, and how we relate to others.”
McClure also hopes to eventually publish research that looks more specifically at how the internet has or hasn’t influenced the rise of atheism among the public.