If you’re a sociologist of religion, one of the biggest stories of 2014 has been the decline in religious affiliation in the United States. Both the Pew Forum and the University of Chicago found that the number of unaffiliated Americans has more than doubled in recent years, to the point where roughly 1 in 5 Americans identifies as non-religious.
There are a wide range of theories as to why this happened, the most credible—in my opinion—centering on the culturally transformative role of the American Religious Right, which has made it very difficult to be both theologically conservative and politically liberal. But there’s another interesting factor that could help explain the growth of the secular community: the Internet. The MIT Technology Review’s end-of-year feature highlights an April study that found an interesting correlation between increased Internet usage and decreased religious participation.
From the article:
In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.
This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, [computer scientist Allen] Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.
That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.
And based on Downey’s data, increased Internet usage has been five times as effective in reducing religious affiliation as the increased college graduation rate, which he argues only accounts for 5% of the shift.
If the Internet does account for a large chunk of religious disaffiliation, the most obvious explanation is that it’s a new, effective, very private form of media—that the Internet makes it very easy to access arguments we disagree with, and many people’s religious beliefs fall apart under criticism. But there are other, more prosaic ways that the Internet might affect religious affiliation. It could be that, with the aid of Wikipedia and other online resources, people who are not religious are now able to self-identify using clearer terminology. Someone who might have self-described as a non-churchgoing Lutheran with doubts 30 years ago might self-describe as agnostic today; both designations would be equally accurate, but only one would be counted by Pew and the University of Chicago as non-affiliation.
It’s hard to say. What is clear is that there is a trajectory towards an industrialized West in which more people use the Internet and fewer people identify as religious. This is great news for the Internet, great news for the secular community, and—to the extent that it encourages a more honest approach to religious identity—may ultimately prove to be good news for people of faith, too. “Religion,” the great Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote, “in so far as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense, atheism is a purification.”