The U.S. has always had a strong religious background with only eight percent of citizens considering themselves non-religious as recently as 2003. Today, the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated stands at 21 percent. Research indicates the Internet might be responsible for Americans losing religious affiliations.
The Internet Increases Knowledge
The Pew Research Center states three-quarters of the American public sees religion as losing influence on American life, and most of them see this as a bad thing.
One study released last year indicates access to the Internet is part of the reason. Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering, used the findings of the General Social Survey to emphasize the correlations between the rise of the Internet and the decline of religion.
Downey’s findings indicated the Internet allowed people to fact check religious claims made by preachers and ministers. He argued this might contribute to the correlation between the rise of the Internet and the decline of religion. In particular, the more someone uses the Internet the less likely they are to claim religious affiliation.
The study found people who use the a few hours a week were two percent less likely to be religious than non-Internet users. When Internet use increased to over seven hours a week, that percentage rose another three points. Downy claimed the Internet had a larger effect on a person’s choice to eschew religion than a college degree.
We also know the Internet leads to a faster spread of information. Studies have shown the more knowledge a person has, the less likely they are to be religious.
The Millennials, the generation having grown up with the Internet, have made the biggest move away from religious affiliation than any other generation. One in four Millennials are religiously unaffiliated today.
This might help explain the younger generation’s tendency to lean left in elections. Research indicates religion continues to play a large part of political identity in the U.S. with more religious people skewing towards conservative beliefs.
The Spread of Different Beliefs
Downey saw the spike in religiously unaffiliated people came after Internet access became widely accessible for the population. He noted that 2010 was a period when religious affiliation dropped substantially and was also the year when over 50 percent of households began using the Internet on a regular basis.
Downey postulated it was a wider dissemination of information and communication that contributed to a shift away from organized religious affiliation. He claimed this affected people living in rural, homogenous communities in particular because the Internet gave them access to information and contact with people growing up in different areas and cultures.
The study by Downey also pointed out that Internet only accounted for about 20 to 25 percent of religious waning. He found that a lack of solid religious upbringing and a rise in college-level education among the population also contributed to the loss of religion.
The Shift to Spirituality
Reports indicate Americans aren’t moving away from God entirely. The younger generations are bucking organized religion, but 62 percent say they still talk to God. The younger generation might not favor religion as much as their older peers, but they are still spiritual.
Pre-Internet, churches were often gathering places for communities, helping to strengthen religious ties. With the Internet available people can explore other relationships and religion without the need for attending church, which might help explain the rise in spiritually over organized religion.
The rise of social issues surrounding LGBT citizens and women’s rights also plays a role. The Internet has given people wider access to information on issues concerning abortion, HIV transmission and similar socially stigmatized issues. Many young people view some religious officials’ harsh stances on these social issues as polarizing, leading them to move away from organized religion.
Whatever the reason, we can see the Internet had an impact on reshaping religious beliefs and practices. The wider access to information and different cultures has given people more reasons to question their beliefs and seek out different answers. Whether this is a good or bad thing is still up for debate.
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