Is the Internet Killing Religion?

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a fierce debate ignited by a study which argued that the Internet is responsible for the dramatic growth in American religious disaffiliation over the last two decades. Since 1990, the number of Americans with no religion has skyrocketed by almost 25 million people. The study’s author, Allen Downey, believes that the increasing uptake of the Internet is the best-correlated causal factor.

While I’m not committing myself to Downey’s conclusion, I find it very plausible. Obviously, the Internet is only a tool, and tools can be used for any purpose. There’s no shortage of preachers and megachurches who stream sermons or welcome social media as a channel for evangelizing. But I think many churches have been slow to realize that what the Internet does do is sharply curtail their ability to control the flow of information to their own membership.

The Internet levels the playing field and diminishes the advantage that wealthy and influential churches have historically had in getting their message out. Using the Internet, a religious believer can type a few words into a search engine and see all the best arguments against religion through the ages, whether by famous historical philosophers or modern atheist firebrands. If they’re having doubts that they’d rather not confess to their minister, their parents or their town, there are whole online communities of nonbelievers where they can vent their frustration and commiserate with others going through the same struggles, all safely and in anonymity. If they’ve been taught that atheists are evil misanthropes, they can find our stories in our own words, which is always a powerful antidote to prejudice. If they seek to exert control over the media and censor blasphemous and heretical viewpoints, the Internet has made that far harder than it’s ever been. If they think their religion is unique and distinctive, the Internet makes it much easier for them to come across similar miracle stories from all over the world. And when proselytizers seek out an audience in online forums they don’t control, atheists with contrary arguments and evidence can push back as never before.

Some of the fundamentalist sects are starting to understand this. Witness the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of New York renting out a baseball stadium to warn their men about the evils of the Internet; or the Mormon columnist who’s upset that the Internet makes it so easy to find out about the esoteric doctrines of Mormonism – spoiling the LDS church’s plan of only teaching the theologically easy beliefs to outsiders and prospective converts, which they call “milk before meat”; or the theocratic and religiously conservative societies that demand censorship of the Internet, outraged by the fact that people can use it to mock beliefs they think should be exempt from mockery.

Where absurd or morally dubious beliefs might once have gone unexamined, the freewheeling debate that thrives on the Internet has exposed them to criticism, ridicule and satire as never before. I don’t think this necessarily spells the end of all religion – if history has shown us anything, it’s that religion is endlessly adaptable. But I do think that it will continue to weaken the apologetics-oriented faiths, oppressive fundamentalisms and cults that seek to isolate their members from all contrary ideas. In their place, I expect that technology will – in time – push religion to retreat from disprovable empirical claims and evolve into less dogmatic, less doctrinally rigid, more fideistic forms.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Johnny

    There is probably something to it. have heard of a lot of people who lost their faiths due to arguments from the internet.

    After the marginalization of religion, what’s next?

  • Alex SL

    Perhaps it would be best not to get too optimistic. Yes, large monolithic faiths that rely on indoctrinating children in ignorance may be weakened, and that is surely a good thing. But it also appears as if a lot of crazy people who would, once upon a time, have been buffered and surrounded by more reasonable members of their community, can use the internet to find others of the same ilk and form their own little echo chamber. Where once they would have started questioning or at least moderating themselves because they seemed to be the only one, they can now confirm each other in their convictions.

    Just google “pro-ana” and weep (or not, it’s very disturbing); the same principle applies to racists, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and, obviously, religious crazies.

  • Nathaniel

    As a psych major, I’ve been exposed to some “ana” websites and blogs. Few things make me feel so angry and helpless.

  • Gideon

    I wonder if many modern religious folk already were having widespread doubts before the Internet, but those doubts tended to stay nascent. Then the Internet began acting as an incubator for their doubts (or an agent of “radicalization” depending on your viewpoint, I guess). For some of us, it was good to hear the simple message “You don’t need to keep coddling your reasonable criticisms and try to compromise with the outdated oddities of your religion.”

    I’m also curious whether another factor was something else that happened around the same time: the historic onslaught of religious terrorism forced the issue for many who were sitting on the fence. As if it reminded them unambiguously that religion can be far from harmless, and it prompted them to question religious devotion altogether.

  • Leo Buzalsky

    I think there’s a bit of a flaw in your ideas here. Particularly, if they were “buffered and surrounded by more reasonable members of their community,” how did they get the crazy ideas in the first place? Sure, they could come up with some of them on their own, but certainly many of the conspiracy theorists and whatnot are picking up these ideas from others. So they could not have been the only one.
    That said, you may be correct that the internet makes it easier for such people. I just question if you may be over exaggerating reality just a bit.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I think an analogy to the LBGT movement is useful here. A lot of gay teens who otherwise would have felt alone and isolated don’t anymore. The internet sure helped me when I was coming out, and that was back in the stone age (mid 90s).

    I’d guess that some young (and not so young) folks who may have never considered athiesm as even an option are empowered by the net.

  • skeptimal

    It’s clear that something has sped up the public conversation, and it seems reasonable to think it’s the internet. The rapid pace with which gay marriage gained majority acceptance is an example. In less than ten years, public opinion swung dramatically. On the other hand, the pace at which bullshit spreads is also much faster; hence the sudden omnipresence of false stories about Obama, liberals, atheists, etc.

  • busterggi

    to paraphrase – “Faster, LOLcat Kill Kill”:

  • Science Avenger

    The internet reduces the religious population. The echo chamber effect increases the fervency of those remaining. Just wander through Townhall and watch what has become of mainstream Republicans.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    Hey Adam, this lecture I gave on atheism and the Internet might interest you, it touches on a lot of the same themes.

  • JohnH2

    Except that from the experience of the LDS church online missionaries, being the same as the ones that go door to door (or used to at least) but now write facebook posts and chat on, and not members who comment on religion online, both the conversion and retention rates are higher via online interaction than otherwise.

    Also, the claim that more Mormons are leaving now than in the past, while common, is not actually supported by the statistics. The visibility of those leaving has certainly changed; and that is actually good as previously it was possible for a person leaving, or the church leaders dealing with the person leaving, to assume that the problem was unique to them: even if every other unit in the church was also dealing with people with those problems. It was also easy to paint a bad picture of everyone that did leave, that is still possible to some extent because many of those that leave are all to willing to conform to that stereotype, but the internet does at least allow for the recognition that not everyone is like that; and there have been some visible changes and tweaks because of that.

    As far as it goes, I don’t think that the internet has really exposed Mormonism to more criticism, ridicule, or satire than ever before. Less of it is from Evangelicals now and more of it has at least some passing relation to actual Mormon beliefs than previously, but if anything Mormonism is almost more respected than prior to the internet.

  • Alex SL

    Science Avenger,

    That is a good summary of what I was trying to express more awkwardly: Less general wrongness, but more concentrated islands of wrongness.

  • Adam Lee

    “More concentrated islands of wrongness”. Great phrase, I’ll have to remember that one.

  • Izkata

    The internet doesn’t just provide access to arguments.

    Back when I was in gradeschool, I had been under the impression that having a religion was absolutely necessary, regardless of which one it is. But I was losing interest in Christianty (especially when, during the “religious education” classes, they told me (repeatedly) to stop asking questions (that I presume they couldn’t answer)), and decided to try out a different one.

    At some point I had found this site:

    Reading through the various beliefs and rituals, most seemed silly. But the parallels some of them had to the ones I grew up with just made those seem silly as well.

    It was only after that, that I started the right searches online and discovered there was such a thing as atheism.

  • Pofarmer

    The what’s next, is people are gonna have to have another movement to join. Like it or not, people like to be in groups of like minded people. Check out Eric Hoffers book “True Believers”.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Adam’s “Illuminated History” essay
    from April 2007 touched on a number of these ideas. Unfortunately, I
    have not been able to find a link to it with the original comments.

  • Doomedd

    Edit: I rewrote pretty much everything, more concise

    “On the other hand, the pace at which bullshit spreads is also much faster; hence the sudden omnipresence of false stories about Obama, liberals, atheists, etc. “
    While I agree to a certain point, your examples are wrong.
    Those false stories come from traditional media (FOX is very active in that regard) and major religious organizations, not from the web. Remove the internet and your example would not stop or get weaker.

  • Kathy K-m

    Actually, I wouldn’t use gay marriage as an example. In the mother of all ironies, I would say the Westboro Baptists pushed that agenda forward, so well, I’d swear it was a false front.
    LGBT rights languished, for decades. The only ones pushing them were those personally affected, or altruistic activists.
    The Westboro folks, with their vile and reprehensible actions, galvanized the religious, to revisiting their own “holy texts”, (since they were all reading the same book) and say “Whoa! That’s is NOT what Jesus would do!”
    Honestly, I think we should give the late Reverend Phelps a big, ol’ float, in the next Pride parade. :-)

  • Kathy K-m

    I couldn’t agree with you more! This latest wave of internet atheism seems less about simple non-belief, and more about being virulently anti-religion.
    It’s filled with bigots and “evangelicals”, who think only their way is the Right Way. They seem to think the opposite of religion is science, and there’s now a whole set of atheist mythologies. (The “dark ages” were caused by Christianity, Muhammad was a pedophile, all Christians believe in talking snakes and animal filled boats, if it wasn’t for religion, we’d have flying cars…are a few)
    By and large, not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they certainly imagine they are.
    I will be interested to see, 10-20 years down the road, whether this has affected any real change, or whether “atheist” is just the current trend, like hippie, punk, grunge or goth was, in their times.

  • Kathy K-m

    Schizophrenia isn’t new, and most are extremely intelligent people, who can put forth an extremely convincing argument. Paranoia, social disorders…also not new phenomenon.
    Toss them into the internet stew, with lots of scientifically illiterate people, who lack critical thinking skills?
    The reality is pretty ugly.

  • Kathy K-m

    What “religious terrorism”? I hope you don’t mean 9/11 and the like, as those are far from religiously motivated. Those have been the response to a century of foreign policy interference, including support of the rogue nation of Israel.

  • Adam Lee

    The Westboro folks, with their vile and reprehensible actions, galvanized the religious, to revisiting their own “holy texts”, (since they were all reading the same book) and say “Whoa! That’s is NOT what Jesus would do!”

    This wild speculation is just flatly contradicted by the facts. Aside from the intrinsic implausibility of a single clan of wackos singlehandedly swaying the opinion of an entire country, religion has always been and still is the greatest enemy of gay rights. More frequent church attendance and more intense belief correlates to greater opposition to same-sex marriage.

  • publicvoid

    Another ‘oppressed’ religious person I see… You must have been so hurt by open question of your dogma and the failure of others to bow to the supposed sanctity of your position. The change in Atheists is that we no longer hide in the closet in fear of retribution from bigoted glorified social club members. We certainly don’t see science as a religion or the opposite of religion. Religious culture is an impediment to science. It uses, ironically, some of our most animalistic fears and impulses to do so. Fear of death, herd thinking, social conformity… Science doesn’t require tapping into your inner monkey, it just presents the readily testable evidence. I would say the internet has simply shined a spotlight on how many horrible and inhuman things religion leads to throughout our entire word. Strangely enough, the pamphlets that come to the house don’t include the faith healers murdering their children, the pointless genital mutilation, the child brides, the genocides, the bombings, etc, etc… Truth can be a pretty powerful tool for marketing reason.

  • Deanjay1961

    Reading the referenced article, I see that the internet, fewer people being raised in a religion, and more college account for about 50% of the decrease; leaving the other 50% mysterious. I think one viable candidate would be the increasing Christianization of politics which was contemporary with increased internet usage.

  • Deanjay1961

    Isn’t Hoffers book about mass movements, and more about being discontented and ripe for recruitment into a craze than a longing for belonging?

  • Deanjay1961

    And I think a part of the decrease in religiosity can be found in the antics of the most public self-appointed spokes people for America’s dominant religion: the Jerry Falwells, the Pat Robertsons, and the whole idea that evangelicals needed to be more involved in politics AS evangelicals.

  • Pofarmer

    There ard different reasons for joining mass movements. But, it is true that conteneted people are much less likely to join. I think this is one reason the politics in the U.S. try to keep everyone stirred up, for example.