Is the Internet Destroying Religion?

Valerie Tarico explores a very interesting question: Is the internet destroying religion? She argues that the reason why churches are struggling to keep their members from leaving is because the internet is making it more and more difficult for them to maintain the “closed information system” that they require to survive.

A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books. It is why, when you get sucked into conversations with your fundamentalist uncle George from Florida, you sometimes wonder if he has some superpower that allows him to magically close down all avenues into his mind. (He does!)

Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas. These behaviors range from memorizing sacred texts to wearing distinctive undergarments to killing infidels. Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.

Tech-savvy mega-churches may have twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may make viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.

She argues that things like cool science videos on Youtube, sites like mine that chronicle the many ways that religion harms people and society, and just the awareness that there are other perspectives out there all contribute to the rapid growth of the nones and the waning of church membership and religious belief. She also argues that the availability of online communities for the faithless gives people support in their transition from belief to non-belief that was rarely available 15 or 20 years ago. All good points.

Will this make religion a thing of the past eventually? I highly doubt it, as I doubt all such predictions of the imminent demise of religion for any reason. Current trends are all but certain to continue and religious belief will undoubtedly continue to decline, but I can’t imagine it will ever disappear. It serves too many functions for too many people, quite aside from whether the beliefs are true or not. The best we can hope for, I think, is for religion to become mostly irrelevant, as it is in most of the countries of Northern Europe. And that’s quite enough.

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  • lldayo

    I’ve long thought the internet was a direct cause to the declining numbers of church goers. I’m actually a product of that exact idea! As more and more people become curious and start questioning their beliefs I think religion will become obsolete as well. There’s too much information out there and the seed of doubt has been cast in many people. Others will follow suit as friends and loved ones start turning away from the flock.

  • raymoscow

    I think the fear of death will keep religion alive for many people for a long, long time to come, even though some reflection shows it to be no different that the state before one was conceived (e.g., nothing conscious at all).

    Of course, I’m no fan of death (nonexistence) either, but religion is not a solution.

  • Yes, taming and shrinking the ravenous lion down to a declawed kitten* is quite enough.

    Interestingly, I finished a few minutes a Newsweek article in which online dating bigwigs and behaviorists predicted that the ease of meeting and myriad choices provided in that medium will lead to less long-term relationships and more divorces.

    * No, real kittens should NOT be declawed. It’s barbaric. Just buy cheap furniture that you won’t mind so much being ripped to shreds instead.

  • Larry

    Its been said many times before: Knowledge sets you free. Trying to keep all knowledge of the outside world passing through a priest or preacher or dictator is an effective form of mind control. Once people learn of the outside and the knowledge available, they’re lost to the controllers. It may take time but exposure to new ideas is the best sanitizer for religion.

  • Another aspect that clearly affects religion is having one’s basic needs met. By and large, religion is an avenue of desperation, and True Believers have a significantly higher number of poor and marginal people among their ranks than one would find in the population at large. This is the reason why women tend to be more religious than men and why church is so important to the African American community. When a person has a good education, they are much more likely to have a good job; I susepct that this, and not the education itself, is why education correlates strongly with non-religion.

    As long as there are poor people in our society, and as long as whole communities are disenfranchised and pushed to the side, there will be religion: the evolution of H. sapiens into a social animal pretty much demands that those without power seek the protection of someone who does, even if that protecting alpha exists only in our minds. Which sounds like a dandy argument for supporting social justice, doesn’t it.

  • TGAP Dad

    I’m wondering, as a corollary, what might hae been the primary “cause” of the decline of religion in Europe after WWII. Clearly this was before the Internet, and information certainly didn’t flow as freely as it does now. Anybody have any thoughts?

  • Matt G

    I think the best we can hope for is a lessening of the influence of religion. The advantage I think we have is that as we reach more and more people, religious organizations will become increasingly desperate and resort to increasingly sleazy tactics (think of Ratzinger’s anti-gay diatribe at Christmas). The more archaic and out of touch with reality they seem (because they, in fact, are) the better for our message of reason and decency. Funny how some of the most “christian” people I know are atheists, while many of the Christians are real jerks.

  • Jim

    TGAP, according to my grandfather, it was after WWI that religion began it’s decline. He felt, and it seems reasonable enough, that the reason for the decline was . . . WWI. It was an absolutely dehumanizing and demoralizing time.

  • azportsider

    I think Ms Tarico’s argument may have some validity; information is religion’s greatest enemy. On the other hand, I think there were already a lot of ‘nones’ who were looking for places to go where they could feel comfortable about nonbelieving, so there was an untapped resource that’s coming out of the woodwork. For my own part, though, I was an atheist long before the days of the internet.

  • Religion is like diabetes, the best hope is to manage it. (Of course the comparison is limited. No nation has never gone on jihad or crusade due to low blood sugar.)

  • dingojack

    azportsider – “I was an atheist long before the days of the internet”.

    Well gee grandpa, what was it like at the Charge of the Light Brigade?

    😀 Dingo


    Sorry, I couldn’t resist

  • D. C. Sessions

    This isn’t a bad list of threats to closed religious communities, but there’s a big one missing from the list. It’s a bit of a different type: it’s a reduction of the value to individuals of belonging to the religious community in the first place.

    Very, very high on the list of reasons people belong to those communities is that they provide for a key need for us social animals: a group to belong to, a source of social connection. Back in frontier days, people would travel long distances to the nearest church (of whatever sort) for Sundays and often Saturday night box suppers, dances, etc. regardless of the theology involved because the church was the social nucleus for everyone within a day’s (or often more) travel.

    And now, there are alternatives only a click away.

    Makes it really tough to force conformity by the threat of shunning.

  • cptdoom

    I’m wondering, as a corollary, what might hae been the primary “cause” of the decline of religion in Europe after WWII. Clearly this was before the Internet, and information certainly didn’t flow as freely as it does now. Anybody have any thoughts?

    WWII also provided the clearest example of the horror that can come from one of the worst aspects of religious belief – genocide. Although the facist philosophy was more nationalistic and less religious (although incorporating a lot of religious belief and support), the movements in Germany and Italy provided evidence of how far humans can be driven to go by appealing to their basest instincts of tribalism – my group is better than your group, so I can wipe your group off the face of the earth. Europe had already suffered through not only WW1, but also the earlier Wars of the Reformation, so they knew how religion could also be used to the same ends as the facists used nationalism and they were witnessing the oppression of another tyrannical system in Communism. I can see all those experiences driving people from yet another institution that, at some level, promotes a form of tribalism. Not to mention, when your Continent is basically destroyed by the worst war in human history, a lot of people are simply going to lose faith in any religion.

    I wonder if social media, in our modern society, is having its own impact in a related way. The internet not only provides significant access to information that might be contrary to a religion’s belief system, it also provides access to a far more diverse group of people than it is possible to meet outside of our largest cities (and even they tend to be divided by religion or race). That is going to undermine the ability of any one religious group to promote the idea that, not only is that group the “right” one in terms of religious belief, but that all other groups are alien and one’s enemy.

  • Religion is dying, but it is a very slow acting terminal disease, one that will comtinue to run its course well past our lifetimes. Which is a shame. To paraphrase someone of note, I’d like to see religion shrunk down to the point we can drown it in the bathtub.

    The free flow of information has worked to hasten this decline, not that people aren’t able to shut out all challenging ideas. They just have to work harder at it, but it can be done. Just look at Fox “News”. Even they are raging against the tide, though. There’s no going back to the days when a single authority held a monopoly on ideas.

  • glodson

    I do wonder if this trend will be turned around as the churches start using the internet to their benefit. While there is a wealth of information out there, many groups also use the internet to spread bad information. We might see an overall decline in religion, but allowing the remaining religious people to reach out and reinforce their own ideas is a dark side of the internet. Worse still is that many of the nones are substituting one bad idea with another.

    Hell, we see how internet communities can close in on themselves and disavow outside perspective, and serve to join in groupthink to rationalize the rejection of facts. The internet is a powerful tool, and many people find a way to pervert it.

  • Sastra

    Excellent comments above from all. I’ll simply add in this one:

    I think one of the major reasons the internet will eventually be death to religion (okay, no, not all religion but much of it) is that the beliefs that define religion as religion are not true. There is no God, there is no divine essence, there are no spiritual forces, there are no souls, there is no afterlife, holy scriptures are not holy and the mind is what the brain does. The supernatural doesn’t exist. Curiosity, information, diversity, and debate will sift and sift and sift ideas down and down to the ultimate foundation of what can gain consensus in a contending community. Is it true?

    Regardless of human nature and human needs, sooner or later, that’s going to matter. It’s going to be critical. It would be just as significant if there WAS a God. Either option would matter.

    I have read that science could not have taken root without the printing press. You need a contending community which is spread out and builds a common understanding on the results of previous mistakes. The internet is like a printing press times infinity. It’s turned its power on religion — and religion is not true. Watch what happens. From our perspective, it’s going to be like a slow train-wreck. From an historical perspective, it will be like a fast one.

  • dugglebogey

    Young kids these days! I became an atheist BEFORE the internet, when it was hard and you had to go to college to do it! Get off my lawn!

  • machintelligence

    TGAP Dad

    I suspect that the decline of religion after WW 2 was due primarily to peace and prosperity. Except for minor flare-ups, Europe had been at peace for 60 years. By prosperity I don’t just mean economics. Improvements in medicine and the social safety net have made peoples lives more stable and tolerable, so the attraction of “pie in the sky when you die” is much reduced. Compare this to the number of wars that the USA has fought, and the rise of the new nobility (1%ers) with the lack of an effective social safety net, and you can see where religion could still have a stronger influence.

    I really like the observation that: “The internet is where religion goes to die.”

  • Indeed, the internet will make it more difficult to apply the information isolation strategy. But while this will likely help lower retention rates of churches, it’s not going to be the end of religion by a long shot. First of all, there already exists Christian web-filtering software that many parents install on their family PC’s. And of course, there is also the “cyber-balkanization” effect, where people can easily find their niche communities online and rarely leave that circle.

    But even if these strategies are shown to be ineffective, there is another strategy that is used a lot, and works as well online as it does in meatspace: poisoning the well. By maligning secularists, and casting doubt on their motivations, you can still make sure that secularists’ arguments will be ignored or rejected out of hand by the faithful. There is no reason why the internet will change the effectiveness of this strategy, and might even make it easier, by providing easier access to material to cherry-pick from.

  • Today as I was using the internet, I received an angry email from my aunt and uncle regarding a certain holiday postage stamp which has Arabic on it. My relatives described the stamp as offensive, unAmerican, and the reason the United States postal service is failing.

    Within seconds I used the internet to check Snopes for information on this stamp, and found an article on that exact topic. I then navigated to the site of Zazzle, the company which makes the stamp, and found that the company makes a predictable assload of Christmas stamps, as well as holiday stamps for Buddhists, Baha’i, Jews, Confucians, and members of “alternative” religions.

    I included all of this information in a reply email to my relatives, noting that there are Americans who are not only Muslim but members of many other religions, and isn’t it great that we have freedom of religious expression– all of us– in this country?

    This has been your anecdotal evidence for the day.

  • raven

    Old saying.

    The internet is where religions go to die.

    If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    I doubt the internet is a serious threat, but it probably doesn’t do the religions much good either.

  • jabes

    Anecdotally (based on personal experience and spending a lot of time in ex-mormon chat rooms), the Internet has had a great deal of influence on people leaving Mormonism in the last few years. The inconsistencies and outright falsehoods regarding the history and formation of the church are much easier to discover online, but are not discussed in church. Of course, not all people who leave Mormonism become atheist, but a fair number do, especially those who were born into the religion.

  • frog

    Whether or not the internet deconverts anyone (or at least contributes to deconversion), it has been a great thing for those of us who didn’t know any other atheists. Prior to the internet, it was hard to find people who would admit it easily. (Frex, I suspect my father was an atheist, but he didn’t talk about it, perhaps because it would annoy Mom. I’m pretty sure Dad came to it much later in life, going through the deist and agnostic phases while I was young.)

    I have found the internet very good for making me feel less alone, and deciding that being atheist can be an active rather than passive state. I’ve always been an in-your-face kind of person, but religion (or lack of it) is not a topic that comes up often.

    With the psychological support of knowing there are other atheists out there who face much more hostile environments than I do, I’ve been much more willing to be an “out” atheist, to help make our presence more commonplace. For instance, in the past I would let comments that assume everyone believes in deity go past unquestioned; now I’ll point out the bias to the speaker, because I can, and because I feel it’s important to do so. My feeling that this is important is a direct result of discovering the atheist community online.

  • cottonnero

    The end of religion won’t be the end of woo, unfortunately. People, even in mostly nonreligious Europe, still believe in spirits and horoscopes and homeopathy and elves (in Iceland, for whatever reason). There’s a deep human need to believe in nonsense. The positive part of the change from religion to other forms of nonsense is that we seem to be switching from bullshit with a power structure (say, the RCC) to bullshit essentially without one (anyone can write a horoscope). But tribalism and other mental shortcuts will be pretty hard to stamp out entirely.

    jabes #22: And a fair number of Mormons who convert tend to convert to a pretty fuzzy mainstream or megachurch Protestantism, which tends to be at least slightly better than venal and grasping Mormonism.

  • @frog in #23: on the other hand, the internet offers these same benefits to believers to find others to support each other in their convictions.

  • Paul W.


    I’m wondering, as a corollary, what might hae been the primary “cause” of the decline of religion in Europe after WWII. Clearly this was before the Internet, and information certainly didn’t flow as freely as it does now. Anybody have any thoughts?

    It happened with WWI, too, as others have noted, and the slowly-increasing trend happened before that.

    I think an often-overlooked reason that Europe has led the US in this way was the different forms of democracy.

    Parlaimentary democracy is like the Internet in terms of broadening political discourse, relative to the kind of entrenched two-party system we’ve had in the US for most of its history. “Fringe” parties can succeed and be heard, so long as they can play a part in a ruling coalition, or a powerful opposition. You can have outspoken secularists in Parlaiment, even if the religious majority would never vote for them, and many politicians can’t afford to vilify them, because they need to work with them.

    In the US, the secularization trend was much delayed, or slower to build, relative to Europe, and I suspect that has to do with the emphasis on centrism you get with a two-party system, with a consequent narrowing of political discourse, and strong secularism being outside the “Overton window” of acceptable public views.

    The secularization trend in the US was accelerating before the internet became a significant factor, and I suspect that is partly due to changes in other media, especially cable television.

    Before cable became a big deal, the majority and centrists had a huge influence on the major broadcast networks, e.g., they could keep gay characters off TV.

    Then with cable and pay channels like HBO and Showtime, the industry could and did offer a broader variety of programming, not under control of the FCC because it wasn’t broadcast on the “public airwaves.” HBO and Showtime and the Comedy Channel could tell the censors and the censorious religious types to get stuffed, and continue to cell more “liberal” and interesting fare to those who wanted to buy it—many of whom didn’t mind if their kids watched most of it too.

    (Then once the cable channels were doing it and taking market share from the Big Three networks, and WB and other broadcast networks were popping, the FCC couldn’t and others couldn’t exert as much control over the broadcast airwaves either—the broadcast networks had a good argument that if the FCC kept them from airing what people clearly wanted to watch, they’d just go out of business, and that’s not fair. Capitalism wins over censorship.)

    So now we have the “Will and Grace” generation that grew up watching unabashed gay people be gay on TV, and stuff like that, and most of them give a lot less of a fuck whether people are gay than the older generations that grew up on Leave it to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet.

    And dogmatic religion looks ever stupider, as it should.


  • While it sounds like a compelling hypothesis, the big problem is that religion was on the wane for decades, even centuries, before the internets was created. This is less true in the U.S. than in Europe, but even in the U.S. religiosity was lower by the 1990s than it was in the preceding decades.

    Secularization was recognized and named by sociologists in the 19th century. The basic idea was that science and modernity were making religious superstition and authority less believable (and I suppose democratic revolutions had something to do with it), and over time societies would become less religious as they progressed. This has mostly turned out to be true, though secularization has not been a linear process.

    That’s not to say that the internet hasn’t played a role (I think the article is spot-on about that), it’s just that it hasn’t created a new phenomenon. It’s just a contributing factor.

  • Paul W.


    @frog in #23: on the other hand, the internet offers these same benefits to believers to find others to support each other in their convictions.

    Yes. Like parlaimentary democracy, the broadening effect of the Internet means that you get more stuff you don’t like too. If the “marketplace of ideas” works right, in the long run and on average, it’s worth it.

  • Paul W.

    Area Man:

    While it sounds like a compelling hypothesis, the big problem is that religion was on the wane for decades, even centuries, before the internets was created.

    Yeah, it goes back at least to Gutenberg, who enabled the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the scientific community, by inventing the printing press.

    And before that, to the rise of shipping and trade. Religious types have been railing about those evil foreigners and their corrupting ways for millenia.

    And before that to the rise of cities, with their corrupting ways.

    Insular religious types have presumably been railing about the dangers of interacting with outsiders since religion began.

  • kantalope

    Gretchen @20: You got us to act II: the message has been sent……and?

    Will you get a response? Will they say “oh, nevermind”

    What will happen…tune in next week?

  • Paul W.


    I’m wondering, as a corollary, what might have been the primary “cause” of the decline of religion in Europe after WWII. Clearly this was before the Internet, and information certainly didn’t flow as freely as it does now. Anybody have any thoughts?

    I think that the decline of religion in Europe, especially after WWI and WWII, happened for several reasons, some of which apply in the US and some of which don’t, and the latter could explain why the decline in the US was delayed by several decades relative to Europe.

    In an important sense, I think religion has been under increasing threat in Europe since the rise of mercantilism, the invention of the printing press, and the slowly increasing success of secular science and invention, hundreds of years ago.

    With increased trade, travel and communication between nations, the ability to carry printed knowledge and share it internationally, etc., you had an international communications network that was orders of magnitude slower than the Internet, but also orders of magnitude faster than what preceded it. Considerably more people could learn what other people knew.

    A different set of factors was important in Europe that would not come into play as much in the US.

    Europe had been well settled and populated for hundreds and hundreds of years, with a feudal system. Most places, there was an aristocracy with pretty much a monopoly on education, in bed with the Church. The feudal system and the Church had coevolved, and the people in charge of government and the people in charge of the Church were usually of the same class, and often of the same powerful upper-class families. (E.g, with the first son getting the title and political power, the second son being a military officer, and the third son becoming a priest.)

    The upper classes dominating the church hierarchy and having monopoly on education was important. When scientific knowledge increased and was disseminated, it was largely among the same upper classes that the Church drew from. It was relatively hard for a lot of those upper-class people to be anti-knowledge and anti-science, because they went to the same universities, knew the same people, and in some cases were the same people. Science and secular knowledge infected the upper classes, and thus the church hierarchy, before it reached the common people. The “closed information system” was most porous at the top.

    I think that’s partly why Europe didn’t have as much “fundamentalism” as the US in the last century or two. In the Catholic Church and the established churches in Protestant countries, you had a dissemination of knowledge at the top, and a gradual modernization of world views, which then had effects on commoners top-down.

    The US was very different, because it wasn’t well settled, and as the frontier moved West, there were generally no priests or educated ministers when any given area was first settled. A preacher was just some farmer or trapper who felt called to preach, often a barely literate person with only one book—a Bible. So in most of the US, congregations grew bottom-up—and uneducated—before the population densities got high enough for the major churches of Europe (Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian) to set up shop. The Baptist and Methodist churches grew like weeds, because they didn’t require an educated priesthood, and could spread and take hold first, and by the time the educated churches got there, it was too late—most people were already members of uneducated bible-thumping churches, which didn’t take kindly to the educated city slickers from the big Eastern cities trying to steal their flocks.

    But back to Europe…

    One thing that’s different about Europe is that Europe had hundreds of years of off-and-on fighting between Catholic and Protestant churches, with the educated aristocracies running both. That led to a fair degree of cynicism about the utility of fighting over dogma, and of letting the Church have a big say in government. There were eventual reforms to keep the conflicts down to a dull roar and let the nations go about their business.

    (One side benefit of centuries of religious and nominally religious wars was that it gave cynicism ammunition. Some aristocrats could be more or less cynical about religion because they could see the sausages being made, and some commoners could be more or less cynical about religion because they could see that it was unduly under the control of people Not Like Them who kept Fucking Things Up.)

    Having those established churches also had some unintended consequences. Within each country, the Church establishment could afford to get rather fat and lazy, usually not having to compete in a marketplace and missionize within that country. Among other things you had some interaction and overlap between the aristocratic “gentleman scientists” and the educated priests—e.g., the young Charles Darwin, who considered going into the Anglican church and becoming a vicar, because it was a relatively cushy job for an educated upperclass guy, where he could continue doing his amateur science.

    Pre-Darwin, the upper classes largely bought “natural theology”—the idea that science and religion were not in conflict, because correct science would always come up with answers that were consistent with correct theology, because they were both reading from different “books” “written” by God—the book of inspired scripture, and and the book of God’s own Creation.

    You had the establishment of scientific societies like the Royal Society, and an international network of scientists, mostly aristocratic, but also relatively secular meritocratic, because they focused on the “book of creation” and what was true and worked, and mostly ignored theology.

    That let science keep growing and being an increasingly respectable upper-class thing, and being increasingly obviously successful, until it was too late. In Europe, it sowed seeds of religion’s destruction among the crucially powerful aristocracies of Europe.

    (This happened along with the rise of the “middle class” in the old European sense—not the class in the middle demographically, but the upper class of relatively rich commoners, who’d made their money by trade. Well-to-do commoners were increasingly educated and could break into the scientific community if they could do the job, and less well-to-do commoners could work for the rich amateurs, building apparatuses or collecting specimens or whatever, and break into the business that way, some becoming successful scientists in their own right.)

    World War I gave a big boost to religious cynicism in Europe, because it was a huge incredibly wasteful horror widely perceived to be the fault of the Big Boys, both the traditional aristocrats and the nouveau riche industrial class. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and wasn’t supposed to be possible, among the supposedly most civilized nations in the world, and it wasn’t clear what it had all been for.

    That made a lot of people think that the whole ruling structure of society was corrupt, and in Europe it was easy for people to include the established churches of various nations in that. (In the US, it was somewhat easier to think of religion as separate from government and from corrupt power structures,” and as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.)

    After World War I, a lot more people in Europe started taking socialism and communism more seriously, including the atheistic versions.

    Then World War II happened, which was also not supposed to happen after the world had learned its lesson from the World War (I), which was supposed to have been the War to End all Wars.

    I think it was obvious to more people in Europe than in the US that religion didn’t help much before, during, or after World War II—it was largely Christians against Christians, convinced God was on their Side and killing a lot of Jews and foreigners.

    The Nazis were generally Christians, with both Catholics and Protestants very well-represented, and their staunchest and most effective oppostion before, during, and after World War II was from explicitly atheistic communists—they were the ones who’d fought the brownshirts in the streets before Hitler took power, spoke out against him as he took and consolidated power, organized resistance after he took power, etc., not just in Germany, but in occupied Nazi-occupied France (and in Mussolini’s Italy).

    Despite Stalin’s betrayal with the non-aggression pact, the communists in various were clearly the leading antifascist faction in Europe generally.

    Americans are and were relatively ignorant of that, and Europeans less so because they saw it up close and personal—in Europe it was much harder to deny that fascism and WW II were fights between Christians of various denominations and Christians of the same or similar denominations. Christians can still murder each other and everyone else, and the opposition was very disproportionately from secular, irreligious, and even antireligious factions.

    I think that interacted with the effects of parlaimentary democracy in the Post-WWII period.

    After World War II, you couldn’t keep socialists and communists out of politics in countries with parlaimentary democracies, if they accounted for a lot of war heroes and moral exemplars—people who’d tried to prevent the fascist disaster, organized much the local resistance, etc. They’d too clearly paid their moral dues, even if they were nasty atheists—Christians didn’t have the clear moral high ground to an overwhelming majority of the populace.

    In Europe it was just too clear to too many people that Christians didn’t have a monopoly on morality in politics, and that in fact they’d embarrassed themselves relative to staunch and outspoken anti-theists—a lot of whom spoke out against religion in much more militant terms than the New Atheists now.

    Even when communists couldn’t get representation in parlaiments (or local councils or whatever), Christian socialists couldn’t generally afford to alienate atheistic communists who might vote for them in preference to a non-socialist candidate. And when communists did get elected to office, others in those bodies couldn’t afford to vilify them too much, because they needed coalition partners against the right.

    I think those two factors worked together to accelerate secularization of Europe after WWII—the communist opposition to fascism gave atheists a big foothold and moral credibility in the immediate postwar period, and the dynamics of parlaimenary democracy ensured that once they had that, they couldn’t easily be vilified or marginalized as they might have been with the centrist dynamics of the US two-party system, where people like McCarthy could use communism as a wedge issue in favor of the right.

    It was easier for secularists and atheists to be out, because they might be vilified by the religious right, but still publicly accorded basic respect by enough people toward their end of the spectrum that they couldn’t be pushed out of the Overton window.

    And IMO that helped ensure that the questions of whether religion was good, or religious beliefs were true could not be effectively hushed up, such that more and more people discussed the matter and the problems with religion became increasingly well-known.

    The cat was out of the bag, the camel’s nose was in the Overton window, and the toothpaste was not going back in the tube.

    But I could be wrong. I’m not a historian. It’s just my take from reading a variety of things.

  • Paul W.


    Gretchen @20: You got us to act II: the message has been sent……and?

    Seconded. Keep us posted.

  • Mal Adapted

    OP: “Is the Internet Destroying Religion? ”

    Mal: “If only!”

    Religion: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” (with apologies to S. Clemens).

  • I think the premise that religion si traditionally based on right belief is wrong. It’s generally ritual based. Conservative Christianity is right-belief based, btu it’s an anomoly. It will get whittled away by the process she describes, but you’ll note the Internet hasn’t hurt neo-pagans and new-agers at all.

  • kantalope and Paul W.,

    No reply as of yet….but if I receive one, I’ll post it here!

    Probably, as with the last time they sent a similar email to every blood relation in existence and I replied to it kindly pointing out that America isn’t being taken over by the Muslims, they will say nothing. But you never know.

  • D. C. Sessions

    A lot of American-centric focus on WWI and WWII as major watersheds. This rather misses the point that the French Revolution tossed the priesthood into the tumbrels along with the aristocrats. That’s an extreme case of what happens when the Church and State get too chummy and the peasants overthrow one or the other — and it predates the First World War by more than a century.

    FWIW, the same happened in Mexico (priests are explicitly forbiddent to take part in politics or government, for instance, and the civil marriage system has no role for them.) Then again, Mexico had some interesting interactions with France after the Napoleonic era.

  • Paul W.

    Ace @ 34:

    I think the premise that religion si traditionally based on right belief is wrong. It’s generally ritual based. Conservative Christianity is right-belief based, btu it’s an anomoly.

    I think this is profoundly false. Religion very generally is very much belief-based in terms of its epistemic justification, i.e., why people find it credible and thus can be earnestly religious—even if the motivations for doing it are largely social and have to do with unrelated emotional needs.

    Ritual may appeal to a lot of people, but for most of them, it loses much of its appeal if they really know that there’s no magic to it.

    Almost all religion and woo is based on belief in something like dualistic souls, even if it’s in some minimal and veiled form.

    For example, in religions without authoritative scriptures, there is generally a wisdom tradition that people find credible because they believe in “spiritual gifts” that come from having dualistic souls—gurus or senseis are generally believed to have some sort of supernatural ESP for truth or skill or wisdom, due to having especially gifted souls, or having developed latent abilities everyone has because everyone has a dualistic soul.

    Take that away, and wisdom traditions start seeming (a) less authoritative and (b) less the kind of thing you’d have specifically religious feelings about. (E.g., your feelings of awe and reverence about the Buddha might change to less religious feelings of interest and respect.)

    Both religion and woo thrive because they share an ontology—that is, a set of beliefs about the basic kinds of that exist.

    Modern science is the mortal enemy of both, not because it shows that gods don’t exist, but because it shows that souls don’t exist in any sense that is useful for having a religion. There’s no afterlife, there’s no astral plane, there’s no Chi or Karma or Fate or Luck, and there’s no way the life force or force of your mind can make chiropractic or homeopathy work. And understanding of scientific materialism and the evidence for it undermines all of those things.

    All popular forms of religion and all major forms of woo are based on the same false premises of dualism or something like it.

    That is why science should eventually more or less destroy “spiritual” nonsense and most pseudoscience, once it more or less destroys religion.

    Not that I expect it in my lifetime. 🙁

  • abb3w

    Poking the GSS 2006-2010 turns up some… odd results.

    If it were true, one would expect that young people who have an internet connection in the home would be more likely to be irreligious than those without one; however, the Boomer-plus trend (via average linearized RELITEN on COHORT recoded to decades versus INTRHOME, 2006-2010) is the other way.

    On the other hand, among people who do have the Internet at home, within generational (decade) COHORT average hours-per-week of internet use (WWWHR) mostly tends to be higher among the less religious (RELITEN, recoded), which is as would be expected. The exception being (the few over-18 sampled) 1990s babies — possibly college-age religious spending more than a little time challenging the godless on various on-line forums, but possibly just an artifact of the minute sample.

    The GSS-2012 data (due out circa April) may shed a little more light, with luck.

  • Paul W.

    D.C. Sessions:

    You are quite right, and that’s the kind of stuff I was talking about when I briefly talked about Europe’s religious institutions being intertwined with aristocratic power structures, and that and a history of religious wars engendering a lot of cynicism. I should have put that in much stronger terms—not just cynicism, but substantial outright antireligion and even more anticlericalism, including literally militant manifestations, sometimes leading to reforms. My understanding is that the weakening of church/state entanglement in European countries with established religions was partly a response to such things, as well as the bloody history of Catholic vs. Protestant zealotry—better to back off of all those things than to have it blow up in the power structure’s face. (The Communist revolution in Russia also served as a negative example leading to reforms elsewhere.)

    Compared to that, the more recent secularization of European democracies is a velvet revolution. (And the earlier anticlericalism helped set the stage.)

    The US does not have that kind of tradition of anticlericalism and antireligion, IMO partly because we do have a tradition of church-state separation from the “start.” (Our “starting” conditions were very different in other ways, too.)

  • Result so far: One reply from a cousin I haven’t seen or heard from in years saying thanks for the email, and a reply from my brother saying “I was very tempted to ‘reply to all’ on this e-mail, but didn’t. Right on, G!”


  • Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    I’m wondering, as a corollary, what might hae been the primary “cause” of the decline of religion in Europe after WWII. – TGAP Dad

    Primarily, the welfare state. The rudiments of this go back to the 19th century, but it was post-WWII governments that brought it health care and education free at the point of delivery, pensions and sickness and unemployment benefits a person could live on, etc. This wasn’t wholly absent in the USA, but much less developed than in western Europe, Canada and Australasia – in all of which , religion has declined faster than in the USA.

  • Paul W.

    Nick Gott@41,

    I’ve wondered for a long time how much the observed correlation between religiosity and economic insecurity (within societies) is due to (relative) economic insecurity making people more religious, and how much the causality goes the other way.

    From my (limited) reading on the subject, it seems that the hypothesis that insecurity makes people more religious is acceptable, but the idea that religiosity causes economic insecurity is generally dismissed out of hand, usually without comment. It’s just not on the table, and I have to wonder if that’s religious privilege at work. It’s bad enough to point out the statistically obvious—that religiosity is positively correlated with social justice—but it’s beyond the pale to think that religion actually causes social injustice, and less bad to think that people seek religion because it’s good for them when things are bad.

    (My understanding is that a lot of the people who work in the sociology of religion and related subjects go into those because they are themselves religious, and I suspect they bring a pro-religious bias with them.)

    I suspect that religion can cause social injustice, in practice, in several ways, and its net effects may be significantly detrimental.

    One way I think that works in the US is that more religious people are more likely to believe in the virtue of individual charity, that it’s largely a matter of being right with God, and that a really good way to do that is to contribute money to your church, or to a church-run charity. Less religious people are more likely to see social justice issues as secular issues of social duty, and to favor social safety nets and higher and more progressive taxes.

    IMO, the former doesn’t work very well, and the latter works better. Religious people are more likely to donate to charity, but they are most likely to donate to the most wasteful charities—churches and badly church-run charities. Charity just doesn’t come close to cutting it when what you need is basic social justice.

    More generally, I have to wonder if more secular people are more likely to apply relatively straightforward secular morality, in a fairly Utilitarian way, and do what actually works rather than what’s “the right thing to do” in some weird sense that doesn’t work out.

    In pre-20th century history it seems to me that religion has generally coevolved with to validate the unfair status quo, making a mockery of its pretense to be moral and beneficial—or just provide a sideshow that distracts from the real issues.

    That seems to me to be true of the US over the last 70 years or so, in a disastrous way. The religious right helps the Republicans keep “liberals” from doing evil stuff like raising taxes on rich people,

    It seems like a good question, anyhow—which is the chicken and which is the egg?

    My being unconvinced that the causality all goes one way is one of the reasons I’m skeptical that the economic injustice explanation is sufficient, or what social progress is evidence for.

    In the case of postwar Europe, it seems plausible to me that both sorts of causality were at play, in some relatively concrete and visible ways. Because of the disastrous history of religion in government in Europe, Europeans were more likely to be skeptical that dogma was of much use in practical government, and to approach social problems in a functionally atheistic way. More were also likely to actually be atheistic or heterodox, and able to say so publicly because of the history of antifascism and the dynamics of parlaimentary democracies, making the kind of religious atheist-baiting political sideshow we have in the US less feasible for the religious kooks. So people talked about more or less real issues more often, and did more reasonable things on average—because dogmatic religion had been sidelined and secular, humanistic reasoning could do its job.

    I don’t know how to separate and quantify any of these effects, though, or convince anyone of this. (Even myself.)

  • Paul W.

    Ahem. Gotts, not Gott. Sorry.

  • Pseudonym

    By Bettridge’s Law of Headlines, the answer to the question is “no”.

    History also tells us that the answer is “no”. Yes, religions relying on orthodoxy (as opposed to, say orthopraxy) are challenged, and possibly also made obsolete, by the Internet. Those religions have never been the only kids on the block. Besides, they were also challenged by the printing press and increased literacy. What actually happened was that religion changed to suit the times, as it always has done and always will do.

    If you define the medieval Catholicism as “traditional religion”, then traditional religion was destroyed some 400-500 years ago. But if you did that, nothing that came before it or after it would be “traditional religion”.

    The Internet is also enabling other forms (including some new forms) of religion which previously would have been underground, because on the Internet, there’s a critical mass of everything.

    By the way, church attendance is also down because of increasing work demands eating into family time, and an increasing feeling that church attendance just isn’t as important as other things. Remember the whole Jeremiah Wright thing? Obama never admitted the most likely reason why he didn’t know that Wright said all that: he most likely hadn’t actually attended church in a while. Nonetheless, religion is not on the decline in the Obama family.

  • TCC

    When I came out as an atheist to my mom, one of the first things she told me is that she wished she could rip the Internet out of my house. It’s a silly thought, but the Internet did expose me to people and ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise known, and here I am today. It doesn’t look like I’m alone in this, either, although I don’t know how widespread that trend might be.

  • Paul W.

    Nick @ 41 et al.

    I belatedly remembered a major reason I came to be very skeptical of the IMO trendy idea that economic security (e.g. welfare states) is what mainly drives secularism, and insecurity is what mainly motivates people to religiosity.

    AIUI and IIRC, the data don’t really bear it out. It sounds very good if you just look at really coarse-grained statistics, but not nearly so good if you look at finer-grained ones.

    At a national level, there is a pretty strong negative correlation between measures of economic justice (like the income disparities) and religiosity. More egalitarian countries (e.g., with a smaller gap in wealth between top and bottom quartiles, universal health care, etc.) are less religious than countries where the rich are very rich and most people lots poorer. (Total or average wealth or income of a nation is not nearly as good a predictor of religiosity—what seems to matter is relative wealth within a society, and whether most people feel reasonably well off by that standard.)

    Superficially, that supports the thesis that the US lags other developed nations in secularization because it lags others in social justice. Our relative income distribution looks more like that of many undeveloped nations than most developed Western democracies (and Japan).

    Many sociologists these days interpret that as support for the idea that religiosity is driven by fear in some sense(s)… people turn to religion for psychological comfort and practical support when they need consolation or help—that is, religion is good for people who need it, but people who don’t need it as much don’t bother.

    That’s a very convenient and palatable conclusion for many people in the field, who are religious themselves.

    But if it were true in the very strong and simple sense they suggest, you’d expect it to show up clearly in finer-grained analyses, by cohorts and decades within a country—when things get worse for most people relative to the rich, more of those people would turn to religion at about that time.

    If it were a matter of individuals becoming more religious under economic stress, you’d clearly see the religiosity within age cohorts track measures of economic injustice—and you don’t. After something like age 25, religiosity of cohorts is pretty stable.

    If it were a matter of formative periods—e.g., conditions that determine people’s religiosity as kids and young adults, after which it’s stable—you’d see strong cohort effects, with different cohorts religiosity reflecting the economic conditions under which they grew up or came of age—and you don’t see much of that either.

    Secularization has apparently continued pretty steadily through good times and bad, increasing social security or dismantling of the welfare state. Every generation is significantly less religious than the previous one, with its religiosity being fairly stable after that. People are failing to transmit their religiosity to their kids reliably, whether their kids are better off than them, or worse off. And when they fail, the kids usually become less religious, rather than more religiosity rather than just different.

    That suggests to me that economic welfare isn’t determinative, and there’s a more important epistemic issue—why are people in every generation failing to transmit their religiosity to their kids? Why, when that happens, do they tend to become less religious?

    I think some older ideas about secularization are more consistent with new data, and trends that have recently become clearer—e.g., that open societies with pluralism and free information flows between groups erode the insularity that religion needs to thrive.

    One fine-grained piece of data along those lines is data about kids from mixed marriages. Kids of parents with similar and similarly strong religious beliefs are most likely to have similar beliefs when they grow up. Kids from mixed marriages are considerably more likely to be less religious than their parents.

    That suggests to me that information flows are likely more important than economics per se, and that at least one major driving factor in secularization is substantial exposure to conflicting religious views.

    If that’s right, the correlation between economic factors and irreligiosity may not be mostly a matter of driving motivations such as fear, or practical necessities like needing supportive social networks to find help when needed. It may be mainly a matter of whether most people are literate and exposed to information from people unlike them.

    In which case, the Internet may more or less “destroy” religion—not completely, but well enough to marginalize it.

    Not because it’s qualitatively different from previous technologies, like books, newspapers, and cable TV, but because it makes it quantitatively even harder for religion to maintain its insularity and its critical mass of self-sustaining ignorance. Religiosity was already eroding, and now it should erode faster.

    In the face of dynamics like that, we should not trust “history” in any simple way—e.g., cynically saying that because announcements of the imminent death of religion have always been wrong before, they’re probably wrong now, too.

    That would be like saying in the 1880s that humans would never fly, because they’d always failed before. If you understood the most basic mechanics of flight and technological trends, you should have known better. The practicability of flying depends mainly on power-to-weight ratios of engines, and those had been inexorably increasing for some time, with no obvious end in sight—if those trends continued long enough, it was pretty much inevitable that people would fly.