The Internet Is Not Killing Religion

There have been a lot of posts about a recent study which showed a correlation between increasing internet use and decreasing religiosity. Some of them have headlines about “the internet killing religion.”

It is worth asking some hard questions: If religion can be eliminated by the internet, what was it, and is it something worth keeping?

The truth is, however, that it is not at all clear that the internet is killing religion, and quite clear that the internet is not killing what we could broadly call spirituality.

Elizabeth Drescher recently looked at this subject, and asked the particularly relevant question of why people were religiously affiliated to begin with. Often, it was about community more than anything else. And to the extent that communities have shifted online, that would suggest that religion has been relocated rather than been eliminated by the internet.

Part of the problem is that some of us relatively older people see someone texting, ignoring those around them, and we perceive a breakdown of community. But the person who is texting is texting precisely because technology means they can connect with those who are truly important to them, irrespective of distance, rather than settling for whoever happens to be around them.

A generational gap may be the heart of the matter. Scot McKnight shared some research indicating that young adults have always tended to be less religious, and also to tend to find their way to faith communities as adults. Whether that patterns from the past will continue is anyone’s guest, but the pattern is definitely there. Allan Bevere offered some further thoughts from a mainline perspective. And Dominic Preziosi quipped that “there’s been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there’s been organized religion.”

Tom Ehrich’s article also includes a lot of insight. Asked whether faith is in decline in America, he replied, “No, by all measures I’ve seen, Americans are as faith-filled, faith-interested or faith-seeking as ever. What people are losing is a desire to sit in a pew on Sunday morning.” And asked what the internet is doing for religion, he replied:

Saving religion’s bacon. The Internet is providing new tools for creative faith leaders to use. Blogs, e-letters, social media posts, videos, data management, Web conferencing, mobile apps — radically affordable, familiar to constituents, trusted and relatively easy to learn. They are making it possible for churches to reach people with an immediacy and intensity that they didn’t have before.

The problem is that, whereas key Christians embraced the printing press, some seem more reluctant to follow the latest technological changes where they are leading. As Scot McKnight notes, many churches seem locked into the framework of Christendom. Ironically, the pluralistic situation that churches now find themselves in is in some ways more like the setting in which Christianity first emerged.

The internet certainly does expose people to alternative viewpoints and information that may be at odds with what they have heard. But if anyone thinks either that that is unprecedented, or that the internet guarantees that people will encounter arguments that challenge their views effectively, they are incredibly naive.

Religion – or at least spirituality – is thriving, despite what you may have heard. But unless traditional congregations and buildings can connect to where and how it is thriving, they may be left behind and become obsolete during this cultural and technological shift.

If that happens, it will not have been something inevitable, but a serious missed opportunity.

Of related interest, Chaplain Mike blogged about why church is not where people go to “find God.” Allan Bevere blogged about why churchless Christianity doesn’t work. Ann Fontaine asked what will happen if your church never gets another member. At Jesus Creed, there were two posts about whether the best alternative to bad religion is good religion or no religion. See also a post on a progressive Christian’s conversation with his conservative Christian mother.

Finally, here are two images I came across online recently, for you to consider side by side…

One claims that “religions” die on the internet. The other suggests that people are making connections online which they have historically made in religious congregations. Can both be true? Or does it suggest that, while the internet may be supplanting the traditional form of religious communities, the shift online is anything but a death?

  • http://athenasantics.wordpress.com/ AthenaC

    It’s much easier / more likely to have one’s religious beliefs challenged on the internet, certainly. And to the extent that the socialization that people used to get from church has changed to socialization on the internet, those same people that might have been complacent (and religious) in an earlier time period are now in a position to ask themselves, “What do I REALLY believe?” and act accordingly.

    Speaking as a Catholic who grew up getting the Baltimore Catechism dumped into my head, the old model of religious education isn’t sufficient. It’s not enough to only teach WHAT we believe; we need to teach WHY we believe it. Now, we should have been teaching the “why” all along, but we were able to get away with it before the internet and the increase availability of information.

    So blaming the internet is really the wrong way to look at it. The internet merely exposed a weakness that was already there.

    • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

      We could easily hypothesise that the internet gives people easy access to religious propaganda, which actually encourages religious affiliation. (Still, I like your points haha. The effects might just cancel each other out …)

      A more sensible explanation seems to be that the growth of secularism simply coincides with the growth of internet use.

      While it is true that technology tends to help things along, attributing any direct causal relationship to it seems largely misguided. (Well, you said this already haha.)

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

    Reading through the blog post, one simple idea kept ringing in my mind:

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    It feels quite pointless trying to argue about internet and religious affiliation just because of some logical fallacy, because the causative relationship between religious affiliation and internet use seems really remote.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop us from exploring how internet use could possibly influence religious affiliation.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This bit of satire gets at one dangerous example of assuming that correlation implies causation: http://persephonemagazine.com/2014/04/i-will-not-follow-the-herd/

      • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

        That kinda scares me a little, especially because I see this kind of reasoning all over the internet! (And offline too, actually.)

        Thanks so much for sharing. Actually, I think my own brother needs to see this.

        (On a related note, my recent reflections on epistemology led me to realise the ground-breaking significance of Bayesian theory as the modern gold-standard for rationality.)

      • Guest

        Thanks so much for sharing. Actually, I think my own brother needs to see this.

        • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

          Deletion failed and somehow appeared as an anonymous comment …

  • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

    So, Patheos.com. “the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality … the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information about religion” runs a story that claims the Internet really isn’t killing religion.
    Does anyone else see a self-serving motive for Patheos running this story?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This is a personal blog on the Patheos site. And so in what sense is “Patheos running this story”?

      • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro
        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          That is just a link back to my blog post. Was your point that someone who blogs at Patheos might be expected to have the point of view that I do?

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Actually my point was the link itself.

            patheos > blog > exploring your matrix

            Sorry if that was too obtuse, but according to its web address, isn’t this site hosted by Pathoes?
            And wouldn’t the self-described “premier online destination … in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality” have a vested interest in this article’s premise?

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              The way you worded your comment, you made it sound as though Patheos had selected this post for circulation or distribution, rather than being something that I wrote and posted on the blog. Since Patheos will be hosting a discussion of religion and the internet in the near future, I do hope that they’ll include mine in any round-up they make of blogging on the topic. But that hasn’t happened yet, and yet it seemed to be what you were envisaging.

              • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

                Perhaps the best response would have been to admit that you were indeed privy to a Patheos conspiracy, and then let readers interpret it whichever way they want :D

            • Jon Fermin

              if they did it would be completely cancelled out by the atheist Patheos pages that ran a story a day ago saying the internet was doing exactly the opposite. since Patheos (the hosting organization) itself does not itself adhere officially to any religious creed or rejection thereof, the only interest it has as a company is getting people to talk about the subject, not taking sides in it.

              • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

                By Pathoes having a “vested interest in this article’s premise” I was referring to the ads on this page.

          • R Vogel

            He’s trying to catch you in an infinite loop, be careful!!

    • Kathy K-m

      Considering they use atheist blogs, who say the opposite? No, I don’t.

      • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

        Atheism is the “opposite” of religion, or the lack thereof?

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

    Um, I feel like I’ve commented too much on this already, but I think we might as well say that the growth of Scientific (technological) knowledge is the cause of both the growth of internet use and the growth of secularism, especially because of the “God of the gaps” view that is common amongst religious folk.

    In summary, growth in Science + “God of the gaps” = reduced religious affiliation, and at the same time, growth in Science = growth in internet use.

    Again, correlation does not imply causation …

    • R Vogel

      Because ‘scientific knowledge’ has only been around for a couple of decades now?

      • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

        Not quite sure what your point is. An elaboration would be nice.

    • Kathy K-m

      I don’t think increased scientific knowledge has much to do with it.
      Those of us who have been around long enough, have seen science get bogged down in it’s own errors and vanities, to, believe everything it says. May I refer you to Piltdown Man or the “Dinosaur Heresies”?
      Yes, science is capable of correcting itself, but sometimes not without quite the battle.
      So religion corrects itself, or we’d all be living in multiple wife marriages, keeping slaves and using stoning as punishment.
      But science and religion are not, and never have been, incompatible. Religion is philosophy and ethics. Science doesn’t even attempt to cover that (rightfully so. Science is amoral)
      Let me ask? Who do YOU credit with discovering the Big Bang? I’m guessing Einstein or Hawking.
      The truth is, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest. Science was certainly not at odds with HIS faith.
      And btw, I say this as an agnostic atheist.

      • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

        Actually, I pretty much agree with your points here. Religion deals with the metaphysical world, while Science deals with the physical world.

        My argument was in fact that science should not have anything to do with it, but in reality it does have a lot to do with it, precisely because a large proportion of religious folk don’t understand the distinction between physics and metaphysics.

  • wild

    i bet there is also a correlation between internet dissemination and the amount of ppl. who think that lizards (or satanist freemasons or the iluminati in cahoots with the jesuits) rule the earth.

    • Kathy K-m

      Your forgot the anti-vaccination, anti-GMO nuts. :-)

  • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

    “… while the internet may be supplanting the traditional form of religious communities, the shift online is anything but a death” reminds me of the televangelist who once said that his TV ministry can’t bury your dead.
    Or give you Communion.

  • http://selfawarepatterns.com/ SelfAwarePatterns

    I used to think the internet was killing religion since it was the main factor that led to my non-belief. But now I lean more toward prosperity, or perhaps more accurately, the growing lack of existential anxiety. Religion is highest in Sub-Saharan Africa and lowest in rich countries like Sweden and Japan. The US is an outlier, but apparently less so every year. Barring some economic calamity, it will likely continue in that direction.

    Of course, if you’re a believer, this prosperity / security link only means that a life of comfort actually separates you from what is truly important.

    I have some sympathy to the idea that what is dying is not religion, but old religion, and that it will eventually be replaced by something that anthropologically functions similar to religion, but considers itself post-religious.

    • Kathy K-m

      I think you may be correct. When one lives a dreadful life, of miserable poverty and early death, of you or your children, I imagine “heaven” must seem pretty good.
      For those of us who have our creature comforts more than met, what’s heaven going to offer? A pool or nicer car?
      We must admit, atheism provides no moral code, nor does science.
      Even I, as an atheist, have no problem accepting some of the ideas for social living, even 3,000 years ago, still have some validity. I can also recognize the ones that make no damned sense, NOW, and reject them accordingly.

  • Jon Fermin

    I don’t always agree with you Dr. McGrath, but I like to give credit where credit is due. the internet is a lot larger than 4Chan, Reddit, and the atheist section of Patheos, and Atheists need to realize their surfing habits place them in as much of an informational bubble as anyone else. the internet with its global reach and ability to foster communities of dialogue can strengthen and support religion.

    Permit me though one small quibble. I don’t think that the brick and mortar churches are going to go away any time soon. there will always be a need for the physical aspects of the religious experience. a website will not visit the sick and dying in the hospital, bury the dead, offer communion, baptize, or officiate a wedding. I would not trust it to hear my confessions in confidence, and internet ordinations are a joke. as much as I like internet communities, they will not replace the brother or sister in the pew who joins me in communal worship, both in body and soul. I have seen online communities try and fail because they cannot replicate this, and because of this, there will always be a need for the brick and mortar church. the internet’s best course is then to support, rather than try and tear it down.

  • Zarquon5

    Where would the Internet be without computer genius Alan Turing? Who worked at Bletchly Park, helped us win WWII much faster and who, in the spirit of Christian harmony and enlightenment, was hounded into an early grave by his ungrateful fellow-citizens for being a homosexual…

  • Logan GLT

    Perhaps a similar question that could be asked around this topic is: Has the Internet contributed to or been a significant factor in an increase in those who consider themselves atheists? My 3 sons would answer with a resounding “YES”. I became a Christian 34 years ago, and attended Liberty University, and I was devastated when my oldest son was the first to declare his atheism (which I wrote about here: http://lifeafter40.net/2014/04/20/my-son-told-me-hes-an-atheist/). But all 3 of my sons indicated that information and dialogue that they found on the Internet was a major factor in their journey.


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