Study Says the Internet Makes People Less Religious and Less Dogmatic

We’ve been hearing a lot about the rise of the “Nones” — an increase in people who don’t affiliate with any particular religion — and now we are learning more about why it’s happening. A new study shows the internet not only creates more Nones, but also makes people who are religious less likely to become fundamentalists.

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The internet, says the study’s author, “is associated with increases in being religiously unaffiliated and decreases in religious exclusivism.”

At the same time, I find that television viewing is linked to decreases in religious attendance and other time-related religious activities, but these outcomes are not impacted by Internet use. To explain these disparate findings, I argue that the Internet is fundamentally different from previous technologies like television and thus impacts religious beliefs and belonging but not time-related religious activities.

This is pretty big news. If it’s true, it means that the internet isn’t just making information more widely available; it’s actually changing the way people think about these issues. It may be intuitive to many, but it’s still fascinating to see the reasoning behind it.

The new research, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, was conducted by Paul K. McClure, a doctoral student in sociology at Baylor University in Texas. He was inspired by earlier studies on the internet and the rise of the “Nones,” according to Gizmodo.

He found that a person’s greater internet use, even after accounting for factors like age, education, and political affiliation, was correlated with a higher likelihood they would endorse statements like, “All of the religions in the world are equally true,” and “All around the world, no matter what religion they call themselves, people worship the same God.” Being younger, identifying as a Democrat, and living in a larger city was also associated with being less religiously exclusive.

“I [also] found that increases in Internet use were associated with decreases in religious affiliation of any kind,” McClure told me in an email. “Of course, one can refuse to be affiliated with religion and still believe in God or a higher power of some sort, but there is obviously a lot of overlap between non-affiliation and atheism.”

Again, this might not seem like a major discovery, but there are a lot of competing ideas about how the internet affects beliefs. It’s certainly expanded the reach of religious leaders and their beliefs. Because of that, many people think the internet has polarized individuals with different backgrounds and positions, creating a more partisan environment (and a rise of extremism). While that certainly happens with religion to a certain extent, it seems the bigger effect is a reduced fundamentalism and less interest in organized religion in general.

Instead, McClure speculates the internet has incidentally exposed people to all sorts of philosophical ideas and beliefs. That exposure, in turn, has guided us into becoming either religious “tinkerers” who pick and choose the bits we like or those who simply leave the religion box unchecked.

This effect, if it’s real, has been largely subtle for most of us, it seems.

While cherry-picking religion may be intellectually inconsistent, I would much rather a person pick and choose the best parts of various faiths than to follow one with bad ideas at face value. This effect also means more and more people are dropping religion altogether, realizing that none of them have all (or any of) the answers, and perhaps starting their path toward full-fledged atheism.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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