How internet porn explains the decline of American faith

Since the early 1990s, there has been a significant uptick in Americans abandoning their faith. After crunching the numbers, one researcher says contributing factors such as upbringing and education only explain part of the increase. What about the rest?

After controlling for variables like income, environment, and so on, computer scientist Allen Downey of Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts found 25 percent of the decline can be correlated with Internet access. More Web, less faith.

Why? Here’s Downey’s stab at an answer: “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally.” So increased exposure leads to doubt, disagreement, disenchantment, and ultimately to discarding your faith.

Maybe, but I don’t buy it. Downey’s answer plays off the modernist prejudice that equates religion and ignorance. That’s false on its face. But once we consider the Internet as a factor at all, there’s a far more obvious answer than wider horizons: porn.

Porn has been part of the Web from day one. And the stats for online consumption are staggering, even among Christians.

Disaffiliation should come as no surprise. We’ve already seen that porn makes prayer and beneficial contemplation impossible. Given the Christian understanding of the spiritual life, we’re not capable of simultaneously pursuing our lusts and sanctification. Such a pursuit causes internal dissonance, and the only resolution involves eventually conceding to the pull of one or the other. (I’ve talked about that before here.)

Personal testimony adds to the picture. In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkin discusses his battle with sexual sin and its effect on his state of belief. The deeper he got the further away he felt from God.

I often screamed at God, banging on the steering wheel and begging him to relieve me of this terrible wickedness, to take the urge away, but the heavens were silent. After a while, I started wondering whether God was listening, whether he cared about me anymore, or whether he even existed at all.

On the flip side, as Larkin turned from lust, his faith returned. “I came to believe the gospel a little more,” he says. “The most powerful proof of God’s existence was the transformation that was taking place in my character.”

Faith is obedience, and obedience is faith.

If the rise of the internet has anything to do with a loss of faith — and it’s an interesting thought — the role of ideas is likely minimal. Arguments don’t cool many hearts, but sin surely does.

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About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://allendowney.blogspot.com/ Allen Downey

    Hi Joel. Thanks for your interest in my article. Your theory is interesting and, as it turns out, testable! The GSS asked about the use of sexually explicit material. Granted, people might not report honestly, but I could try adding the responses as an explanatory variable. It will be a while before I find the time, but I’ll let you know what I find.

  • http://arnizach.wordpress.com/ Arni Zachariassen

    Really interesting hypothesis, Joel! It makes sense to me, especially in relation to religious *affiliation*, which is what being a none is all about. Most none believe in God, a higher power, or whatever, but they have a difficult time belonging to any specific religious group. The cognitive and emotional dissonance that is stirred up in a porn-watching Christian can plausibly reverberate socially. The shame might keep people away from church with its worship, or the experience of being a “fake” or a “hypocrite” might disincline someone from meeting with people who (appear to) have it all figured out.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Exactly. We’ll see if any of that can be corroborated by Allen Downey in future research.

      • http://arnizach.wordpress.com/ Arni Zachariassen

        I posted this, along with my thoughts, on Facebook and one friend brought up gender. If porn is a significant factor in people becoming nones, you’d expect to see more men represented than women. None-dom is most likely the result of many different factors, but it should be straight forward to tease out the porn effect.

    • Balin

      Is it possible that porn watching Christians don’t feel fake or like hypocrites but rather feel alienated and isolated? The other six deadly sins get talked about and Christians share their difficulties with them but not lust. I’ve sat amongst many Christians who are eager to share how prideful, angry, gluttonous, et al they are and how hard they work on these sins in their lives but I’ve never heard anyone volunteer similar difficulties with lust. I once asked a group that was sharing their experiences with six of the seven deadly sins if maybe Christians were being too hard on people who lust when there are after all seven deadly sins not just one. I was asked in return if I was implying that we should water down the seriousness of lust. I replied that I was actually asking that we treat the other six as serious as we do lust. After a moment of blank stares it was back to business as usual. Maybe it’s not the shame they feel as sinners but the shame imposed upon them by other sinners who do not impose the same shame upon themselves. Maybe if Christians didn’t give off the fake appearance that they have this particular sin all figured out and that this sin is worse than all the other six deadly sins combined porn watching Christians might not feel so isolated and alienated and return to the church. Maybe.

      • Joel J. Miller

        Two thoughts. The first is that sins are related. When Dante envisioned the seven deadly sins as consecutive ledges rising on a mountain, he placed lust at the top — the last sin to be purged. Before it were gluttony and greed. All three are examples of excessive, disordered love. The relationship between them is made all the more clear in Lent because during this season Christians traditionally fasted, refrained from sex, and gave alms. The desire behind such restraint involves reordering the passions.

        It’s also interesting to note that Dante placed pride, envy, and anger at the bottom of the mountain. These are examples not of excessive love, but of perverted love. And that relates to the second thought, captured in this quote from the Serbian saint Nikolai Velimirovic:

        “He who has no patience with us when we sin does not love us. Neither does he love us who does not forgive us when we repent of our sin. And he loves us least of all who does not rejoice at our improvement. Patience, forgiveness and joy are the three greatest characteristics of divine love. They are characteristic of all real love – if there is such a thing as real love outside of divine love. Without these three characteristics, love is not love.”

        If believers’ lack of patience, forgiveness, and joy is driving people who struggle with lust away, then aren’t we seeing Christians with more highly disordered passions drive out those with less disordered passions? Unlike lust, pride is delusionary. If you struggle with lust, you at least know it. If you struggle with pride, you might think you’re on the side of the angels while you’re busy driving away your brothers and sisters.

      • http://overcoming-lust.com JVanderSpek

        Many Christians lack a proper understanding of lust. They think that it is OK as long as it is not acted out by means of pornography or illicit sex. Instead of holding themselves to the standard that Jesus taught, they use the world’s standard. That standard is not pleasing to God and will not lead to joy and peace. http://www.overcoming-lust.com/articles/understanding-lust/

  • charles.hoffman.cpa

    correlation does not equal causation

    • Joel J. Miller

      Of course not, but don’t let a fact become a cliche. Porn as porn causes nothing. Porn just might correlate with loss of faith. The post is trying to explain the process inside the person’s soul. Stats can’t do that. I’m just trying to make sense of the numbers.

      And I might be wrong, though I don’t think so.

  • polistra24

    I doubt the direction of causation. Historically, people have sought abstract forms of “community” when real human community has failed their needs. Before the net, abstract community meant seeking refuge in literature or art.

    This rule applies to the community of a Church, and it applies to human sex and affection. If real human connection is not available for whatever reason (rural isolation, rejection, introversion) then abstract connection takes its place.

  • Nabukuduriuzhur

    In researching National Wave of Foolishness, I found out that the porn industry keeps statistics. 51% of visual porn is purchased by women. Of those, mostly by GenX women specifically. Add in text type porn, such as women’s magazines, and “romance” novels, and the absolute majority of porn is purchase by women born from 1965-1983.

    And this was the generation that is 80% male among believers.

    Coincidence?

  • hannah anderson

    Really appreciate you opening this angle of discussion. One thing’s certain: both porn use and lack of religious affiliation are tied to individualism and the isolating of oneself from relationship. Human beings are far too complicated to for us to definitively say which causes what, but there is certainly a piling on effect. As we retreat further and further from community, we become less and less capable of battling sin; and the less we battle sin, the less appealing community becomes.

  • 013090

    “Downey’s answer plays off the modernist prejudice that equates religion and ignorance.”

    How so? I don’t see any evidence that he is equating them. He isn’t equating them, but simply stating the fact that one is less likely to fully accept their cultures traditional beliefs if they are exposed to other belief systems. This is something we have seen throughout all of human history.

    This doesn’t say that it is ignorant to have beliefs in a religion or something supernatural. It simply means that many are becoming ‘nones’ because they no longer feel comfortable describing themselves as any one religion since there is a far greater competition of ideas in our increasingly globalized world (the recent primary driver being the internet), and polls show most ‘nones’ are still theists.

  • http://overcoming-lust.com JVanderSpek

    Your comment about Nate Larkin is important and not explained often enough. Without overcoming lust, the battle with porn will not succeed.

    Jim Vander Spek
    http://www.overcoming-lust.com/

  • Nathan100

    Joel,

    Hello there. I frequent Gene Veith’s blog, but found yours because of this interesting topic. I think you are right on – especially pointing to porn – but things go deeper yet.

    Getting concrete about the effects that information technology *can*
    (in need not have these effects on certain individuals) have on us, I offer the following four things as food for thought, from
    part 7 of my open source paper available here:
    http://eprints.rclis.org/22750/
    (this is a paper that I recently gave at
    a library technology conference, the slides for the presentation, “Big
    Data, Big Libraries, Big Problems?” can be found on SlideShare as well):

    1) information technology tempts us to overly
    simplify everything

    2) information technology tempts us to push real
    costs on to everyone else

    3) information technology tempts us to be more
    self-centered and to increasingly “commodify” the world

    4) information technology tempts us to forget how
    to do traditional yet valuable tasks – and tempts us to avoid
    attention-developing practices in general

    What connection might this have with religion? The church has always said
    “lex orendi, lex credendi”, which basically means the law of prayer
    affects the law of belief, or practice impacts belief. I suggest that
    many of us realize that those four things above are true, and that to
    some degree, we feel ourselves implicated because of it. Guilt. That
    said, we love the benefits we feel too much too stop. As such, we
    subconsciously move away from God, and slowly find ourselves more
    estranged from him, even as the surprisingly alluring mechanical muse of
    information tech – which we love and hate – lures us ever closer.

  • Laotuz

    HAHAHAHA! This has got to be one of the stupidest things on the internet. And that’s saying a lot.

  • smithkl42

    Nobody’s pointed this out yet, but your thesis may find some support in a correlation noted by Mark Regnerus, that men who watch a great deal of pornography are significantly more likely to support same sex marriage. See http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/12/7048/. I don’t know if this correlation has ever been worked up into a peer-reviewed article, but see this quote:

    “But of the men who view pornographic material “every day or almost every day,” 54 percent “strongly agreed” that gay and lesbian marriage should be legal, compared with around 13 percent of those whose porn-use patterns were either monthly or less often than that. Statistical tests confirmed that porn use is a (very) significant predictor of men’s support for same-sex marriage, even after controlling for other obvious factors that might influence one’s perspective, such as political affiliation, religiosity, marital status, age, education, and sexual orientation.”

  • Norman & Carol

    I would suggest that obesity is a bigger cause of the decline of faith than porn. Obesity has some of the same heart issues as porn. Porn gets the rap because it is a dirty little secret. Most of us are obese, so we don’t want to see that as a cause, it comes to close to home. When have you last heard a sermon series on obesity? If you say it is porn, you eliminate the female population from the equation pretty much, which doesn’t make much sense to me. Besides correlation does not establish causality, so I would question this anyway. But if I had to choose between porn and obesity as a cause of religious decline, it would be obesity.

    • leilaleis

      I know plenty of women who like porn, but they tend to use different types of it. I should also add that I find nothing wrong with porn (gasp lol).

      I don’t believe that porn has anything to do with the decline of religiosity. Religion started to decline in Europe in the 1950s for reasons that had nothing to do with porn or the internet; we’re a just a few decades behind them.

      As far as obesity…I’m not sure why Christians and Muslims are so obsessed with sex. Gluttony is also a sin. It’s just not as sexy as porn.

  • Sven2547

    Amid all this correlation/causation theory-crafting, did you bother to ask anybody who converted from a religious affiliation to “unaffiliated” about whether the internet played a role in that process, and what that role was? Anybody at all?

    I get that it’s convenient to blame “sin” for the Information Age flight from organized religion, as well as to downplay the role of dialogue and the free exchange of ideas. But an honest effort to find the truth means bothering to do the research rather than make self-serving hypotheses and skip the testing phase.

  • rvs

    There are much worse sins in the Inferno than lust. Indeed, lust seems rather mild when set against pride, simony, and other such sins in closer proximity to Hell’s frozen center.

    Thanks for this fascinating post.

    I wonder if the rise of radical fundamentalism has anything to do with it. That is, many in America recognized in the 1970s (and earlier, no doubt) the grim nature of a kind of insistent religiosity, the theocratic impulse, and this grimness–when associated with church goals–causes churches to seem a lot less appealing.

  • Bruce Grubb

    Prime example of Garbage In Garbage Out.

    First, “unaffiliated” does NOT mean unreligious. Christian Universalism for example has no formal denomination and therefore would fall under the “unaffiliated” label. Much is the same of Unitarian Universalism and many other religious denominations that most people likely don’t even know exist. In fact, if I had to classify my own faith Taoistic Universalism would be the closest fit; lots of luck finding that as an “official” denomination.

    Second, the same size is so small (9,000) as to be useless from a statical point of view (the highly criticized Nielson Ratings has a 16,916 household sample size and it is generally regarded as statically worthless)

    Finally, there is nothing to say information is not the reasons people are loss=ing their faith. Things like Skeptic’s Annotated Bible show all the internal conflicts the Bible has so anybody holding to Biblical inerrancy is going have their faith shaken by that. Then you have the fact that the first Church Father to extensively quote from the Bible (irenaeus) also stated Jesus was over 50 years when he was crucified (Against Heresies) and that this happened no earlier then 41 CE (Demonstrations) so that is going to hurt the credibility of the “Early Church Fathers”. There are are MANY more examples.

    To blame porn is silly and over simplistic.


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