If there was a single cultural currency of the atheist movement, it would undeniably be the Internet language of memes, macros, and Facebook screencaps. Though atheists still make up only around 3-8% of the population, depending on who asks and how, they’re a dominating presence in online discourse. On websites like Reddit, where more than 80% of users are men and under the age of 35, atheism seems to be a default cultural assumption. The atheism subforum is in fact so popular—it has more than a million and a half subscribers—that it’s one of the few that new accounts are automatically subscribed to upon registration. From Facebook to YouTube, it seems like atheism has a serious presence online.
It’s not really much of a surprise, then, that atheists really love the Internet. It seems that atheists are always quick to add a comment like “[a]nd the Internet. Don’t forget the Internet” to the sociologist’s explanation of why we’re shifting from religion. And this week, Valerie Tarico took this trend to the extreme with her Salon article, “Religion May Not Survive the Internet.”
Let me continue in my role as stats-nerd and general naysayer to suggest the following: Religion did and will survive the Internet and, at least when we’re talking about shifts in demographics, we probably should forget the Internet.
So here’s what we know:
Atheism hasn’t risen much at all over the last decade.
For all the fuss made over the “rise of the Nones,” they’re remarkably religious. About 70% of the religiously unaffiliated say they still believe in a God or a universal spirit. The rest of the population isn’t much different. Though it’s true that fewer Americans are saying they believe in God—according to Gallup, 86% of respondents said they believed in God in 1999, whereas 80% said they did in 2010—more Americans now say they believe in a universal spirit—the number was only 8% in 1999, and it’s risen to 12% in 2010.
The number of Americans in the 2000’s who believed in neither God nor a universal spirit hardly changed at all, rising only from 5% to 6%. It’d be weird if a decade characterized by greater access to information only had the effect of pushing people away from God and into belief in a universal spirit. If the Internet has done anything, then, it seems like it’s only connected nonbelievers into online communities, which has likely made them more comfortable identifying as atheists. That’s not to say the Internet hasn’t been important, since it likely allows many geographically isolated nonbelievers to have a community, but it probably hasn’t changed many people’s minds.
Migration from religion has only really affected Protestants.
I discussed these data briefly when I gave my advice to Evangelical Christians. If, as sociologists like Robert Putnam and authors like David Niose argue, what’s driving the exodus from organized religion is a cultural shift to the left on social issues coupled with our current mix of religion and conservative politics, then you’d expect to see conservative churches losing the most members. A look at the polling data shows exactly that. Over the last five years, according to Pew, the unaffiliated have risen by about 5%, and Christianity has dipped about 5%. But the numbers seem to come exclusively from the largely conservative Protestants, whereas the generally liberal Catholics have hardly been affected at all. If it’s access to information that’s driving this trend, then it’d be weird if Protestants were the only believers using the Internet.
Widespread access to information isn’t that new.
From how you hear many atheists talk about the Internet, you’d think that no one had access to any information that challenged religious beliefs before Al Gore worked his magic. But “the Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersol was one of the most popular and sought after speakers in the mid-to-late 19th Century, and, thanks to Benjamin Franklin and the public library system, any curious doubters of the 20th Century could easily read Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” or anything, really, by Bertrand Russell. Information may be easier to access now than ever before, but the access has always been there—so long as you were literate and could make it to a library. Religion survived in those days, and it’s surviving now.
We only really look for information that confirms what we already believe.
Over the last few decades, psychological research has shown again and again how bad we are at changing our minds. When given the opportunity, we seek information that justifies what we already believe and ignore or try to discredit information that doesn’t. The research is broad, but Chris Mooney summarizes many of the findings nicely in his 2011 article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” So even though the Internet might be providing a breadth of new information, it’s not immediately clear how persuasive it’s been. And since the amount of Americans who believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old has remained basically constant over the last twenty years, I’m not too optimistic. It seems that whether it’s today or a hundred years ago, doubters are going to seek out information to confirm their doubts and believers are going to largely ignore conflicting information.
Given these data, I think it’s really unlikely that the Internet has played any substantive role in bringing Americans out of religion. Everyone has a self-serving bias, and atheists aren’t immune. Atheist writers seem really optimistic—they say we have the truth on our side, information is widely accessible, and we’re growing in numbers. But it seems like these first two things don’t really matter that much, and our growth seems to be more in organization and political influence, rather than genuine conversion.
To me, this supports a focus on values rather than beliefs, and about this I’m optimistic—if America is becoming more socially liberal but remains God-fearing, then that’s fine with me. So long as we have a cultural momentum geared toward gay rights, secular government, and social justice, the politically liberal religiously unaffiliated can help to push this progress forward. And there the Internet might help, no matter what anyone believes about God.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.