The Internet probably hasn't made people less religious

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.

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About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.

  • Anon

    Personally, I have to attest to the internet being responsible for /my/ current atheist status.

    If it weren’t for the web, I can almost guarantee that I’d be some denomination of protestant by this point in my life. Being able to confer with other like-minded individuals (because atheists are not clustered in one large group, we’re kind of sprinkled around the world) is a boon that helped me confirm my own beliefs.

    • VladChituc

      I totally don’t mean to invalidate your personal experience, but I think the reason studying social sciences, including sociology and psychology, is because it’s often times difficult to just introspect and understand the cause of something. Often times we’re actually quite bad at figuring out the cause of our own actions and beliefs. That said, I think it’d be interesting (and I’m legitimately curious) to ask why you sought out online atheist communities to begin with?

      It seems plausible to me that you had doubts and went looking for something to confirm them. Again, I don’t want to dismiss your personal experience as irrelevant, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than looking back and pointing at something. I became an atheist when I read that Douglas Adams was one. I remember clearly realizing “Oh, an atheist is something it’s okay to be, I guess I’m one of those.” That’s not to say though, that it couldn’t just have easily been any number of other things further down the line that would have taken me to the same place.

  • Nico

    I think this post has it’s merits, but you are discounting a large section of the population that was never exposed to ANY secular perspectives before the internet…I know, because I am one of those people. I grew up in rural Western Alabama, and I never knew there was an option of not believing, it was ingrained in us at an extremely young age that there were only believers (and the other faiths were all lies). Being exposed to mainstream culture was not an option, as most of the folks where I lived were in the same boat as we were; we were kept away from any meaningful TV programs, books or music that disagreed with the extreme christian/right narrative. That is until the internet, which opened up many new horizons and led me in a new direction…the same things are echoed each day in places like r/Atheism and youtube.

  • Sabio Lantz

    For me, it matters little if people still believe in a “universal spirit” as long as exclusivist, magical, theocracy deities wither. I agree that religion is here to stay. Every poke helps to eliminate the type of theist god I mentioned — but your article does indeed demonstrate that folks may be far too optimistic about their impact. But what the hell, every little bit helps. I have had several people write me saying my atheist writings were part of what moved them away from their theism — but that is anecdotal, I imagine you are right that it is only a small number compared to your main point that liberalism may be the best way to push if we are to further the decline of anti-science theocracy gods.

    I think you are right, but there is a counter balancing piece of data which may be important:

    People tend to drift into religiosity when they are in physical, economically or emotionally insecure environments. And we are not certain that ALL liberal policies will secure these. But perhaps you have more faith than me.

  • timberwraith

    I think it’s interesting to see (some) atheists claiming great optimism regarding how the internet will ultimately lead to atheism gaining more and more followers. This position assumes that atheism is, by its very nature, more alluring than its various competing systems of belief and ways of being. There’s an unspoken belief that atheism is a superior way of viewing the world and will catch on by sheer dint of this superiority.

    However, the internet also opens up exposure to many alternatives to the dominant religion in the various cultures of this planet, which inevitably entails exposure to a multitude of spiritual and religious world views and practices. If such exposure truly has the potential to cause great shifts in religious demography, I see no guarantee that people will move toward the alternative of atheism only, but rather move to a great multitude of other alternatives as well.

    Humans are many-varied creatures and are hardly as predicable and monochromatic in their was as some atheists (or any other true believer of a particular perspective) would have it.

    Last but not least, what I see happening on the internet seems to be more of a kind of segregationist flavor, where people clump into various virtual spaces catering to particular popular philosophies and rarely wander beyond the boundaries of those safe spaces. This isn’t necessarily conducive to seismic shifts in philosophical and religious demography. We humans are a tribal lot, and more than anything, the internet seems to reflect that tendency.

    • VladChituc

      I think your last point is really interesting and important. That’s one of the reasons I suspect that a breadth of new information doesn’t necessarily help when you can google to find information to challenge any challenging beliefs. That way, it seems like it can be an awful insulating force.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    The main thing about the internet is that it allows isolated groups to find people to communicate with. In my case I happen to be Wiccan in the middle of farming and ranching country. Pagans are few and far between, so almost my only contact is by e-mail or Internet.

    Why am I on a few Atheist blogs? Simple we share some of the same problems in a country dominated by Christians. Each of us come up with our own solutions. So I see how atheists are dealing with it, I may find inspiration in how to handle it myself. Ironically we even sometimes tend to be allies on matters of discrimination and on the legal fight for religious freedom, which of course includes the right not to believe.

    Then there is the fact that I can learn some things about the range of people in atheism. This helps break any stereotypes that I might have, or that I might be in any danger of falling into. With the Internet, I can explore other ways of looking at thngs. To me that is a necessary aspect of having a brain, to explore different ideas.

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  • Allen Downey

    I did a statistical study of this question recently and found an association between Internet use and disaffiliation that is strong enough (if causal) to explain about 50% of the “rise of the nones”. I can’t prove that it’s causal, but I make an argument for why it probably is here:

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  • Rose

    I was raised a believer by a non-baptized Jehovah’s Witness. When I started using the internet on a regular basis, I was a Christian debating non-believers, then I was an irreligious (around this time I started to become a lot more liberal, especially towards issues such as homosexuality and sexuality in general. It was very freeing) deist debating atheists, then an agnostic, and now I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t know if whether or not the internet had a large influence on my beliefs. I have always been a deep thinker so I’m sure I probably would’ve lost my beliefs eventually as I matured. But I’m certain that the internet had at least some influence on my beliefs.

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