By James A. Haught
As the secular tsunami keeps rising in America, perhaps 65 million U.S. adults now say their religion is “none.” That’s a gigantic demographic bloc – and growing.
However, attempts to mobilize this swarm, politically or socially, have mostly fizzled. People who quit churches, or never attended, are free spirits scattered willy-nilly everywhere, like chaff in the wind, almost untraceable and unorganizable.
Sunday Assembly is a movement conducting church-like meetings to bind “nones” into supportive groups. It had a promising start a few years ago. But the latest Atlantic magazine says the project is faltering: 70 chapters with 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 fell to 40 chapters with 3,500 attendees by 2018.
Similarly, many local secular humanist groups are launched, at first holding vigorous sessions, but gradually dwindling. Dozens cease operating. The Atlantic commented:
“If the sudden emergence of secular communities speaks to a desire for human connection and a deeper sense of meaning, their subsequent decline shows the difficulty of making people feel part of something bigger than themselves. One thing has become clear: The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.”
Well, if in-person gatherings rarely work for skeptics, I think there’s a better “glue” to unite millions of freethinkers worldwide. It’s the colossal Internet, the enormous portal for all of humanity.
In just a generation, the Internet has grown almost too immense to grasp. At last count, there are two billion websites, and around 500 million of them are “blogs” delivering pitches and commentaries on every imaginable topic.
Atheism and humanism thrive in the free-for-all chaos, alongside other “isms.” Hundreds of different doubter sites skewer supernatural mumbo-jumbo daily. Almost every attack on magical dogmas draws comments from readers, making them active participants in a global skeptic dialogue. It’s a beehive of freethought that buzzes day and night, nonstop. Thus the Internet makes a home for all of us who cannot swallow church miracle claims.
Further, there’s scientific evidence that the Internet actually creates atheism. It exposes browsers to many sorts of weird beliefs – as well as attacks on those beliefs.
In 2014, computer scientist Allen Downey published a controversial study claiming that fast-growing Internet usage was partly responsible for the fast-growing rise of churchless Americans.
“The Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally,” Downey wrote. “…Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”
He estimated that one-fourth of the rise in “nones” was caused by Internet use, and another one-fourth stemmed from more young people growing up in churchless homes. Also, he calculated that increased college education explained another five percent. The cause of the other 45 percent of “nones” growth remained a mystery.
Last year, researchers at Baptist-owned Baylor University corroborated Downey’s premise. They published a survey report in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion supporting his findings.
“Increases in Internet use correlate with a loss of religious affiliation,” lead researcher Paul McClure said, “and I also discovered that individuals who spend lots of time online are less likely to be religious exclusivists, or in other words they are less likely to think there’s only one correct religion out there.”
Translation: Inquiring minds of Internet users make them doubt claims that only Christians go to heaven, and other such absurdities.
There you have it: The Internet provides a worldwide haven for freethought – and it also creates more freethought. If in-person meetings can’t make a sanctuary for doubters, cyberland can.
Final note: Religions spent centuries draining believers to build a trillion-dollar global labyrinth of cathedrals, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, etc. Skeptics have only a few physical citadels. But, with little investment, the secular movement is making a worldwide intellectual home in the scientific marvel of cyberspace.
(Haught, longtime editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, is a weekly contributor to Daylight Atheism.)