Does The Internet Make People Atheists?

Does The Internet Make People Atheists? April 5, 2014

Via PZ Myers and a couple of other people, I became aware of an article with the title “How The Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion.”  Here is a chart from the article:

There is definitely a need to avoid assuming that the correlation indicates causation. But I will certainly want to dig into the underlying study by Allen B. Downey, since it is relevant to the conference paper I will be presenting in November, which I mentioned here recently.

I will probably ask more than once between now and November, but I would really love to hear from those who studied at Christian schools and who at the same time interacted online with viewpoints that were not presented by that educational institution. Please tell me your stories!

UPDATE: Hemant Mehta and Theresa Johnson have now also blogged about this.

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  • Hezekiah Smith

    Youtube videos, skeptical websites, and heck even youtube advertisements are advertising to me “The Atheist Experience”… I would say the Internet is a breeding ground for atheists, but for some weird reason it has not taken my faith yet… and something is wrong here because I am a computer addict/ youtube addict/ gaming addict/critical person/angry person/liberal person… so I have no idea what happened.. It was as if I was practically ripe for atheism…. and then the Atheist reapers and harvesters came for me.. and then I became rotten as soon as they touched me… whether that was luck or tragedy.. I’ll find out when I am dead… or I will cease to exist in which case I won’t really care.

  • WillBell

    I became an atheist in no small part because of the internet. I’d been leaning that way for some time but finding actual atheists on the internet, so it wasn’t just an idea but something you could put an actual face to, is what put me squarely in the atheist camp.

  • Michael Wilson

    yeah, there about a thousand other things that have gone up along with religious non-affiliation, so we could blame atheism on CO2, GDP, population, or smart phones. I think, most established religions are just having trouble keeping up with all the new ideas out there. There a lot more options for a Sunday morning that singing songs that suck to a God that doesn’t care.

    • Neko

      Yeah, like the “Sunday Assembly,” singing songs that suck to a not-God that doesn’t care.

  • Worthless Beast

    I think it’s a case of “What we are in the dark.”

    II have experienced a bit of “loosening” myself in regards to changing beliefs due to the influence of Internet-access to many different views. For me, it hasn’t been a dropping, but a deepening and broadening of faith, then again, I am not neurotypical. One thing the Internet provides people more readily than does “the real world” is “others just as weird as I am.” I have discovered people with specific, strange hobbies of mine that I didn’t know existed. I’m much more of an anime fan, for example, than I probably would have ever been encouraged to be without the Internet. I think it’s like that with worldviews, too. I’ve long thought that “Christianity” in Western society / American society in particular is mostly cultural – not committed, that there are a lot of people who identify as “Christian” who are really non-believers and just go to church with their families to keep them happy, pretend to pray so Grandma doesn’t cry, etc. I’ve met a lot of them on my anime and videogame communities. Sometimes, they take it out on those who do even a passing mention a belief in something online because they are frustrated by the people in their meat-life.

  • C. Bauserman

    It definitely made me more liberal, I’d think. But that might have had more to do with my education at my particular institution, one student-mentor in particular.
    But I’ve made a promise to my own soul to not let the core tenets of my faith loose.
    I’m still testing the boundaries to see what those tenets are, and what possible tenets of my faith I can let loose and still be a Christian, and I’m finding there’s quite a few that can be let go. The early Church definitely didn’t need a bunch of the stuff that evangelicals and fundies claim are “essentials” today.

  • Neko

    Coming from the other side of the fence, born and raised Catholic but atheist most of my life (and rather strident at that, all before the Four Horsemen got together), my interaction with atheists online has made me less sympathetic to movement atheism, and my interaction with Christians online has resulted in my viewing Christians much more favorably.

    So it seems, based on this sample size of one, that the internet can have a significant effect one way or the other.

    Update: the author of that MIT piece comes close to equating non-affiliation with “loss of faith.” Not the same thing.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this – lots of interesting food for thought in your comment!

  • I’m pretty sure I was an atheist before I had any Internet access. But the Internet (especially after the mid-2000s or so) definitely strengthened my atheism.

  • Starting at about 16, I was a strong believer, not in the Christian God — I’d already rejected that concept — but in other planes of existence, reincarnation, spirit guides, power animals.

    I’ve always excepted the theory of evolution, the great physics and astronomy discoveries — I simply believed there was a supernatural, spirit-based counterpart to the physical world — so my personal evolution from believer to non-believer was not the struggle it is for the Christian who’s confronted with the realities of scientific evidence.

    When I first gained access to the Internet in ’94, I wasn’t aware of the sources that would eventually lead me to become an atheist, but slowly each belief fell by the wayside, beginning with discovery in ’97 that the cult-like group I’d loosely associated with over 16 years was based on plagiarism, not to mention outright greed. That led to an emotional crisis and me admitting I’d been depressed for as long as I could remember. That was the turning point, although it did take another 16 years before letting go of all belief and becoming an atheist.

    I do not think I would be an atheist at this point in my life without having had such easy access to the facts via the Internet.

  • guest

    I’ve been an atheist since I was 14. The internet didn’t make much difference to me; I was brought up by a strongly atheist father. What the internet has done is create an easy-to-access atheist community, as well as make people aware of religious abuses of power more easily and make it easier to fact-check websites.
    I have learned a lot about bible history and such from the internet. That has helped strengthed my atheism.

  • Charles Ormsbee

    Does “unaffiliated” necessarily equal “atheist” or just those who just don’t want to belong? I’m not so sure. There also has been a general decline in membership in many non-religious benevolent and charitable groups as well. That is, groups that require actual face time social interaction – political parties, fraternal orders, benevolence clubs whose memberships have been falling off in roughly the same time period. Here in Massachusetts the unenrolled voters have been growing steadily since 1982 and have over taken the Democratic party members in number since the early 1990s. The Masons, Elks, and other orders have been fighting major membership declines in the same time period. I wonder If there is a correlation between the rise of the web and growing general lack of interest in belonging to social organizations that require real social interaction in general.

    • This is a really good point! The question of whether people spending more time on line and less involved in local communities can, without any further evidence, be indicative either of loss of particular beliefs or a change as to where those people more naturally interact with others who share their beliefs.

  • Michael

    The internet did not make me an atheist, but it helped me to realize the fact that I was in fact one. Like many, I shied away from the word, since it was used negatively, but from my reading it became clear that was my view. I still do not identify myself as such to everyone, though privately I’m comfortable with it.

  • Peter Kirby

    Of course, it does.

    • Gary

      Very God-like, the internet? Anthromorphic? My opinion, the internet cannot make you anything. It is just a source of information, both good and bad.

      • Peter Kirby

        Of course, the article’s title is dumb.

        • Gary

          Agree, but I listened to my old church sermon today. On the internet. Some stuff related to Hagee, 4 blue moons in a row (starting This Tuesday)… (Actually, I thought a Blue Moon was a heavy beer), and Israel… I hate to say it, but my old church is full of a bunch of crazies that listen to anything, even bad data. Data can be dangerous when the people are stupid.

          • Peter Kirby

            It’s extremely unlikely that the net effect of the Internet on the level of belief in the USA has been zero. The question then becomes whether it has been positive or negative. Given that the total net change in belief has been negative and also given the very simple explanations for how the Internet has played a role in that net change, it’s a reasonable hypothesis prima facie.

          • Gary

            Of course, the same bad data can be/is acquired via books. So the ultimate source of bad data is us humans.

          • Gary

            Sorry. That was “blood moon”. I guess it was wishful thinking on my part that is was “blue moon”. I need a beer.