How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion

(Jimmy Sellers) #1

I ran up on this article today. I was doing some research (personal) for a topic that has been rattling around in my head for awhile. It’s my contention that contemporary technology (smart phones, tablets, computers etc.) has had a negative effective on religion in America. This article is 4 years old but I can’t imagine that is out of date. I have a link and invite you to read. As you read I would be interested in what you think might be the third unidentifiable factor that the author addresses as a possibility.

that a third unidentified factor causes both increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation.

I have my own opinion. Will be interested in your comments.

(Jennifer Judson) #2

I was glad that the article brought up that correlation is not the same thing as causality. I don’t doubt that the internet influences the thinking of just about everyone on just about everything. But I would not draw that conclusion that the internet is taking away America’s religion.

First, in the last two generations there have been immense cultural shifts that began before the internet. In the mid-60’s pretty much everything began to change, and from my observations the Vietnam war secured the appetite for change throughout the culture. We were coming out of an Eisenhower era lull of well being where WWII was behind us and America felt secure in our good and wonderful government to keep us safe. Then the atomic age begins to escalate, the evil Russians want to blow us up, the Cuban missile crisis was broadcast around the globe. Reactionary conflicts (like Vietnam) suddenly did not feel like the noble effort that liberating Europe and Asia had been in WWII. Young men were returning disenchanted with the church-going norm they had been brought up in and also with the government. The pill and free love entered the culture. Disconnecting with all the cultural norms of the previous generations cascaded through out the nation–including church going–Christmas and Easter attendance became typical of many households even though many still felt Christian.

Also, racism and civil rights issues opened the eyes of many that had been unaware or unaffected. More questions for the national consciousness…are we good? our government good? God good? Anxiety about the future and disenchantment was pervasive throughout communities.

Sundays changed. Stores were no longer closed, blue laws fell by the wayside. (Would anyone under 50 even know what a blue law is?) Restaurants drew crowds for their Sunday brunch. The NFL reigned supreme on Sundays. Hurry up preacher, we don’t want to miss kick-off. Family gatherings and holiday meals were timed so “we can watch the game.” Sundays became about other things. For many of my acquaintances Sundays are now about soccer leagues for their kids. The families stopped coming to church because they have 3 kids in 3 leagues with 3 games in 3 different parts of town–their new trinity.

…and so on.

It can take 2-3 generations for cultural changes to trickle down and change established norms. Many of today’s young adults don’t attend church and answer “none” to the question of religion because they were not brought up attending church, nor was it a topic in the household. The same may be true of their parents although they would likely answer “Christian” on the question of religion because they still felt the influence of Christian culture in their daily lives and upbringing–even if they only attending on holidays when the grandparents were in town.

Another key factor in the article mentioned college education. If a person is lucky enough to attend a college/university that’s not outright hostile to Christianity, the underlying critical thinking skills they will be taught is to question everything. That can be good, but the balance of the information they are receiving is not truly encouraging them to choose as much as be indoctrinated. Most colleges received Federal funding for something. That seems to restrict Christian influence on campuses.

The post-modern worldview is also an incredible factor in the cultural shift the article is talking about. You got your truth, I got mine. That shift is not only affecting everything, it’s nearly impossible to combat. You cannot get someone to grasp real truth when they do not believe in an absolute truth.

The internet is a tool, a forum, a platform–and one of global reach. Is it influencing the attitudes of people, sure. But a person can also use it to find Jesus. It has opened doors to isolated peoples all over the world. Missionaries have resources they’ve never before had. Before the internet, I would have to spend hours in the library to find faith-based resources I now find immediately in a google search. I’m connecting with you and many others through RZIM.

The statistics in question are eye-popping. Of course they will mine the data to find out what’s happening. I’m just not sure they will find the seeds of this change that began over 50 years ago in their current data. I think the poll numbers show an extreme shift because the cascading failures in our society are just beginning to show the speed and extreme numbers of that cascade.

Wow, I must have had some opinions. (typed with a smile)

(Jennifer Judson) #3

Just wanted to add my socio-economic profile so you can see what influences my opinions.

I’m white. In my late 50’s. Brought up in white bread suburbia–although in various places around the country. I went to schools that had busing. I attended a private university in the bible belt (University of Tulsa). I live in the heart of the bible belt–Tulsa, Oklahoma under the shadow of Oral Roberts prayer tower at ORU.

(Jimmy Sellers) #4


Sorry for taking so long to reply. I am doing the Science module for the next 8 wks. I think you hit all the highlights but I think that the 3rd factor the author of the article is the supply of short well made multimedia materials. Not just a video selfie explaining your point of view but short well produced combination video and animation pieces that might only use 600 to 700 words but graphics that if translated to words would take thousands of word to convey the same message, (picture is worth a thousand words). Add to that the competition for mind time and you have a perfect storm. The numbers would suggest that people are being misinformed about the Church or the Church has not been able to respond in kind.

(Jennifer Judson) #5

I think all of this falls under “nothing new under the sun” (and what doesn’t?). The world draws us away from God, away from Christ. Jesus even warned us about it, as does Paul and the other Apostles. Still we wander.

The challenge of the church (and all its members universal) will always be to be in the world and not of the world.

(Carson Weitnauer) #6

Hi Jimmy, Jennifer,

An interesting conversation! From the article, it does seem that Allen Downey has done his research. From his blog, some clarifications:

My results suggest that Internet use might account for about 20% of the decrease in religious affiliation between 1990 and 2010, or about 5 million out of 25 million people.

Note that this result doesn’t mean that 5 million people who used to be affiliated are now disaffiliated because of the Internet. Rather, my study estimates that if the Internet had no effect on affiliation, there would be an additional 5 million affiliated people.

In particular, one of the reasons that Downey posits for the change is that the internet increases exposure, for those in homogenous communities, to other ways of thinking. This is a plausible reason for religious switching.

I wonder, then, if some sectors of America (or elsewhere!) are becoming homogeneously secular. In those societies, an internet-first strategy of seeding conversations with evidence that secularism cannot sustain itself and that Christianity is true, might be a very effective means of evangelism.

However, on another angle, Andrew Brown argued in The Guardian for this cause:

But there is one blindingly obvious reason why being online might diminish religious observance and it has nothing to do with ideas. It’s simply that every hour you spend online is an hour spent not doing other things. What keeps religious affiliation alive is practice, or ritualised belief. The strongest religions are the least visible ones, because they are so tightly woven into the symbols of every day life. And someone online is almost by definition not performing collective religious acts. Mobile technology might change this, but it hasn’t yet. It is the social function of religion that weakens. Belief is an epiphenomenon. What kills American religion isn’t argument. It’s Facebook.

From my point of view, RZIM Connect is a fantastic counter to this potential cause of religious disaffiliation. Given that people are spending hours a day online in search of friendship, truth, and stimulation, if they found these experiences in this community, that would strengthen their faith commitment. Hopefully, drawing them back into or deeper into local churches, and with the training they need to know and share their faith with respect.

(Jennifer Judson) #7

Andrew Brown (British) is the religious writer for a British paper. The Church of England may or may not be his background, but it is more high church with ritual and liturgy. Wondering how much that is reflected in his point of view. My orthopraxy is not limited to “collective religious acts.” But I do see his point about where people spend their time. Much the same was said about television when it was the emerging technology.

I think the greatest danger (and impact) of time spent and dependence on the internet, is the shift from the real to the virtual. It’s connection that is essentially rooted in disconnection. Where we become less involved with each others lives and become voyeurs instead–we are not at your celebration, we are just seeing it in pictures. “Following” a person’s life is not the same as joining it.

Now for those who by physical limitation or geographic isolation have limited connections with the world, the internet is an opportunity for community, albeit a virtual one. A vital connection to the world when another one might not exist.

That being said, Carson, I agree that the internet can be a highly effective tool for evangelism. It is also a great tool for learning.

(Carson Weitnauer) #8

Hi Jennifer, good points! I think your argument about the TV (or easily printed books…) could also be made. There are some interesting historical stories about how new technology has been received. For instance, the lamenting of how coffee houses were destroying intellectual thought:

Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”

Meanwhile, Roger North, a lawyer, bemoaned, in Cambridge, the “vast Loss of Time grown out of a pure Novelty. For who can apply close to a Subject with his Head full of the Din of a Coffee-house?” These places were “the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen,” according to a pamphlet, “The Grand Concern of England Explained,” published in 1673.

With the internet, I have met people online who later became good friends in ‘real life’ - and people I have met in ‘real life’ have stayed friends through the internet. It is not what ‘makes sense’ at a first pass but it does happen in significant ways. For instance, my first book came about through a community that developed almost entirely online, but also had in person meetings at various conferences, etc.

This discussion leads me to think that a more strategic, intentional investment in relational and informational tools is a huge opportunity for the church. If people are losing their faith on the internet, surely they can gain faith through the internet as well?

(Jennifer Judson) #9

Where in the world did you find that coffee house reference? Second question, how much time do you spend every day reading? Seriously, great find.

Generally I see the internet as a neutral tool, except in the sense that with over users can develop serious addictions. Saw something by a blogger the other day who had forgotten to take his phone when he went outside to smoke. He couldn’t even get through his cigarette. He tossed it and went inside to twitter. He realized that his twitter addiction had now eclipsed his nicotine addiction. So he tweeted about it.

“Go ye into all the world…” I see no reason why that would exclude the virtual world. It’s certainly populated with souls seeking connection.

I know RZIM Connect is open to all, believers and non-believers. How can we draw non-believers to this vibrant community for fellowship and discussion?