We can blame the Internet for plenty: the proliferation of porn, our obsession with cat videos, the alleged rise of teen trends like -- brace yourself -- eyeball licking.
But is it also a culprit in helping us lose our religion? A new study suggests it might be.
Allen Downey, a computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, set out to understand the national uptick in those who claim no religious affiliation. These are the “nones,” which the Pew Research Center considers the fastest-growing “religious” group in America.
Since 1985, Downey says, the number of first-year college students who say they're religiously unaffiliated has grown from 8% to 25%, according to the CIRP Freshman Survey.
And, he adds, stats from the General Social Survey, which has been tracking American opinions and social change since 1972, show unaffiliated Americans in the general population ballooned from 8% to 18% between 1990 and 2010.
These trends jibe with what the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project reported in 2012. It said one in five American adults, and a third of those under 30, are unaffiliated.
Downey says he stepped into the ongoing debate about the rise of the "nones" not because he has a vested interest one way or the other, but because the topic fascinates him. He says it’s good fodder for study and appeals to students who are learning to crunch real data.
In his paper “Religious affiliation, education and Internet use,” which published in March on arXiv – an electronic collection of scientific papers – Downey analyzed data from GSS and discovered a correlation between increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation.
Internet use among adults was essentially at zero in 1990; 20 years later, it jumped to 80%, he said. In that same two-decade period, we saw a 25 million-person spike in those who are religiously unaffiliated.
People who use the Internet a few hours a week, GSS numbers showed Downey, were less likely to have a religious affiliation by about 2%. Those online more than seven hours a week were even more likely – an additional 3% more likely – to disaffiliate, he said.
Now, Downey is the first to point out that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
But he was able to control for other factors including education, religious upbringing, rural/urban environments and income, to find a link that allowed him to “conclude, tentatively, that Internet use causes disaffiliation,” he said.
“But a reasonable person could disagree.”
The Internet, he posited, opens up new ways of thinking to those living in homogeneous environments. It also allows those with doubts to find like-minded individuals around the world.
He believes decreases in religious upbringing have had the largest effect, accounting for 25% of reduced affiliation; college education covers about 5% and Internet use may account for another 20%.
That leaves 50% which he attributes to “generational replacement,” meaning those born more recently are less likely to be religiously affiliated – though he doesn’t attempt to explain why that is.