In “Is the Internet Killing Religion,” CNN Interactive, 9 April 2014 (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/09/is-the-internet-killing-religion/) , Jessica Ravitz cites research undertaken by Allen Downey, a computer scientists at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. According to Downey’s research the Internet is culpable for social change and specifically for the increase in adults who claim no affiliation to any religion. Downey states that from 1990 to 2010 unaffiliated Americans rose from 8% to 18%. This research was corroborated by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project in 2012 which states that one in five American adults and a third of those under 30, are unaffiliated.
Further, Downey authored a paper titled “Religious affiliation, education and Internet Use” (2014), analyzing data from the General Social Survey which tracks American opinions and social change since 1972. His paper concluded that increased Internet use has increased religious ‘nones’. While there were no adults using the Internet in 1990, by 2014 there was an 80% increase in adult users and a 25 million person increase in those who had no religious affiliation. Downey argues that religious upbringing contributes 25% of reduced affiliation; 5% can be attributed to college education while an addition 20% is assigned to the Internet. As for the additional 50% which contributes to non-affiliation, Downey attributed it to “generational replacement” or simply that those born recently are less religiously inclined. He can’t however, explain the why.
Pew however, explains the 50% of non-affiliated adults is due to sociological changes. Young adults today are turning away from organized religion as they associate it with conservative politics with which they want nothing to do. Sociological changes in marriage, parenthood, broader social disengagement and general secularization of society are also reasons that Pew cites.
However, according to Pew, although there is a demonstrated increase in non-affiliated adults that does not mean they are all atheists or agnostics. Casey (2006) argues that some use the Internet to find spirituality and religious substance.
While I agree that the Internet provides opportunities to find spirituality and religion, it is well documented that the Internet contributes to a different type of socialization which is more isolating. Gaming, facebook, twitter are among the online social media that can ‘trap’ individuals into virtual worlds where reality is distorted and where information can be biased, slanted, prejudiced or manipulative. Further, these places of virtual worship are aggressively vying to convert others to their own conception of ‘spirituality’ or ‘religious belief often causing grave harm to society in the name of religion. The CNN article, “The Internet as a God and Propaganda Tool for Cults,” by Lefevre (1997) provides an example of the harm the Internet has caused. These sites do not build religious community; rather they build illusions of reality. Adults might be unaffiliated because they are networking in a cyberspace that is contradictory to true spirituality and religious beliefs and that only adheres to self-serving agendas for seeking monetary value for entry into a group or to commodify religion in some way.