The Internet is the source of a recent loss of religious belief

The Internet may be changing our religious dedication.

Trent M. Kays

No one doubts the prevalence of and proclivity for change that the Internet induces. The Internet has dramatically and fundamentally changed the lives of billions of humans across the world. Access to new knowledge, now readily available because of the Internet, has allowed humans to consider new perspectives, ideas and paths of happiness. This includes concepts of religion.

According to an Olin College of Engineering study last month, the rise of Internet use correlates with a decline in religious affiliation in the United States. So American Internet users are losing their religion. The study’s author, Allen Downey, used data from the General Social Survey — a survey that has regularly measured people’s attitudes and demographics on various issues since 1972.

Of course, there is one major flaw in Downey’s argument: Correlation does not always equal causation. However, Downey addresses this issue, arguing: “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely.” We understand correlation as inferring a conclusion, and as such, we can base our explanations on it.

Still, the evidence to suggest that Americans are losing their religion due to the rise in Internet use is compelling. But what could it mean? If Internet users are losing their religion, it raises the question: Why was religion so easy to lose?

Certainly, people have different reasons for identifying with or following a particular religion. In my hometown, we had several protestant churches, including a Mormon church, but we had no Catholic church. In high school, I vividly recall listening to the local military chaplain — a trim and unassuming U.S. Air Force captain. He told our group of students that he carried out several different services at the local base chapel; however, when he worshipped, he did so at the local Mormon church.

The chaplain was Mormon, and he was my first introduction to Mormonism. It was an odd concept for me to know that a military chaplain provided Catholic services in his chapel but didn’t for one moment believe in Catholicism’s path toward Christian redemption. Needless to say, this and other experiences muddled my understanding of religion at this point in my life.

Such muddling didn’t stop me. As with most things in my life, I investigated various Christian denominations to better understand what I believed. I visited a different church every Sunday for months before I decided that Christianity wasn’t for me. Further Internet research confirmed that I didn’t like some of the ideas Christians brought into the world.

The Internet was a key tool that helped me figure out how to define what I believed. Indeed, the Internet has always seemed to be a haven for atheists, agnostics and those in search of some type of understanding. While not explicitly a religion, my first introduction to Buddhism was only made possible by and through the Internet. I discovered that there were other people around the world who had similar thoughts to mine.

According to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years. About one-fifth of the public overall and one-third of adults under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated.

In considering this statistic along with Downey’s, I actually don’t find the latter’s conclusion all that shocking. The generation of today is less religious than previous generations. Did the Internet have something to do with it? It appears so.

The Internet has allowed people to explore radical and contrasting ideologies and philosophies for living compared to their parents’ religious beliefs. Finally, those who had to go to church every Sunday can now investigate a different point of view. Such access to once-limited knowledge can be liberating.

Is it possible we could see an age without religion? Unlikely. Many people still need to believe in something greater than themselves, and this often is some type of god. However, if the past century has taught us anything, we may see a time when the morality of religion — specifically Abrahamic religions — does not rule much of the world. Great intellectuals of the past century have proven that morality does not need to be based in religious ideology. Intellectuals, like Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and Richard Dawkins, have shown that one can be moral and not believe in God.

The Internet has influenced many things, but most importantly, it has given us access to diversity of opinion and experience with which we can create a better future for ourselves. Perhaps that’s one of the great glories of the Internet: It has shown us that we don’t need to believe in a higher power in order to live. We don’t need to be alone or feel alone in a world torn apart by religious wars and edicts.

In the end, it won’t matter if we worshipped one god or another, or none at all. All that will matter is if we were decent to and compassionate with the life that surrounds us. The Internet allows us to understand and work toward this goal because it connects us.

The Dalai Lama once remarked, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” That should be all the religion we need in the digital age, and let’s use the Internet to spread it.