Is more Internet use correlated to a decline in religious affiliation?

A new study suggests using the Internet more is correlated with lower levels of religious affiliation:

Downey analyzed data from the General Social Survey, a well-respected annual research survey carried out by the University of Chicago, to make his findings.

Downey says the single biggest cause of religious affiliation is upbringing: those you are raised in religious households are much more likely to remain in their family’s religion as adults…

By far the largest factor, says Downey, is Internet use.

In the 1980s, Internet use was virtually non-existent, but in 2010, 53 per cent of people spent two hours online a week and 25 per cent spent more than seven hours…

Downey says that his research has controlled for ‘most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments’ to discount a third factor, one that is responsible both for the rise of Internet use and the drop in religiosity.

Since the full story is behind a subscriber wall, two speculations about the methodology of this study:

1. This sounds like a regression and/or ANOVA analysis based on R-squared changes. In other words, when one explanatory factor is in the model, how much more of the variation in the dependent variable (religiosity) is explained? You can then add or subtract different factors singly or in combination to see how that percent of variation explained changes.

2. Looking at religious affiliation is just one way to measure religiosity. Affiliation is based on self-identification (do you consider yourself a Catholic, mainline Protestant, conservative Protestant, etc.) or what religious congregation you regularly attend or interact with. But, levels of religious affiliation have been falling in recent years even as not all measures of religiosity are falling. Research about the rise of the “religious nones” shows a number of these people still are spiritual or perform religious practices.

If there is a strong causal relationship between increased Internet use and less religiosity, why might this be the case? A few ideas:

1. The Internet opens people up to a whole realm of information beyond themselves. Traditionally, people would look to those around them, whether individuals or institutions, within relatively close proximity. The Internet breaks a lot of these social boundaries and allows people to search for information way beyond themselves.

2. The Internet offers social interactions in a way that religion used to. Instead of going to a religious congregation to meet people, the Internet offers the possibilities of finding like-minded people in all sorts of areas from hobbies and interests, people in the same career field, dating websites, and people you want to sell goods to. In other words, some of the social aspects of religion can now be replicated online.

3. The Internet in its medium and content tends to be individualistic. Anyone with an Internet connection can do all sorts of things without relying on others (outside of having a service provider). This simply feeds into individualistic attitudes that already existed in the United States.

It sounds like there is a lot more here for researchers to explore and unpack.

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