But according to a new report from Pew, the way people talk about their faith online actually is different from how they talk about it in real life. In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 Americans, only 20 percent said they had “shared something about [their] religious faith on social networking websites/apps” in the past week. Twice as many said they had talked about faith in person within the same period.
Although people from different religious backgrounds reported different levels of what one might call faith-sharing, this relationship between on- and offline sharing was roughly the same across Christian denominations and the religiously unaffiliated: Twice as many people talked about their religious beliefs offline vs. online…
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that there’s hardly any variation among age groups: People younger and older than 50 were nearly equally likely to say they’d talked about their faith on social media within the last week. That’s remarkable for two reasons: In general, younger Americans are less religious than older Americans, and they’re also much heavier users of social media. Across two demographics who think about both faith and the Internet very differently, the mores of talking about God online seem to be similar.
This survey doesn’t say much what those mores are. But it does suggest that people like talking about their religious beliefs face-to-face more than they do online—or, perhaps, they’re more willing. Broadcasting your faith to all your Facebook friends is a very public act, and religion is a very personal thing; it may be that people feel more comfortable discussing God in communities that exist offline, like youth groups or book clubs. These spaces can feel much less vulnerable: It’s possible to know exactly who will hear you and maybe even have a sense of how they’ll respond. On Facebook or Twitter, that’s impossible.
Having conducted research in this area as well as having been online quite a bit in the last decade or so, I’m not surprised. I remember noticing this in the early days of Facebook. At that point, I believe certain information like your religion was more prominently featured on your profile. A number of my online friends – people of faith from a variety of institutional contexts and often with relatively high levels of education – tended to complicate their religious listing as if “Protestant” or “Christian” wasn’t individualized enough.
I don’t know that people are afraid of judgment when talking about faith online or through social media; we know that people talk about all sorts of other personal things. Perhaps this is all evidence of the increasing privatization of religion. You can participate in the public sphere of the Internet as long as you generally keep broad declarations of faith to an acceptable level. There might be some judgment but it maybe goes even further to indifference or embarrassment for such a user. You might be able to get away with more within certain circles – like white evangelicals who share their faith more online – but it wouldn’t be as welcomed within other online networks and sites.
That said, the figures still suggest some decent levels of religious activity online with roughly 20% sharing about their faith regularly and 46% regularly seeing things regarding the faith of other users. Faith isn’t dead online even if it doesn’t quite match offline activity.