Study: Internet Use Keeping People Out of Church

Saturday, 03 May 2014 06:43 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Fewer Americans are going to church than ever, and one reason may be because they're too busy logging onto the Internet, a new research study shows.

According to Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, the number of people saying they have no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent to 18 percent, reports The Huffington Post.  Meanwhile, the number of Americans going online rose from almost nobody up to 80 percent.

But Downey said just because there is a correlation between the numbers doesn't mean the Internet is killing organized religion.

“We can’t know for sure that Internet use causes religious disaffiliation,” he said. “It is always possible that disaffiliation causes Internet use, or that a third factor causes both.”
Downey's online paper, "Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use,"  shows that people who used the Internet just a few times a week were less likely to claim a religious affiliation than those who use no Internet, and people using the Internet more than seven hours a week were even less likely to claim a religion.

“That effect turns out to be stronger than a four-year college education, which reduces religious affiliation by about 2 percentage points,” he said.

But Downey said he figures the Internet accounts for only about 20 percent of the decline in religious affiliation. Another 25 percent can be attributed to people not being raised as part of a church, and another five percent due to increases in college education.

"That leaves 50 percent of the decrease unexplained by the factors I was able to include in the study, which raises interesting questions for future research," he said.

But other scholars say Downey's findings only show part of the story.

“Let’s call it the influence of the religious marketplace,” said Stephen O'Leary, a University of Southern California associate professor who studies the topic of religion on the Internet.

Other forces unrelated to the Internet are also at fault, said O'Leary, including younger Americans' loss of trust of religious authority after the revelation of child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

"That has, more than almost any other thing, alienated a whole generation," said O’Leary. “And it is not just Catholics. It goes to all religious authority by extension.”
And even though people aren't declaring a religious affiliation, that doesn't mean they're becoming atheists, he said.

"They haven’t given up their belief in the supernatural. They just don’t feel they need organizations or institutions to bring it to them," he said. "And you don’t have to believe in any god to light a candle or hold hands and utter a mantra or chant.”

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