The Web can make you lose your religion, study says

Research published in the MIT Technology Review offers that there seems a direct link between increased use of the Internet and a decline in religious dedication.

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Faith in Web world? WSJ Digital Network/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Beliefs take a lot of belief.

With information flying at us from all sides of our eyes and ears, challenges to our innermost tenets scratch at our innards like rabid gerbils on the bars of a cage.

Can it be, then, that the more information at our disposal, the more we stop to wonder whether our God, our church, and our supposedly holy books are really as believable as they once seemed?

Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, thought he'd see whether religious affiliation was taking a hit from Mammon's constant virtual dissemination.

His study, published in the MIT Technology Review, might send chills down the pocket-linings of more than one tele-evangelist. For the figures show that there is a significant correlation between increased Internet use and a decline in religiosity.

Between 1990 and 2010, 25 million Americans shed their religion. At least officially. Using the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Downey plotted the rise of the Internet against this fall in holy devotion.

The biggest factor of continued religious affiliation is family. If you are born into a religious family, you are more likely to maintain that commitment.

Downey, though, insists that though fewer people are being born into religious families, he can only attribute 25 percent of the drop in religiosity to this factor.

Greater levels of college education also contribute. However, when Downey examined the figures for Internet use, he found that by 2010, 25 percent of people were online for more than 7 hours every day.

How odd that this 25 percent number mirrors the 25 percent who seem to have shed their beliefs.

Still, this is a mere correlation. It doesn't mean that the minute you spend time online, the scales are shed from your eyes as you whisper: "My God! This is the real truth!"

Downey, though, claims that he carefully considered other possible factors. He told the MIT Technology Review: "We have controlled for most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socio-economic status, and rural/urban environments."

This leads him to make a remarkably direct statement: "Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation." It doesn't account for all of it. But Downey believes this is a significant correlation.

On seeing this, many will theorize. Is the Internet a secular corrupting force? Do younger people, who live on the Web, encounter far too much persuasive anti-religious sentiment and fall in with their friends, rather than examine and hold on to their own true faith?

Might it, indeed, be embarrassing for some to admit in any kind of official or public setting that they have deep faith of one kind or another?

Clearly, some of the big brand religions are conscious of the potential truths here. The pope has a Facebook page, an app and now tweets. He even offered a reduction in purgatory time via Twitter last year.

Moreover, a few days ago, he offered this tweeted thought: "We live in a society that leaves no room for God; day by day this numbs our hearts."

The Web numbs hearts too. People become their Internet selves to such an extent that these selves become their "real" selves.

Does this somehow switch them off from their former core beliefs?

Or could it be that some religions are so rigid, so literal, so supposedly inviolable that they don't sufficiently allow for critical thought?

Perhaps the Web allows for all sorts of broad, private pondering that church leaders never anticipated. Perhaps they never thought about getting their propaganda in first, before the less believing (in their eyes) gained control.

Now, like so many big brands that have lost some consumers' emotions, they must catch up.

It isn't easy. Pope Francis has 3.8 million Twitter followers. Miley Cyrus has almost 17.7 million.

 

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