Secularism and the Internet

How the web erodes religion

Posted Jan 07, 2016

Unless you’ve been binge-reading Marcel Proust, eating nothing but khat, and living in a hole on Easter Island this past decade, you know that the biggest news story concerning religion has been its recent demise: more people are dropping out of religion and losing their faith than ever before.

The share of Americans who say they are "absolutely certain" that God exists has dropped from 71% in 2007 down to 63% in 2015, and while the percentage of Americans who were non-religious was only 8% back in 1981, that has increased up to around 28% today. And 36% of Millennials now identify their religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. So we’re talking at least 56 million secular adult Americans total, with about 20 million of them being atheists and agnostics, specifically. These are quite simply the highest rates of irreligion in our nation’s history.

What gives?

There are a lot of factors behind this growth of secularism in America, to be sure. But one of them is, undoubtedly, the Internet. Which is kind of strange, if you think about it. After all, the Internet is just a tool. It can be used by both the religious and the non-religious for their respective ends. And yet what we are seeing is that the web is turning out to be no friend to religion. Rather, it is hastening its demise

The Internet bolsters secularism in numerous ways. First off, religious people can look up their own religion on the web and suddenly – often unwittingly -- be exposed to an array of critiques or blatant attacks on their tradition that they otherwise would have never come across. Debunking on the Internet abounds, and whether one is a Mormon, Scientologist, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim—whatever—the web exposes the adherents of every and any religious tradition to skeptical views that can potentially undermine personal surety, rattling an otherwise insulated, confident conviction in one’s religion. 

Think about it: in the past, if you wanted to look up information on your religion, you went to the library and checked out a book on, say, Christianity. And all the nearby books on the shelf would be about Christianity, too. But today, if you look up Christianity on the Internet—watch out. You will be immediately exposed to a lot of critical commentary, debunking youtube videos, skeptical articles, etc. And those criticisms are hard to ignore.

We see direct evidence of this phenomenon happening more and more. For example, in her research on clergy members who no longer believe in the religion they are preaching about, Linda LaScola has found that many pastors and ministers who have lost their faith in God cite their time spent on the Internet as a factor in their emergent atheism. These men and women would go on-line to find information about some aspect of church doctrine, or to brush up on their theology, and then—well—the next thing you know, it is two in the morning and they’re reading about how the historical evidence for Jesus’s existence is very shaky, that the New Testament is full of plagiarisms, and that ideas of an omnipotent God and free will are contradictory.

In another study of an extremely segregated, close-knit, almost secretive orthodox Hasidic Satmar Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, sociologist Hella Winston also found evidence of the web’s secularizing potential. Many of her informants went online, often secretively, and what they found there helped to erode their religious provincialism, sometimes directly prodding their emergent questioning and even abetting their eventual rejection of their religion. Finally, in his recent study on ex-Muslims, Simon Cottee found that the internet was cited again and again by apostates as a major player in their rejection of religion.

Secondly, the Internet allows people who may be privately harboring doubts about their religion to immediately connect with others who also share such doubts. In other words, the Internet fosters and spurs secular community. Men and women who are starting to lean towards atheism or agnosticism—even those in the most remote or fundamentalist of communities—can immediately reach out to others online, instantly finding comfort and information, which encourages or strengthens their secularity, and increases their numbers in our population.

Think of some teenager in Arkansas. His parents are Pentecostal. So are his uncles and aunts. And neighbors. And friends at school. He goes to church weekly, and sees everyone speaking in tongues. But he suspects that it isn’t really the Holy Spirit at work, but just a bunch of ecstatic noises people learn to make in such a given context. Twenty years ago, what could he do? He’d be alone in his skepticism. Isolated. And his doubt might eventual evaporate, given his social context. But today, he can go on-line, and instantly connect with other teenagers just like him who are having similar thoughts and doubts. Boom: instant community, shared skepticism, and intellectual support. Not good for his Pentecostalism, to be sure.

Thirdly, and perhaps most subtly, the web may be aiding and abetting the rise of secularism simply by what it is, what it can do, what it can provide, how it functions, and how it interfaces with our minds and our desires and our lives. The Internet may be supplying something psychological, or feeding something neurological, or establishing something cultural via its individual-computer screen nexus, something dynamic that is edging out religion, replacing religion, or weakening religion. The entertainment available on the Internet, the barrage of imagery, the simultaneity, the mental stimulation, the looking and clicking, the hunting and finding, the time-wasting, the consumerism, the constant social networking, the virtual communication, the information gathering – all of it may be undermining religion’s ability to hold our interest, draw our attention, tap our soul.

Just ask a Millennial.