Increases in internet use linked to a loss of religious affiliation, study finds

People who surf the internet more often are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated, according to new research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The percentage of Americans who do not identify with a religious group has been growing — and the new research suggests that the internet could be playing a role.

“In my own life, I’ve noticed the drastic impact that technology from the past 20 years has had on our social lives, so I started wondering, how might the internet influence religious beliefs, practices, and institutions?” said study author Paul K. McClure of Baylor University. “We know, for example, that internet technology has changed politics, businesses, relationships, and attention spans, but fewer people were writing about the internet’s impact on religion.”

The study examined data collected during the third wave of the Baylor Religion Survey. The national survey of 1,714 U.S. adults asked respondents about their internet use and religious life, among other things.

McClure found that increased internet use was associated with a decreased likelihood of being religiously affiliated and religiously exclusive. However, increased internet use was not associated with decreased participation in religious activities.

“One of my main findings in this study is that increases in internet use correlate with a loss of religious affiliation, and I also discovered that individuals who spend lots of time online are less likely to be religious exclusivists, or in other words they’re less likely to think there’s only one correct religion out there,” McClure told PsyPost.

“To make sense of these findings, I argue that internet use encourages a certain ‘tinkering’ posture which makes individuals feel that they’re no longer beholden to institutions or religious dogma.”

Though the religious “nones” — as they are sometimes called — can be atheists or agnostics, many still believe in God or describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

“Today, perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas — even different, conflicting religions — before we decide how we want to live,” McClure explained. “I’ve explored this idea elsewhere as it pertains to Facebook and social networking sites.”

The study also found that increased television viewing was associated with decreased participation in religious activities. However, unlike internet use, television viewing was not linked to a decreased likelihood of being religiously affiliated.

McClure controlled for a number of variables — including age, race, education, location, political affiliation, and more — but like all research, the study has some limitations.

“The biggest caveat is that I’m using data from back in 2010,” McClure said. “When I started writing this article back in 2014, the data really wasn’t that old. I had it accepted for publication in 2016 after going through the review process, but unfortunately, it took over a year and a half to get in print. A lot has changed since then, so it seems that technology moves faster than academia.”

“My hope is that my article helps us begin to think about how technology changes us,” McClure added. “We normally think of what we can do with technology to improve our lives, which is fine and all, but I hope to show that the internet can also work in the background and subtly influence how we see the world and understand religion.”

The study was titled: “Tinkering with Technology and Religion in the Digital Age: The Effects of Internet Use on Religious Belief, Behavior, and Belonging“.