The Internet is Not Killing Organized Religion

A couple years ago, I responded to the assertion by experimental psychologist Richard Beck that Facebook was “killing the church” by insisting that the church was pretty much doing a fine job of that on its own, unaided by new social media. Beck’s argument, briefly, was that the banal social interaction that once filled post-worship coffee hours had been absorbed by day-to-day Facebook interactions. I suggested back then, among other things, that if swapping Jell-O recipes and catching up on local gossip was the main draw of Christian churches and other religions, the smoking gun was hardly digital.

Recently, Valerie Tarico updated the theory over at AlterNet with a more extensive and substantive claim that the internet has allowed various forms of religious dissonance to fly over, tunnel under, and otherwise breach the hard boundaries of traditional religions (by which she generally means narrowly conservative evangelical Protestantism with a touch of Opus Dei Catholicism). “Traditional religion, one built on ‘right belief,’” insists Tarico (who’s clearly never met a Buddhist or a Unitarian), “requires a closed information system.”

By contrast, she argues, the internet—encountered by pretty much everyone, pretty much every day, pretty much everywhere—is an open system that allows believers, seekers, and doubters to encounter scientific information that competes with anti-scientific fundamentalist worldviews. Further, it offers easy access to knee-slappingly funny and enlightening perspectives on “ridiculous beliefs.” Likewise, Tarico reminds us that the internet has allowed for the wide exposure of religious scandals past and present, which has made it nigh on impossible for a reasonable person to sustain any sort of fantasy that religions have ever offered much by way of positive value to the world.

Finally, in a more spiritual than social echo of Beck’s argument, Tarico highlights the ways in which the internet has facilitated the development of both unreligious and interreligious community that replaces the face-to-face religious communities. “The Vatican, the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Southern Baptist Convention,” she concludes, “should be very worried.”

Should they be? Once again, I’m inclined to say, “not so much.”

Sure, the web has opened a treasure trove of religious, unreligious, and irreligious information that would not have been widely accessible in previous times. Even without this, however, as consistent outbreaks through history of violence toward, and suppression of, those identified as “heretics” or “infidels” makes clear, people were plenty capable of religious dissent and outright unbelief before Facebook made it easier for them to create a global social network. From a somewhat less violent perspective, are not all of the stories of the Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, et al at some level stories of questioning, challenging, dissenting, and adapting dominant, mainstream religious traditions?

As for claims on community, it seems clear that internet participation has so far had only limited impact on exploration outside of one’s tribe. The 15 million people hanging out at the Jesus Daily Facebook page are not in search of much “interspiritual” seasoning for their generally conservative, evangelical views. The same is likely the case with the close to 300,000 members of the Facebook Global Muslim group. Members of my own largely progressive, over-educated digital social network do periodically post right-leaning and even fundamentalist resources, which are for the most part deconstructed on ideological lines, cleverly mocked, and dismissed in fairly short order. It’s hardly the kind of behavior that leads to reevaluations of long held positions.

Again and again, we see that the promise of ideological cross-pollination and the hope of more robust dialogue through social media participation has not widely been realized. A review of research on political engagement online by Jennifer Brundidge and Ronald E. Rice, for instance, suggests that access to diverse viewpoints and richer information on the internet tends primarily to benefit those of higher socioeconomic status, allowing deeper insight into the political Other without necessarily changing minds. Internet practice among those at lower socioeconomic levels, on the other hand, tends to reinforce like-mindedness. Further, the most religiously active Americans, according to a 2011 Pew study, are no less likely to use new technologies than are their un- or irreligious neighbors.

Certainly, it is the case that our increasing participation in digital social networks and daily digitally-integrated life practice is changing us culturally and as individuals. Longstanding traditional centers of authority are increasingly challenged. Transparency and horizontal participation is valued. Attention to written texts is subverted by interest in images. Boundaries between one cultural field and others are relaxed. Life in general is more on-demand and DIY in the Digital Age. All of that goes for religion as much as for everything else.

Yet there is nothing in the available data to suggest that changes in American religiosity have anything more particular to do with digital culture, than do changes in, for example, journalism or education, both of which are consistently and prematurely marked for digitally-induced death. Indeed, the most recent Pew report on Nones did not specifically address the religious backgrounds of the growing population of the unaffiliated beyond noting that most were raised as Christians. But the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey showed more nuanced patterns of disaffiliation, as illustrated in this perhaps unique use of a statistical table in Religion Dispatches:

Here, the data show that people raised as evangelical Protestants were less likely to leave their childhood religion than were those in more progressive mainline Protestant traditions. Further, those raised in more conservative traditions who did leave their childhood denominations were significantly less likely than those in progressive traditions to adopt no religion and more likely to move to another evangelical denomination. Progressives, by contrast, were more likely to become Nones or evangelicals than to affiliate with another mainline denomination. Arguably among the most liberal of the mainline traditions, Episcopalians and Congregationalists were most likely to become unaffiliated, with twenty percent of those raised in the traditions becoming Nones as adults.

As the Pew data makes clear, Nones are markedly more progressive than are the religiously affiliated in general because the majority of them started out in religious denominations with more progressive worldviews. The Pew data gloms together liberal and conservative Roman Catholics, who come between evangelicals and mainline Protestants in their contribution to the unaffiliated (14%) population, but it would be interesting to explore the balance of ideologies across this number. Are liberal Catholics more likely to become unaffiliated than conservative ones? I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this is the case.

Certainly, findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion bear this out, showing that mainline Protestant and Catholic young people exhibit significantly less robust and enduring denominational identities than do their evangelical, Mormon, and other more conservative religious peers. At the end of the day, that is, it is not so much “the culture”—digital culture, secular culture—that is driving young people from churches, it is religious culture itself. Particularly, it seems, the religious culture found in progressive mainline and liberal Catholic denominations.

As I am regularly in the uncomfortable position of announcing to the members of my own declining denomination, progressive churches in many ways form their young people to leave their communities. Teens and young adults of all sorts may well be noodling around on the web encountering new religious ideas and practices. But it seems to be the case that progressive kids—kids whose parents would never for a minute consider taking them on vacation to a creationist theme park, or drill them in apologetic strategies with which to face down atheists—are more likely to be open to new religious perspectives and practices than are conservative young people.

Now, I’d certainly argue that forming young minds with an inclination toward religious curiosity and openness is not a bad thing. But it does present significant challenges to sustaining institutionalized religious commitment to tolerance and pluralism. That’s an issue that new digital media engagement can impact in myriad positive and negative ways, but it can’t do it without human participation. Once again, if the internet is killing the churches, it’s because churches gave it the means to do so.