The Internet Is Not Killing Religion, Religion is Killing Religion

In the first decade of the seventeenth century in England, with the break with the Roman Catholic Church fully encoded into law and a bevy of scholars working to complete a new translation of the Bible under the sponsorship of the Protestant King James the VI of Scotland, a Lancaster minister, William Harrison, complained that “for one person which we have in the church to hear divine service, sermons and catechism, every piper (there be many in the parish) should at the same instant have many hundred on the greens.”

The comparative success of the piper over the preacher in gathering locals was possible even though church attendance at the time was a matter of law, punishable by fines, public shaming, and even imprisonment.

“Pipers are Killing Religion,” the town crier might well have declared, offering data on the correlation between the number of pipers in a village and the number of butts in local church pews.

Across the pond in the American colonies, religion was not faring much better. In his masterful reconstruction of American religious history, Awash in a Sea of Faith (from which the previous anecdote is drawn), Jon Butler reports that Christianity was “in crisis” in the New World:

Pennsylvania aside, the Restoration colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and North and South Carolina exhibited extraordinary spiritual discord and sectarianism as well as a remarkable but all too familiar indifference to things spiritual. In America’s first European century, then, traditionally thought of as exclusively Puritan, Christian practice not only proved insecure but showed dangerous signs of declining rather than rising.

Colonialism, against its own Christianizing designs was, it seems, killing religion.

It didn’t get much better well after the Revolution, either, as the United States grew in population, global prestige, and wealth. Writing in 1910 about The Spiritual Unrest that characterized the country, muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker lamented:

Not only have the working classes become alienated from the churches, especially from the Protestant churches, but a very large proportion of well-to-do men and women who belong to the so-called cultured class have lost touch with church work. Some retain a membership, but the church plays no vital or important part in their lives. Thousands of men and women who contribute to the support of the churches, yet allow no church duty to interfere with the work or pleasures of their daily lives. They are neither inspired nor commanded. And what is more, this indifferentism is by no means confined to the “wicked city” but prevails throughout the country in small towns and villages as well as in large cities—except possibly in a few localities where “revivals” have recently stirred the people.

This “indifferentism,” Baker argued, was killing religion in America.

Pipers, colonialist debauchery, industrial age indifferentism—thank goodness, religionists might be forgiven for thinking, they didn’t have the internet! We’d have no religion at all by now!

This is clearly the gist of a now relatively steady stream of research and commentary that has formed itself into something of an exurban legend. One more time with feeling: The Internet is Killing Religion. I’ve talked about the absurdity of this claim so many times that I hardly had the energy to bang my head on my desk more than a few times when I saw the Google alerts replaying it in my inbox this week.

A new report from Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, published in the Journal of Things Allen Downey Felt Like Publishing (by way of an open-access article database hosted by Cornell University), has once again fanned the flames of this mythology by showing a “statistical association” between religious affiliation, level of college education, and internet use. This latter phenomenon Downey claims accounts for about 25% of the decline in religious affiliation.

It should be noted that Downey kind of, sort of makes clear that the statistical association between internet use and affiliation “does not prove causation,” because he knows that people like me—“Someone who has taken an introductory statistics class” (But, ha!, some of us had to take it twice! So there!)—“might insist that correlation does not imply causation.”

My statistically muddled insistence be damned, however, because Downey doubles down by arguing that “correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations.” Like pipers, for instance.

What is missed, however, in the churning of this internet-killed-religion yarn is, first of all, that changes in complex phenomena—like being human or practicing religion in institutionalized membership-based groups—cannot be reduced to one factor or even a set of factors, no matter how diverse. Because I was a humanities major (I just had that one statistics class. Twice.), I turn to the novelist Margaret Drabble to explain what I’m getting at here:

You can’t learn everything from the laboratory, that’s what he used to say. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, he told us. The whole behaves differently from the parts, and has different properties. That’s what he taught us, and he was right. It’s out of fashion to say these days, when we spend our time scrutinizing the interactions of eukaryotic microbes, but it’s true, nevertheless. It’s still true. (The Sea Lady)

More significantly, the trouble with efforts that seek some root cause for what we have come to think of as an increasing decline in religious affiliation but which, when considered across a wider historical time span, turns out to be something of a normalization in affiliation patterns, is that it gets the question backwards.

That is, instead of asking why people aren’t religiously affiliated anymore, we might ask why they ever were. This question, which brings with it questions about what constitutes “religion” and “religious affiliation,” opens enquiry into the social and political construction of religious groups and the pressures borne upon ordinary people, often violently, to attend worship rather than, say, sitting in the park with family and friends enjoying the warmth of the sun, the smell of the grass, and perhaps the otherwise unlanguagable sigh of the human heart in certain moments of connection, contentedness, and wonder as a sweet piper’s tune sings into the air. It allows us, following Talal Asad’s critique of William Cantwell Smith’s conception of “faith,” to consider what elements of human experience are deliberately and incidentally left out of whatever it is we might understand as “religion” in its institutionalized forms, and why. Who is served by the various exclusions and inclusions of institutional religion? To what ends? And who is harmed?

What we might consider, then, with much more nuance and complexity than mere data manipulation can possibly tell us, is whether the idea of religion along with the institutional and ideological structures this idea has sponsored, has begun to run its course in Western culture. At the least, we might look at they ways in which other social platforms—coffee shops, cycling groups, drop-in yoga classes, and, yes, online social networking sites—have begun to reconfigure and redistribute benefits traditionally correlated with (but not necessarily caused by) religion and to mitigate its associated harms (even if also accruing harms of its own).

No—alas, I must say it again—the internet is not killing religion. But it does seem to more and more people that, cries of its own victimization notwithstanding, religion has killed off more than its share of pipers over time. How about we look into that?