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Losing faith and the internet

April 6, 2014

Everyone enters their youth with their head full of their family’s and culture’s ways, most of which have no more rhyme or reason than those of any other family and culture. So there is an interesting question of what causes people — not often, but sometimes — to dislodge the sexual mores or politics or religion they inherited? Using data from the General Social Survey, Allen Downey, at Olin College, analyzed the rise of the religiously unaffiliated:

• Not surprisingly, the factor with the strongest effect on religious affiliation is religious upbringing, and the number of people raised without religion is increasing, from 3.3% in the 1980s to 5.0% in the 1990s and 7.7% in the 2000s.

• College education decreases the chance of religious affiliation, and the prevalence of college education is increasing. The fraction of people in the U.S. with 16 or more years of education was 17.4% in the 1980s, 24.4% in the 1990s and 27.2% in the 2000s.

• Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation; in the 2010s, 53% of the population used the Internet at least 2 hours per week, and 25% more than 7 hours. Internet use in the 1980s was essentially zero.

• Even controlling for education and Internet use, there is a strong generational effect; people born later are less likely to be affiliated. Part of the observed change can be attributed to generational replacement.

Of course, this is just correlation. Perhaps Downey focuses on the internet because he is a computer scientist, and the rise of the internet has no more to do with loss of religion than the rise of pirates? But.. there is a plausibility argument that the internet provides those in a more closed social setting a large window into how people think and act outside that, and that it and associated network effects do play a role in the loss of religion. Small wonder, then, that so many religious and authoritarian governments want to control it! It would be interesting to see similar analyses of other kinds of beliefs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the belief in natural rights also is largely inherited and has similarly corroded in the last couple of decades. Philosophically, it should have died a century past.

David Sessions wrote an article about his own deconversion, including how modern American culture imbues the religious unaffiliated with its own mores: “There are as many value judgments in liberal humanism as there are in its parent religion, and many people who come to the point of unbelief are happy to accept them despite objecting to the similar ungroundedness of Christianity.” This was picked up by religious writers trying to draw a false equivalence. Sessions now takes them to task. It’s important to point out that one can rationally hold normative convictions partly because of how they sustain and work in the culture in which one lives, without any belief that they somehow constitute universal Truth. An American who holds to our own unique notions of free speech does not require faith in the same way as a Catholic who believes that the Church’s teachings are true.

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