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Allen Downey and the Internet & Religion Debate

by Suzy Lamoreaux

On TIO’s Theme this Month – Religion and the Internet

This past April, Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Olin College of Engineering, published his study on the relationship between Internet use and the decline in religious affiliation among Americans. His findings went viral. Downey concluded that the Internet is responsible for a growing number of Americans who do not associate themselves with a religion. Many news outlets reported on Downey conclusions, most without any criticism: a quick Google search of “The Internet and religion” results in little but paraphrases from this single study.

Professor Allen Downey – Photo: AmazonMany sites – in order to draw in readers, no doubt – covered the story with bold headlines, largely variations on the idea that “The Internet is Killing Religion.” But while Downey’s study made quite a stir, especially (and unsurprisingly) among online publications, how much of his claim can actually be affirmed? And if the Internet is truly taking away from America’s religiously affiliated, what does it mean for the country’s organized religions? Moreover, what does it mean for an organization like Religions for Peace USA?

Professor Downey’s statistical analysis concluded that lack of religious upbringing, education, and Internet use were the three major factors in America’s ever-growing non-religious population. (The number of people identifying as non-religious more than doubled, he notes – from 8 to 18 percent – between 1990 and 2010.) These three factors, Downey claims, account for 50 percent of the drop in religious affiliation, 20 percent of which is solely due to the Internet. And while Downey acknowledges that correlation does not equal causation, he believes this specific correlation is simply too convenient not to mean something.

The MIT Technology Review posits that “a third unidentified factor” could cause “both increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation.” Downey, however, dispels this idea, arguing that “it is hard to imagine” a third factor that, like the Internet, was “something new that was increasing in prevalence during the 1990s and 2000s, just like the Internet.”

The fundamental problem with Downey’s research, therefore, is that he has not answered the questions of how and why the Internet seems to impede religious devotion. To be sure, there seems to be a strong link between an increase in Internet use and the number of people who identify as nonreligious or unaffiliated with a specific religion, but there is a complete lack of qualitative research to go along with this theory. Certainly, Downey could have investigated further before publishing the hard data; the reasons behind this correlation would certainly have been as interesting as the sheer numbers themselves. One hopes Downey will follow up on answering the questions raised by his research.

Exactly how the Internet contributes to religious non-affiliation is unclear, but the Guardian’s Andrew Brown writes that for many, the “how” and “why” are not important, because Downey’s research nonetheless “connects with two vague and widespread ideas: that religion is defeated by knowledge, and that the Internet is a medium of enlightenment.” Of course, these assumptions are dependent upon at least two myths, that (a) everyone who uses the internet uses it for the purpose of enlightenment, and that (b) religious belief is antithetical to enlightenment.

The Other Sides of the Coin

In fact, and what might seem obvious to many, other research suggests the ubiquity of the Internet “may actually strengthen religious ties” by connecting people of certain faiths to each other across vast distances. Indeed, the Internet has made possible an entirely new industry for promoting and teaching religious beliefs. Above all, the Internet is a tool – one whose uses are inexhaustible, but which are ultimately customizable to each user. As Jared Keller of Pacific Standard magazine writes, the Internet “doesn’t make you do anything;” it cannot turn away users from religions by itself.

Religious organizations should not feel threatened by Downey’s study. Though not directly related, the Pew Research Center recently published a survey indicating that around half of the United States population desires a further integration of religion and politics, signaling that faith – and faith in public life – is still very important in the lives of most Americans.

In terms of the Internet, as social media becomes increasingly prevalent, denominations have endless opportunities to advertise themselves and reach out to those interested. In the end, however, the Internet places the user at the center of an endless array of content, through which each user navigates based on personal interest. The success of religious organizations on the Internet is bilateral and symbiotic: content must generate interest among users, yet users have to be present to perpetuate content.

For Religions for Peace USA, a strong foundation is as important as a wide audience. Its primary focus should not necessarily be on gaining more followers, but rather on maintaining and fortifying its identity as the largest interfaith organization in the country. The organization can do its part through a continued effort to advertise its mission and efforts on Facebook, Twitter, and RFPUSA.org. How this content is received, however, is ultimately up to the user.

Go here for more discussion of Allen Downey’s analysis in this month’s TIO.