Understanding the Digital World
Earlier this year an argument surfaced about the internet and religion. Is the internet taking people away from religion? Last April, Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service published “Is the Internet Bad for Religion?” She reviewed an academic paper by Allen Downey, a professor of computer science, whose research showed that “the share of Americans claiming no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent to 18 percent while the number of Americans connected to the Internet rose from almost nothing to 80 percent.”
To his credit, Downey is the first to admit that the internet is not the only cause of religious disaffiliation, but he feels that it is a major factor.
Other scholars say Downey’s conclusions may be too pat. Winston interviewed Stephen O’Leary of University of Southern California, who studies religion on the internet. He points to the vast religious marketplace available today, a distrust of clergy (largely informed by sexual abuse), and alienation from congregational life, as some of the factors in the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ community. Professor O’Leary adds, “They haven’t given up their belief in the supernatural. They just don’t feel they need organizations or institutions to bring it to them.”
Downey’s modest claims brought a flurry of articles. Tom Erlich (see box) goes after Downey’s science, his methodology, and offers a much more positive, if challenging future utilizing the power of digital communication.
Elizabeth Drescher’s dramatic start and sobering history lesson about religious disaffiliation in American history is preface to her wise reflections, pointing to the complexities that Downey leaves out (see the second box).
Finally, below is a powerful 12-minute faith journey by Jim Gilliam. His story ranges from a fundamentalist upbringing, to cancer and a broken faith, a love affair with the internet, a double-lung transplant, and coming to the conclusion that “I believe in God, and the internet is my religion.”