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The Internet and Religion: the Current Debate

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.”


COMMENTARY: If the Internet isn’t killing religion, what is?
Tom Ehrich, Religion News Service, April 22, 2014

A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.

He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”

It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964) …

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The Internet is Not Killing Religion, Religion is Killing Religion
Elizabeth Drescher, Religions Dispatches, April 22, 2014

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…

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