The advent of the World Wide Web rang in the dawn of a new age. The Internet’s greater connectivity, flow of information and more game choices gave the public something they did not know they needed; a new religion. According to a study done by a professor of computer science, this change has translated to fewer people claiming a religious affiliation and even fewer attending church.
Allen Downey at Massachusett’s Olin College of Engineering has found that numbers of people claiming a religious affiliation are dwindling while numbers of people using the Internet are increasing. He did add that while there is a definitive correlation, this does not necessarily mean that the Internet is responsible for the seeming demise of organized religion. He also states that there could be a third factor at play. It is noted in the study that college graduates have increased since the 1980’s and this could also have a part. Statistically speaking, college graduates tend to eschew religious affiliation, either preferring a more personal spiritual identity or atheism/agnosticism.
The paper is, of course, available online. It points out that those who get online even just a few times per week were less inclined to identify with one religion than people who never use the Internet. Users who were online more than seven hours per week were even less inclined to identify with one religion.
When he breaks it all down, professor Downey believes that the Internet could be responsible for about 20 percent of the decline in affiliations with religions. 25 percent can be assigned to those who were not raised going to church. Five percent may be correlated to the aforementioned increase in college graduates. 50 percent remains to be explained. The new religion of the Internet may have something to do with the remaining decline in religious affiliations.
An associate professor at the University of Southern California may also be able to help identify the remaining 50 percent. Stephen O’Leary has done his own studies on religion and the internet. He claims that the religious “marketplace” has failed to retain “customers.”
As well, many young people have lost their trust in the all-encompassing authority of religion and churches. They have seen the sex scandals, crazy right-wing behavior and violence that often is perpetrated in the name of religion and they are turned off. O’Leary wants to make it clear that lack of a religious affiliation does not automatically mean one is an atheist. Lots of spiritual people have turned inward to nurture their beliefs in unseen powers.
They have also found spiritual communities online. So, while they may not be putting on their Sunday best and heading over to their neighborhood church, many spiritually inclined folks are joining others who are like-minded in the virtual world and are communing with their Gods that way. It is not so surprising. It is now much easier to find people we can get along with on the Internet than it is in their own apartment complexes. Groups like Wiccans, Star People, Rainbow Family of Living Light and others are so much more accessible through the use of the Internet.
A fellow named Jim Gilliam gave a moving speech in 2011 claiming the Internet as his religion. In it he says that with the power of the Internet, people are the creators of a new world. The interconnectedness of people is what makes the Internet such a valuable tool for commerce, entertainment and indeed spirituality. The Internet is a new church, a new religion and a new vehicle for faith.
Opinion by Stacy Lamy