dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
 
If you want to blame the Internet for something, blame it for allowing a story like this to spread. Or, blame CNN, for featuring it on its Belief Blog last Wednesday, the same Belief Blog whose other recently featured posts include "Five Things You Didn't Know About Moses," "Does the Bible Predict the 'Blood Moon'?" and "Pastor Tries Atheism, Loses Job, Gains $19,000." The author of the study seems like a well-meaning person genuinely interested in the issue; he explains how he drew on data gathered in the General Social Survey showing a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans from 8 percent to 18 percent of the population between 1990 and 2010, while in that same period Internet usage rose from essentially zero to 80 percent. He says he was able to control for a variety of factors, but even he calls the conclusion linking Internet use and disaffiliation "tentative," allowing that “a reasonable person could disagree” with the findings. Yes, a reasonable person could. 
 
Thus, also courtesy of the Internet: this blog post about a story arising from kind of a nonstory on a study that's not really conclusive. Discuss?
Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

I wish we could reconfigure the curriculum of grades 9-12 to require a course in logic and statistics with an emphasis on critical reasoning, with articles like this one as case studies for understanding and classifying different kinds of logical fallacies. 

General Social Survey showing a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans from 8 percent to 18 percent of the population between 1990 and 2010, while in that same period Internet usage rose from essentially zero to 80 percent.

 

Exhibit "A" in the oft quoted but too easily forgotten social science and statistical analysis maxim: correlation is not causation.

Mathematical principle to be remembered: 1 added to 5 is a 20% increease. The identical 1 added to 100 is a 1% increase. The closer to zero you start, the higher the percentage of increase is likely to be.

The Internet is giving naive believers a crash course in the critical questions that biblical scholars have faced for the last three centuries. Fundamentalism is a sophisticated fortress for sheltering from those questions and repelling them. The Internet will speed up recruitment ot agnosticism and fundamentalism. But there is also a third position, that of a mature faith which recognizes the broken and historical texture of our traditions and still trusts in them as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.