God and the Machines: More Internet Exposure Makes Religious Affiliation Weaker

(Sputnik) – In an ongoing debate, people argue whether all things digital have changed our society in principle, or if the changes are purely cosmetic. A new study by Paul K. McClure of Baylor University gives an interesting angle on internet use, by exploring how it affects a person’s religious beliefs.

In a study, published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, McClure reported a nation-wide survey conducted in the US that covered 1,714 adult respondents. During the survey, McClure asked people about internet usage and their religious beliefs.

“In my own life, I’ve noticed the drastic impact that technology from the past 20 years has had on our social lives, so I started wondering, how might the internet influence religious beliefs, practices, and institutions?” McClure said.

“We know, for example, that internet technology has changed politics, businesses, relationships, and attention spans, but fewer people were writing about the internet’s impact on religion.”

It turns out that heavy internet use does not make people less religious, if we are talking about religious activities. Those who engaged in religious activities before, continue to engage in them now. Arguably, that’s because religious activities are more a part of a person’s cultural code, traditions and habits, than religion as faith.

But if we speak about religion as a teaching or dogma, then contemporary religious belief is dissolving noticeably.

“I argue that internet use encourages a certain ‘tinkering’ posture which makes individuals feel that they’re no longer beholden to institutions or religious dogma,” McClure said in an interview for PsyPost.

Being less indoctrinated correlates with less “religious exclusiveness” — that is, people no longer think they belong to the only correct religion and so dismiss other religions as heresy.

“I also discovered that individuals who spend lots of time online are less likely to be religious exclusivists, or in other words they’re less likely to think there’s only one correct religion out there,” McClure explained.

The availability of information at the tips of your fingers allows people to learn more about various religions before deciding if they’d like to join, the study says.

“Today, perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas — even different, conflicting religions — before we decide how we want to live,” McClure explained.

Interestingly, television use had an opposite effect: while people’s religious affiliation seemed unharmed, respondents appeared to engage less in religious activities (maybe they didn’t want to miss a new episode in a favorite series and who can blame them?)

“My hope is that my article helps us begin to think about how technology changes us,” McClure detailed. “We normally think of what we can do with technology to improve our lives, which is fine and all, but I hope to show that the internet can also work in the background and subtly influence how we see the world and understand religion.”

Unfortunately, the study is based on 2010 data which is now arguably dated, and McClure acknowledges the fact. In 2014, when he began his studies, data from 2010 would be relatively fresh, but the internet has naturally changed a great deal since that time, and study results should be taken primarily as indicative of general trend.

“It seems that technology moves faster than academia,” McClure says.

Originally published by Sputnik