Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.
(By the way, I’m not a fan of graphs that mislead by having different scales: the percent change in the adoption of the internet is far, far greater than the percent change in the adoption of atheism — this chart illustrates a similarity in timing, only.)
A computer scientist, Allen Downey, has dissected these trends to identify the major components affecting religiosity, and has narrowed it down to three big ones: upbringing, education, and access to the internet.
He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.
However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor. However, it cannot account for all of the fall or anywhere near it. In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.
He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion.
Since the 1980s, the fraction of people receiving college level education has increased from 17.4 percent to 27.2 percent in the 2000s. So it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the drop in numbers claiming religious affiliation today. But although the correlation is statistically significant, it can only account for about 5 percent of the drop, so some other factor must also be involved.
That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.
This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.
That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.
I think there’s more to the story than this, though. The internet is too big and messy to be simplistically causal: there are also a great many sites dedicated to reinforcing the lies of religion, obviously, and there are Chrisians and Moslems who use the internet as a tool for evangelism and tribe-building. A more interesting question would be about how people use the internet. I don’t think a person’s faith would be challenged by the internet alone, but only if they use the internet to explore and compare conflicting views.