I have been saying for some time that the internet is a real danger to religion. A new paper by Allen B. Downey of the Olin School of Engineering argues that what I had merely guessed at might be generally true. By controlling for other variables such as religious upbringing and education, the author finds that “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation. Increases in Internet use since 1990, from 0 to nearly 80% of the general population, account for about 20% of the observed decrease in affiliation.” (p. 10)
I had no empirical evidence for making my assertion but was basing it on the idea that many people grow up in families and communities that are religiously homogeneous and thus it never even occurs to them that there are other people who have different religious beliefs but are as convinced of the rightness of their faith as they are. Another factor was that the internet was enabling nontheists to be heard much more than previously. The authors have the same hypotheses.
Similarly, it is easy to imagine at least two ways Internet use could con-tribute to disaffiliation. For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally. Also, for people with religious doubt, the Internet provides access to people in similar circumstances all over the world. Conversely, it is harder (but not impossible) to imagine plausible reasons why disaffiliation might cause increased Internet use. (p.9)
The authors are of course aware of the fact what has been studied is the correlation of decline of religiosity with increased internet use, and we know that correlation is not causation. But they add:
Someone who has taken an introductory statistics class might insist that correlation does not imply causation, and that is a useful reminder. Nevertheless, correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely. (p.9)
So while this paper should be taken as suggestive rather than definitive, it is still interesting.