What’s causing the boom in atheism?

It is only appropriate that now, while I’m at Skep-Tech 2, we should get an article about the influence of technology on religion. It seems to be primarily corrosive.

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.


  1. says

    I think, for a lot of people, the internet comes as a massive shock, being exposed to all kinds of different ideas and people. That can lead to much exploring and thinking. The ‘net also allows for people who have felt alone in certain ways to find out they aren’t alone.

  2. doublereed says

    On the flipside, the net allows people to see the various crimes of religion which they may not have been exposed to or never seen before.

    Online forums means that people will whip out links and data in conversations where that is normally impossible. Scientific studies, sure, but also what the Bible says and where.

    Christianity has been around a long time, but for most of it, most people couldn’t read. And even when they could, the Catholic Church demanded that it be in Latin. Ignorance of the very books they’re supposed to be following is a fundamental aspect of religion, because it gives priests and clerics the power of authority. But never before has the bible been so easily searchable.

  3. Athywren says

    But never before has the bible been so easily searchable.

    I strongly suspect that this is a large part of it. It seems like a lot of people hold onto their faith by declaring that certain passages don’t say what they say.
    I once saw someone claim that the passage that promotes the death penalty for the crime of being raped didn’t actually mention rape, but suggested consensual sex (because that makes the death sentence a-ok!). Someone responded to him with that passage, in every translation available on one of the bible sites (bible-gateway, I think…). They put a summary at the bottom of the comment, of how many specifically said rape, how many specifically said consent, and how many were vague. Of the three options, only consent scored zero. I imagine that the ability to see that sort of thing is a big help in pushing people away from religion.

  4. barbrykost says

    When I opened this page, Ed Brayton’s blog announced “Fisher Wants Prison For Adultery” on line one, and in the adjacent column was your question. it was as if Brayton’s had already answered it.

  5. Brandon says

    I think Inaji nails it in #1. While it’s easy enough to seek out echo chambers on the internet, anyone with even a passing interest in learning things will, in short order, learn of a number of perspectives that they’d potentially never encounter in person.

  6. JasonTD says

    I don’t have a lot of time to go into detail at the moment, but the first few commenters are at least close to my experience. While I was not brought up religious, my interest in active non-belief coincides almost exactly with the extent to which I began to use the internet to search out what people had to say about religion.

    So, I think that it is that the internet has so greatly enabled people interested in exploring various freethinking views to explore them in a way that really can help them reach a conclusion.

  7. untarded says

    Being raised with a “religious affiliation” put me on the path to atheism. Subjecting children to religious indoctrination results in a lifelong mindfuck.

    “No religious affiliation” doesn’t necessarily denote atheism or agnosticism, but it shows people are thinking for themselves.

  8. koyote ken says

    You’re being too modest, PZ. 87% of the increase is due to Pharyngula……

  9. cswella says

    I always figured a good portion of it resulted from disgust at the bigotry shown towards women and homosexuals. At least that’s what started my leaving religion.

  10. says

    untarded @ 8, you might want to consider a nym change if you’re planning on posting here. It will make things nicer for you.

  11. Athywren says

    I always figured a good portion of it resulted from disgust at the bigotry shown towards women and homosexuals.

    I used to think that too, but then… elevators.

  12. anteprepro says

    Second Inaji.

    Also: I think they should look into the politicization of religion and into trends in fundamentalism. Anecdotally, the reason why most of my kin and friends are non-religious (though not necessarily atheist) is largely because they don’t like the really super dogmatic religious types. Don’t like them in church, don’t like them in politics, don’t like them on their doorstep, don’t like them butting into their lives. Just don’t like them and avoid religion as a result, even if they “believe” in “higher powers” in some nebulous, half-hearted fashion.

    Some tangent data: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx

    On the question of “how important is religion in your life”, not important went up 10% since 1992, very important stayed about the same, so the drop was mostly in the middle ground “fairly important”. Reported church membership dropped 10%.

    Drops in following denominations: Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, No opinion
    Increases in: Other Baptist, Non-denominational, Pentecostal, Church of Christ

    Increase of born again Christians of 5%. (Most of those increasing trends seem to have an arc where they are higher than 1992 today, but are actually decreasing since the early to mid 2000’s)

    Over last ten years, 5% of people shifted from belief in God to belief in universal spirit. Percent believing in neither remained about the same.

    Belief in the devil went from 55% in 1990 to 70% recently. Over ten years, belief in Heaven went up 9% and belief in hell went up 13%.

    Verdict: I think that there might be something to the idea that religious polarization is happening. Whether it is a cause or an effect is up for debate.

  13. Doubting Thomas says

    Because before the internet, I was hardly ever exposed to the thinking of people like you, PZ. I had doubts and did not “believe” but the internet gave me a place to discuss, argue and organize my thoughts and attitudes like I never had before. I may have been an atheist before the internet, but the internet let me “come out”.

  14. Kevin Kehres says

    Silly. It’s obvious that when people are recruited into the gay lifestyle, they’re also recruited into the atheistic lifestyle.

    I mean, back in the 70s, there were no gays. Then AIDS came along and suddenly everyone got recruited to be gay (it was like skydiving — a bold, risky choice). And now, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a gay.

    And, of course, as soon as someone decides to be gay, they decide to be an atheist. There are no religious gays. It comes as a package — gay-no-religion. Mainly because it’s too much of a bother to get up to go to church on Sunday after having a gay old time all night Saturday.


    Alternatively, correlation does not equal causation. I think the term “multifactorial” was invented for analyses like these. You can take any trend and correlate it with another trend (positively or negatively). For example, the rise in the number of households with cable TV. Or the decline in violent crime. Just because one line goes up while the other goes down (or both lines go up in parallel), doesn’t mean that one caused the other to do so.

  15. twas brillig (stevem) says

    The rise is totally reactionary! They are not REAL Atheists, they are just kids rejecting whatever their parents are part of. They are not Atheists who rationally determined that belief in a non-entity is foolish. No, these are just people who are rebelling against their parents for putting Religion all over all the public programs. So they just say, “Unaffiliated”, to indicate that they do not want to be part of what their parents are doing. Like hippies growing long hair; while their parents kept their hair short. [and kids now keep their hair short because their hippy parents have long hair]. Doncha know, the Internetz spoils everything! As Internetz grows, Atheism grows! /snark

    Seriously, I do worry that the growth of “Atheism” is simply a rejection of the nonsense coming from the fundagelicals getting into public policy and polluting the media. If the question was more “nuanced”; it could be a little more clear whether the nuAtheists are “choosing Atheism”, or simply “rejecting Religion”. The difference is subtle; but real.

  16. HappyNat says

    I was raised Christian, became disinterested in college, but it wasn’t until grad school that I became and atheist. Of course grad school also was the first time I owned a computer and had an internet connection at home. I remember being offended by online atheists, but doing research and looking at “both sides”, it became pretty clear where the truth was. Sociology and the internet put a knife through the heart of any faith I had.

  17. alexanderz says

    anteprepro #13:

    Verdict: I think that there might be something to the idea that religious polarization is happening. Whether it is a cause or an effect is up for debate.

    Then why isn’t there an increase in church attendance?
    I think the consistent 30% gap between the very religious and those who actually go to church at least once a week (aside for readers who didn’t read the report: about half of those who find religion very important don’t go to church every week) shows that “religion” and “religious” are nothing but buzz words; people with a certain attitude/culture/upbringing identify with religion, but don’t really accept its tenets.
    This might explain why the religious seem so eager to forgive themselves and other religious for obvious sins, while very vocally decrying those sins in others. For them “religion” is nothing more than an useful political flag, a sign you belong to the conservative camp. Which is why, I think, the Very Religious percentage stayed the same while the percentage of various Christian denominations has steadily been decreasing.

  18. mikeyb says

    I think as people become exposed to a broader set of ideas, it leads to comparisons and a more skeptical view of ones own beliefs, at least it should. This is a large scale version of the evil atheistic professor cliche that as kids go to college they tend to become more secular. I think it is part of a larger trend towards a more secular zeitgeist, which parallels the rejection of anti-gay bigotry. I think in a view decades it will start to be irreversible, and we will be looking a lot more like Europe, hopefully with similar politics as well. By then hopefully we won’t have endured equally irreversible corrosive effects of libertarian economic policies that make virtually everyone except the 1% abject serfs, or environmental degradation not just climate change that gets close to irreversible as well. It’s definitely a positive trend, which I think is far more likely to continue, but there are other very negative things going on that could make this all irrelevant in the long run.

  19. mikeyb says

    I also think these charts severely understate the facts. A lot of faith is “belief in belief” as Dan Dennett puts it. A set of beliefs to keep up appearances, as is well practiced by politicians. Like a sandpile, once we cross a certain threshold where this no longer matters, the dam will burst so to speak, and we will be like many parts of Europe where you speak about religion with hesitation and embarrassment rather than as a lapel pin.

  20. says

    I have to wonder how much of a role people’s own eyes have played, which has more to do with “traditional media” and politics than the internet. The fervently religious got their way, achieved power and numbers, and showed themselves to have ethics as bad or worse than everybody else. Did those who got on the bandwagon wake up and decide to get off once they realized religion doesn’t make people moral?

  21. says

    I think the Internet is a big play in it, but the explosion only shows part of the story. I think it’s more of a matter of community and interaction between them. There are “big” organizations on the religious side, but they tend to skew more towards certain strains or causes and not to the idea of their religion as a whole. So communities around the religious belief itself tend to be within the church itself, if it exists, or on the light, fluffy side of Facebook copy/pastes or your daily prayer.

    Within Atheism or non-belief or even Skepticism, it’s a lot broader in the connection, and even when there’s a big piece of disbelief, the underlying common connection is still there and talked about, while they’re just sort of assumed. That’s in big part to be that religion is so ingrained in our cultures that it ends up being “a given.”

    Sadly, it also ends up that the common connection leads to conflict as well that doesn’t pop up as much, and that’s what we see now. There’s an explosion, but all of that “other” is still there to mess things up (see all the skeeziness that’s infecting Skepticism).

  22. mikeyb says

    Actually in the long run, secularism is far more important than atheism, though they usually go hand in hand like CO2 and global warming. Secularism says if you want to believe in the flying spaghetti monster, invisible sky daddy’s or perfect your chakras, as long as there is consent and you’re not hurting kids, and not trying to jam it down our throats with irrational evil stupidities its fine with us (of course this may be tricky since a most indoctrination occurs on kids).

  23. Sarahface, who is trying to break the lurking habit says

    I know for me my agnosticism (and later atheism) came right about the time I started using the internet to explore new viewpoints – in particular, right about the time I started learning about feminism, which was maybe a year or so before Elevatorgate. Between atheist friends and then the writing of Greta Christina, I gradually moved along the line through agnostic and into atheist. So I’m at least in part an atheist because of the internet.

  24. consciousness razor says

    Religious unaffiliation isn’t atheism. It’s not being affiliated with a religion. This doesn’t look like it’s about the boom in atheism. The boom in atheism is part of it, but not the thing itself. You can believe anything you want without identifying with a group that believes the exact same thing, or without supporting it directly with your time, money, labor, socializing with members of the group, and so on.

    But look at it from another angle. The converse is also true. You can identify with the group (or “affiliate” yourself with it) for a variety of reasons, but not believe all manner of things which are associated with that particular religion. There are “cultural Christians” (and Jews, Muslims, etc.) who might have barely any of the metaphysical beliefs that an “orthodox” Christian of their denomination would have. However, culture being what it is, they probably have some similar ethical/political beliefs, similar aesthetics, a similar sense of history, and generally a similar perspective on how they fit into the world. If they don’t believe in a god or a soul or an afterlife (for example), that’s one piece of the puzzle, but it doesn’t imply they take that to its logical conclusion and shift everything in their lives around because of it. People don’t tend to be all that rational, and they don’t tend to systematically build a coherent worldview (which also happens to look just like somebody else’s). They think whatever they think (if they even think about it at all), then they just go on with their lives.

    As I see it, my siblings and I all fit into different parts of this picture. One is definitely Roman Catholic, sends the kids to Catholic school, is in the Knight of Columbus even. Yet sibling #1 is no theologian, doesn’t seem to care about any of that, doesn’t seem to have a dogmatic bone in their body, and I’m fairly certain they don’t believe everything an orthodox Roman Catholic would believe. Sibling #2 is even less obviously religious, though I doubt they’ve really thought much about it at all. Got involved with a Baptist for a while and attended their services (then married, then divorced), and has now married someone else who is nominally Lutheran, and neither of them seem devout at all. It’s simply been a choice of “which partner am I with, and which people am I going to be around?” not one about “what do I really believe?” Sibling #2 would probably count as “unaffiliated” by any definition, yet I strongly doubt that says anything about their beliefs. You’d be hard-pressed to get a straight answer out of them about gods or souls or an afterlife — ask about something else instead, anything else. Change the subject immediately. And I’m from a Catholic family of course, and there’s got to be a lot that I think and do which is strongly influenced by my experiences growing up. Even now, I still sort of “have” to be around them: they continue to be a very important part of my life and shape how I think about things, what things I care about and so forth. But I don’t identify myself with their church. So I wouldn’t call myself “culturally Catholic” even if that label would fit somehow. In fact, I don’t know if I could be more opposed to their church and everything it stands for. The point is just that the world is a whole lot more complicated than a few answers on a survey.

  25. robro says

    One factor could be that the Internet exposes everything more, including religions. We’ve seen a lot of the evil that lurks in the back rooms of religious institutions in recent years which might not have been so widely told except for the Internet. We are also exposed to more of the delusional kookiness of religions on a daily basis. While this might merely cause people to drift away from religious institutions, rather than become actual atheists, the odds are in favor that a percentage of that growing number of people would become atheists.

  26. mikeyb says

    Quickly, other influences – Cinema, TV shows and literature in general. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones for example don’t exactly promote religion. Also sports, the NFL is way bigger in America than Jesus, and may actually be the de facto religion of America.

  27. Sastra says

    “Atheists own the internet.”

    Not true, of course, but that phrase got to be a popular meme as it became more and more common for internet atheists to weigh in with THEIR views seemingly every time any thing associated with religion came up. The cultural consensus that we politely refrain from arguing with someone who praises God for saving them from a disaster or who links charitable impulses to a spiritual mandate — a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ which was being followed in “real” life — disappeared once you went on line. Because of a variety of factors which included anonymity, you could be rude. Not just rude-rude in the horrible way which motivates trolls, but rude-provoking in the way which moves progress along. The debate was on.

    If college weakens religion because you are exposed to a variety of different views, then the internet ramps that factor up to 11. Back in the 90’s I was predicting that the internet was going to be a major boon for atheism (no, I don’t take credit for great wisdom here, a lot of people were seeing the same thing.) Religion and spirituality were all over the web – but they were already the status quo. If you wanted to find someone else who loved Jesus or believed in ESP in your community you could not only do so, you could tell people you were doing so and be smug about it. “I’m searching for God,” you’d say, and there was the rightful expectation that everyone around you would nod and smile and possibly help. How wonderful.

    But atheists never had that … till we all went online and discovered that “I think the supernatural is a lot of bullshit” was considered acceptable in a lot of places. We could not only speak truth to power, we could speak it to each other. There was a series of networks. And then we learned from each other WHY our suspicions made even more sense than we originally thought. Bottom line, if you’re a despised minority kept isolated and quiet when things open up there is nowhere to go BUT up.

    Everyone’s made some good points; some have made excellent points. IF the internet is indeed one of the causes of the rise in atheism (and not just a correlation), then I would guess that this is based on:

    1.) Exposure to the fact that there are a lot of atheists, more than most people thought (especially true if they thought it was ‘none.)
    2.) Exposure to the fact that atheists give reasons which don’t much resemble what most people assumed (especially true if they thought it was ‘I don’t want to be accountable for my evil actions’ or “I can’t believe love is real.”)
    3.) Becoming increasingly comfortable with diversity and the realization that diversity entails debate.
    4.) Becoming increasingly comfortable with ‘borrowing’ and incorporating good ideas from many sources.
    5.) A snowball effect where small groups of ‘none’s and agnostics slowly accumulate numbers and ideas and roll up into a larger and larger group of atheists.

    Atheism has one major advantage over religion: it’s true. Not Perfect Truth, but a more humble and reasonable working conclusion. Given a level playing field and a fair fight and a large amount of time, that’s eventually going to matter.
    Hellllooo, Internet.

  28. unclefrogy says

    I wonder if it a real change in belief or is it being more socially acceptable to admit your actual beliefs or the lack of them.
    When thinking about religion and belief it is useful to consider that to a large part religion is probably more a social institution then it is a theological philosophical exercise.
    Unless someone invents a new religion that is far less concerned with the daily behavior of its adherents and is less judgmental and controlling I think the trend of increase in non-affiliation if it is real will continue.

    uncle frogy

  29. unclefrogy says

    I think the true universal religion of the human species is in fact “more room, more stuff”

    uncle frogy

  30. devnll says

    Wow. As presented there – and I realise you’re just doing a necessarily-incomplete summary of his work – that is some mind-bogglingly bad science there. Using similar pairs of graphs I can “show” that the internet, since it did not exist before the 1980’s, is responsible for anything else that has increased – or decreased! – since the 80’s. Obviously, the internet is responsible for the decline of bad hair bands, the increase in the amount of Star Wars merchandise, the previously-mentioned increase in the number of Americans getting college degrees, and the number of Michael Bay films.

  31. mikeyb says

    @33. Notice the many caveats in PZ’s post. Anyway, one could make a case that the printing press had a huge influence on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but one might be hard pressed making a definitive bullet proof case, except through chains of inference. I don’t think anyone seriously denies this though.

  32. anteprepro says

    Then why isn’t there an increase in church attendance?

    I don’t know. It seems like on the matter of church attendance, they lost 7% of those who went the most, every other category of people who go irregularly stayed the same, and the amount lost was simply the gain of the group that never goes to church. However you slice it, whatever the theory, church is losing clout in all of this.

    Which is why, I think, the Very Religious percentage stayed the same while the percentage of various Christian denominations has steadily been decreasing

    Did you note the denominations that were decreasing versus the ones that were growing? Wishy washy Protestant factions dissolving while more conservative factions boom. Still a net decrease in affiliation, but still.

  33. says

    anteprepro at #13:

    Belief in the devil went from 55% in 1990 to 70% recently. Over ten years, belief in Heaven went up 9% and belief in hell went up 13%.

    I blame this on Dick Cheney.

  34. says

    Meanwhile, people who insist on being religious want more and more to be able to also say that they are scientists and that science and religion are compatible. I’ll bet that’s a growing category.

    Sana Saeed set up a straw atheist (more than one actually) and then proceeded to knock the poor fellow down:

    Acolytes of Dawkins & Hitchens pretend that ignorant evangelicals represent all of religion. Here’s what they miss: […]

    With age, my wonder with religion and science did not cease. Both were, to me, extraordinary portals into the life around me that left me constantly bewildered, breathless and amazed. […]

    here we are today being told that the two are irreconcilable; that religion begets an anti-science crusade and science pushes anti-religion valor. When did this become the only conversation on religion and science that we’re allowed to have? […]

    the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science […]

    Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris, New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay. […]

    Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything. Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.

    Salon link.

  35. David Marjanović says

    The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones for example don’t exactly promote religion.

    The Disney universe: no light switches and no religion.

    That’s not new, though, and neither is LOTR. Harry Potter, funnily enough, is intended to promote religion…

  36. Sastra says

    Lynna OM #37 quotes:

    Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything. Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.

    The whole argument that science and religion are ‘incommensurable’ isn’t resting on the idea that people can’t accept scientific discoveries and still be religious. That would be a stupid argument — which is why the religious people like to think it’s the one atheists are making. Compartmentalization has a fine tradition.

    No, here’s the problem: why don’t you translate your love for ‘science’ into an appreciation for the truth-seeking methods of science and focus them on the “something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything?” Is that true? Have you considered alternatives? What would test that? What would convince you that you were mistaken? Apply science to the supernatural beliefs which define religion as ‘religion’ and not something else.

    And right HERE is where they start screaming and squawking that no you can’t DO that it’s Sacred and in a completely different category than facts we could be wrong about and all the immunizing strategies, category errors, and fallacious rationalizations of faith come into play. And now we discover where the conflict lies: method. They value an honest and unbiased search for truth …until they don’t like where it leads. New rules!

    Once this is your guiding principle, then by what right do you sneer at the fundamentalists who deny evolution? They just drew the line somewhere else.

    Take the supernatural out of religion and the ‘vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, and the environment’ are held together by the values and virtues of the secular world. If they want to defend humanism, then they’d have no quarrel with atheists nor we with them. But we know damn well that’s not what they’re doing.

    The debate is on and they’re going to lose. All the lovely tolerant things they say fall apart when we get to answer them back. Thank you, internet.

  37. ck says

    @Lynna, OM,

    You know, I just wish these people would occasionally make arguments against what Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have actually said rather than against the titles (or subtitles) of their books. Of course, that would mean they’d have to read said books first. Given that few can even manage to read their own holy books, I guess that’s a request that is too difficult to achieve.

  38. raven says

    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.

    Going to agree here.

    1. The fundies created the New Atheists. And are killing US xianity.

    The fundie xians are having wars on gays, nonwhites, scientists, women, science, the poor, the social safety net, nonxians, atheists, and Fake xians and coming up with new hate targets often. The latest seems to be heterosexuality and contraception.

    If you add all their hates up, it’s most of the human species. And I fall into several of their hate categories.

    I’ts really not hard to see. They hate me, people like me, people sort of like me, and my society and country. So why should I like them?

    2. The internet does help though. I allows people to come together very easily and share ideas and knowledge.

    This works for fundie xians. It works better for the reality based community because they have much more worthwhile to say.

  39. frankb says

    I agree that the internet is a big factor. I had been drifting away from theism and deism and agnosticism for a long time. But the internet in general and Pharyngula in specific got me all the way to atheism in a hurry. (Did I do nicely my tentacled Overlord?)

  40. ck says

    One thing that the internet has done for those growing up in hyper-conservative communities is that it has become virtually impossible for the parents, teachers and pastors of the children to prevent them from being exposed to outside influences. It’s easier to grow up blindly believing the things you’re told every single day if dissenting voices are never heard, and the people who believe other things remain nameless, faceless others, who are never considered except to spit upon them and their heretical beliefs. It’s difficult to force your children to listen to bad Christian pop when they’re two clicks away from the real popular songs.

  41. lorn says

    IMHO the internet isn’t an obscure influence. The internet might be considered the ultimate anti-mystery source. Yes, the information found on the internet is widely varied in both veracity and depth. On the internet there are always more views and opinion than questions. The one response you will seldom see on the internet is the touchstone of of religion, “it’s a mystery”. Especially if you take it to the absolutes of “we will never know”.

    For sure there are mysteries on the internet. People love a mystery, and a good story, so much that we manufacture them when the facts are essentially known. Look up 9/11 and WTC on Google and I get “About 43,500,000 results (0.46 seconds)” and it is a good bet that very few of those 43 million claim to not know or that we can’t know. The other good bet is that less than half of the answers offered are anything like right. But that failure isn’t the driving force behind the internet. The internet is all about answers, mostly quick answers, and opinion, the veracity behind them are, for the most part, a secondary consideration.

    In a world where 7 billion people can have 14 or 21 billion provisional opinions about any one question, and further that most of them are somewhere between slightly and mostly wrong; in a world where holding a workable but approximate and provisional opinion is considered both acceptable and normal there is little patience for waiting for the one right answer, to be delivered in a hypothetical afterlife.

    The internet isn’t set up to be deferential to matters of faith. Claim to have seen a miracle and it won’t be long before someone wants details, witnesses, physical evidence. They will want to deconstruct your experience and they aren’t going to take ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ for an answer. .

  42. says

    If the correlation is real, I have a feeling it might drop as time goes on.

    I grew up in a very religious home. For most of my education, I was homeschooled. All of my friends were part of the same conservative Christian community that I was. All of my outlets for socialization were through the church–teen groups, bible studies, mission trips, Bible Quizzing was my “sport”. And almost all of my forms of entertainment, and information, were very tightly regulated–for the most part, the books I read were scrutinized (though I had a bit of freedom when I would go to the library by myself–but any books I brought into the house were subject to parental inspection), I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio, any tapes/CDs had to be pre-approved by my parents, as were all television shows and movies I wanted to watch.

    The only thing that wasn’t tightly regulated was the internet. Sure, there was one computer in the living room, but with a bunch of other kids running around, and all of their responsibilities, my parents were rarely reading over my shoulder. And while over time they started to realize that there was bad stuff on the internet, anything that wasn’t blatant pornography rarely was caught in the Nanny program (and back then, those were easily circumvented, anyway). They never figured out how easy it was to delete the history. The internet gave almost unlimited freedom to information and points of view I never would have encountered elsewhere.

    Granted, when I was a teenager, I mostly used this freedom to look up slash fanfic. When it came to religion, the internet mostly helped me hold onto my faith longer, by connecting me with more socially liberal theologies and denominations, so that I could still believe even while I was realizing the many, many problems with the faith of my childhood. And while it was very helpful to my development as a queer teen in a super-religious home, it didn’t really contribute to my atheism until much later–when I was an adult, and no longer had those restrictions, anyway. Although then I will say that the internet absolutely helped, and probably made my deconversion a lot quicker. Every possible argument and rationalization would be knocked down, almost more quickly than I could think of them. (And, yes, Pharyngula played a big part, back then.)

    Other people that were raised in a similar environment, around the same time, have often told me the same thing. Some of them also say that the internet played a large part in their deconversion as well, and at the very least exposed them to conflicting beliefs. However, I don’t think this will be as big of an influence in the future, and may not be now, as religious communities are making a big effort to educate parents about the “dangers” of the internet. I know that I wouldn’t have near the freedom now that I had back then.

  43. says

    One problem with equating the Internet with the sudden rise in the “nones” in the USA is that the death spiral of Christianity in other nations — like the UK, for example — started well before the Internet got off the ground.

    Having grown up in the UK during the 70s, and having lived the last 20 years here in America, I’ve been seeing some interesting parallels between the two eras. When I was a kid back in the 70s, many of my friends’ parents didn’t bother with church except to make sure their kids went to Sunday School. Fifteen years ago, my American friends didn’t bother with church at all… until they started having kids. Now that some of my older friends are done with raising the family, they’re not attending church anymore. In other words, the same thing that happened in the UK back in the 70s and 80s is now happening here in the US — an inter-generational loosening of the bonds of the family traditions of religion.

    The upshot is that my generation in the UK dispensed with church altogether, and very few of them have bothered to send their kids to church, and although it’s a little early to tell here, the older kids of my friends also appear to be ditching the family religious traditions.

    So while the Internet is no doubt helping to grease the wheels, I suspect that the trend away from religion in the US was going to happen anyway, and it’s merely because of the comparatively conservative and religious nature of American society that it’s taken an extra generation or two for it to start in earnest.

    The key point is that there is almost certainly no going back. Religious beliefs are very much set in stone by the time a generation reaches adulthood (look at the generational charts Pew has published over the last 40 years), and while individuals will always find/lose God later in life, the overall numbers are remarkably constant.

  44. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    There are clearly multiple factors at work. One of the biggest is I think that before the Internet being religious was considered to be the unobjectionable default. It was the path of least resistance. There were other religions but nobody really needed to worry about them.

    The Internet has had a number of effects one of which has been to build a coalition of anti-clerical and anti-religious thinkers who see religion as being a negative force in society and another being the rise of a brand of bigoted religion that proves them right.

    Its not just the differences between religions that leads to loss of faith, its the similarities that can be more jarring. Most religions give their followers lots of reasons to object to the others. So if you discover that they are pretty much all the same that puts your religion in the crock pile along with the rest.

    The proportion of the population that is actively religious is usually about 10%. Compliance is often much higher of course, especially when the alternative is getting thrown in jail by some religious police or losing your job etc. If the church is seen in a good light, most people will go along with it. But when the Catholic church is spewing bigotry against gays while covering up for pedophile priests, a pressure to reject the church emerges.

    There is also the fact that a lot of religious educations are pretty crappy. I went to a CofE school where the Bishop was the chair of the board of governors. But the stuff we were taught in scripture class looks rather pathetic in the light of modern scholarship. I remember being rather unconvinced when I was told that the feeding of the 3000 and the 5000 were probably copying errors. It obviously isn’t as the chiastic structure is intact. Mark doubling up the miracles of Moses looks like a much better explanation. etc.

  45. John Horstman says

    Shockingly, wider access to information, be it to a Christian Bible (pick a version) itself or competing models of reality via the printing press, as others have observed, or through vectors like broadcast mass media or the Internet, leads to decreases in religious affiliation. Quelle surprise.

  46. hillaryrettig says

    This really is one of my favorite topics.

    Of course the same thing happened before – the printing press was one of the big catalysts for the Renaissance. we’re at the very beginning of a second, much bigger and more inclusive Renaissance right now, which is super insighting. No accident, for instance, that the Arab Spring happened almost twenty years to the day after the Web was formed. (And triggered by Wikileaks, you recall.) Flawed and incomplete though it was, it was still a strong start.

    Im currently reading Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, in which he hypothesizes (compellingly) that humans are getting much less violent over time. Fantastic, fun, optimistic book! He cites historians who claim a strong correlation between the rise of the epistolary novel (which were absolutely devoured, and basically taught empathy, often for lower-caste members of society) and a decline in violence (all in Europe).

    I would also argue that as more people become atheist (or atheist except in name) the shrinking pool of believers becomes more and more besieged and nuts – which repels still more people. It’s the most wonderful positive feedback loop! Anyone interested in this should read Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, a great, fun book about logical fallacies and group delusions.

  47. khms says

    I’d argue that the printing press and the Internet are both variants of urbanization.

    It is well known that people are less religious in cities than in the country (also less conservative), and the reason for that seems to be pretty obvious: they have contact with many more people.

    The printing press, and later the Internet, did the exact same thing: they put people in contact with more (and more diverse) people.

    Anything which does that, tends to make people less religious, less conservative.

    Unless this trend to more contact with more diverse people changes, religion and conservatism will get ever increasing push-back.

  48. lorn says

    I think this is simply a matter exposure to a wider variety of views, opinions, and ideas.

    Religion holds it’s own when it is essentially the only story going and any alternative will get you ostracized, or killed. The Catholic church still remembers the glory days when it wouldn’t countenance any competition. The days when even kings were careful to defer to the church. Days when people bent their knees when the bishop arrived and trembled in fear of the inquisition.

    When a wide variety of ideas is laid out for comparison, and there isn’t any proctor present to document your choice and/or punish you the story told by religion looks, in comparison, pale and weak. Religion doesn’t even attempt to provide any explanation.

    Not even the people pushing the story of Obama on Mars are sophisticated enough to know to avoid that gambit.

  49. Ffej G says

    I remember first time I saw a crucifix meme ” Not going anywhere for a while? Grab a snickers!” I thought it was distasteful, but since I wasn’t raised in an overly religious household, it intrigued me. The internet is a way for atheists to voice themselves without fear of reprisal…. An awesome platform that atheists didn’t have before. Debates and biblical dissection were all put out on the web for everyone to see! Without a doubt the internet has created more non believers!

  50. Nick Gotts says

    Of course the same thing happened before – the printing press was one of the big catalysts for the Renaissance. – hilaryrettig@50

    Actually, it was at least as much the other way round. The European movable type printing press* was invented in the 1440s, while the Renaissance was well underway a century earlier. Gutenberg’s press would have made no economic sense in the absence of a sufficient literate public able and willing to buy its products. The introduction of paper, the influx to western Europe of classical works via both Byzantium and Islam, the rise of universities, advances in metallurgy, and the technical innovations of the “Schoolmen” which made reading much easier (punctuation, paragraphs, indexes and tables of contents, reading glasses…) all contributed to this.

    *The Chinese had movable type presses in the 11th century, but they were much less useful than Gutenberg’s because of the huge number of characters needed, so most Chinese printing involved carving a whole page from a single block of wood. Gutenberg may have heard of Chinese printing, but almost certainly had no detailed knowledge of it.