Reflections on Correlations between Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use

Some Brief Reflections on Allen Downey’s Report on Correlations between Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use

Allen Downey’s Religious affiliation, education and Internet use report (March 2014) has received much press coverage this week. This morning I awoke to several press inquiries in my inbox regarding my reaction to his findings. Many news stories and blogs have suggested his findings show that the Internet is destroying faith, or at least leading to a significant decline in religious affiliation. However, In my opinion, this conclusion is not wholly founded based on a close reading of the report.

The study itself argues that “the impact of internet use is comparable to the effect of religious upbringing” (Downey 2014, p.6) which noted a strong decline in people being raised without a religious affiliation has increased from 3.3% in the 1980s to 7.7% in the 2000s. A some have noted while the study shows a strong correlation between the rise of internet use and the decline of religious affiliation, this does not necessarily indicate a clear correlation. The report also suggests that the strongest explanatory variable noted is that religious upbringing influences religious affiliation.

This specific finding seems to echo the Pew 2012 report on “Nones on the Rise report” about American adults without religious affiliation that hypothesizes some of reasons for this trend might relate to delayed marriage, broad social disengagement and trends toward secularization in American society. Therefore religious affiliation seems to be influenced by family patters of religiosity and trends that note a general decline in civic engagement and other social affiliations.

While the report “imagines” a possible connection between increased Internet use and disaffiliation due to two factors (a) that the Internet allows people to connect with those outside their homogeneous communities and (b) enabled those with religious doubt opportunities to seek out like minds it also states: “it is hard (but not impossible) to imagine plausible reason why disaffiliation might cause increased Internet use. (Downey, p. 9). The study author also stresses that “it is unlikely that religious upbringing has a negative effect on Internet use large enough to explain the relationship between Internet use and affiliation” (p. 9). So the author himself seems to doubts any strong or significant correlation between the factors of religious affiliation decline linked strongly to increase in Internet use.

What I make of this is that this study shows that the rise of Americans who seem themselves as religiously unaffiliated mirrors trends in the rise of Internet access in use in a similar time window. However trends toward religious disaffiliation, or what some sociologist have called “belief without belonging”, has been occurring for a much longer period, arguably at least since post WWII, which is much than we have had public Internet access. In my opinion I think it is much too early to make a strong causal link between the two trends.

In my previous work I have argued that what the Internet does is magnify and spotlight broader religious trends already happening in culture. For example, claims that Internet use is causing a disintegration or loss of religious community are generally unfounded. Rather the internet facilitates new forms of social networks that serve in similar roles and often augment traditional religious communities (Campbell 2004). It also highlights that the ways people understand, create and function as religious communities have shifted over time from tightly-bound groups based on geographic and family ties to loose social networks based on social needs and personal preferences. Also instead of people using the internet to log on and drop out of offline religious groups or engage in religious ritual spaces, the Internet becomes a way to extend religious practices into new spheres of engagement and supplement their offline activities to expand the breadth of their religious activities (Campbell 2005).

Overall in my two decades of research on religion and the Internet I have found that the internet tends to supplement rather than fully substitute for religious offline engagement. Also I note that rather than the Internet is leading to declines religious identification, attendance and the influence of religious leaders, what the study of religion online does is highlight such trends already manifest in offline culture (Campbell 2012). Therefore the Internet does not prove to be the cause, but the microcosm that highlight broader social shifts that challenge religious institutions and communities (Campbell 2013).

It is also important to note that studies showing a decline in religious affiliation do not necessarily mean “religious nones” have a decline in spirituality or personal religious practice outside formal institutions (Drescher forthcoming). The Internet is a great facilitator of religious practice though this may be taking place in social networks and online gatherings rather than in traditional spaces such as churches, which are marked as the measure of traditional religious affiliation.

So in summary, while I think Downey’s report provides an interesting reflection and on issues impacting and shaping the American religious landscape, I think a much closer investigation is needed about the other social factors leading to disaffiliation before claims that Internet use is a primary causal link can be made.

Campbell, H. (2013). Religion and the internet: A microcosm for studying internet trends and implications. New Media & Society. 15(5): 680-694.

Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the relationship between religious practice online and offline in a networked society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 80(1), 64-93.

Campbell, H. (2005). Considering spiritual dimensions within computer-mediated communication studies. New Media and Society, 7(1), 111-135.

Campbell, H. (2004). Challenges created by online religious networks. Journal of Media and Religion, 3(2), 81-99.

Downey, A. (March 2014), Religious affiliation, education and Internet use

Elizabeth Drescher (forthcoming) Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. NY: Oxford University Press.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2012) “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. URL: