It seems religion in America just can’t catch a break.
Religious affiliation and participation continue to dive, driven in part by young generations uninterested in belonging to anything, least of all churches.
And now newly published research suggests that the Internet — which faith communities had hoped would bridge the gap with Millennials and the “nones” — may have a hand in keeping those and other demographics away.
The Baylor University study found a possible link between Internet usage and decreased affiliation with religious traditions, says Paul McClure, a Baylor sociologist and author of the report published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
At the same time, web use also seems to encourage interest in beliefs and practices from multiple religions.
“Where the Internet did have an effect … was with religious affiliation as well as the exclusivism index, or the ‘tinkering effect,’” McClure said. “That is, people flittering around these different religious ideas.”
One of those ideas is that all religions essentially believe and worship the same deity.
McClure prepared his study, “Tinkering with Technology and Religion in a Digital Age,” using data from Wave III of the Baylor Religion Survey. That slice of information was gathered in 2010 by the Gallup Organization, which surveyed 1,714 adults on a wide range of religious issues and attitudes.
Respondents were asked to describe their participation in religious activities, what religious groups they belong to (including “none”) and how much time they spend on the web and watching television. They also were asked the extent to which they believe all religions “are equally true” and whether all people “worship the same God.”
The survey factored in age, gender, education residence and political affiliations. Significant differences were revealed, especially between conservatives and liberals.
However, McClure’s analysis discovered a correlation between increased Internet time and decreased religious affiliation.
That may be because web surfers have become comfortable darting between religious ideas, traditions and texts that are easily available online.
As a result, fewer people feel obliged to remain loyal to particular religious institutions and beliefs, McClure said.
“That kind of tinkering mentality, or cut-and-paste approach to religion, has been around for a long time,” he said. “Technology just intensifies it.”
The Internet also enables users to customize their lives by making reality fit personal preferences, he added.
Television, on the other hand, tends to impact religious participation more than affiliation, McClure said.
“The more time you spent watching TV, the less likely you were to engage in religious behaviors such as worship services,” he said.
But it must be remembered that these findings reflected 2010 attitudes, and that shifts may have occurred since then.
“It might be different seven or eight years later. We are seeing more people online. Things are changing quickly today.”