Does the Internet Change Beliefs About Religious Affiliations?

Jim Liebelt

*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on PsychCentral.

New research finds that the digital environment, specifically the Internet, may decrease the likelihood of a person affiliating with a religious tradition or believing that only one religion is true.

The Baylor University study suggests Internet use encourages religious “tinkering.”

“Tinkering means that people feel they’re no longer beholden to institutions or religious dogma,” explains Baylor sociologist and researcher Dr. Paul K. McClure.

“Today, perhaps in part because many of us spend so much time online, we’re more likely to understand our religious participation as free agents who can tinker with a plurality of religious ideas — even different, conflicting religions — before we decide how we want to live.”

For example, while many Millennials have been influenced by their Baby Boomer parents when it comes to religion, the Internet exposes them to a broader array of religious traditions and beliefs and may encourage them to adjust their views or experiment with their beliefs, perhaps adopting a less exclusive view of religion, McClure said.

His study — “Tinkering with Technology and Religion in the Digital Age” — appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The study also found that television viewing was linked to religion, but in a different way — lower religious attendance and other religious activities that take time.

However, McClure noted that lower religious attendance of TV viewers may be because some are ill, injured, immobile, or older and incapable of taking part, and some may simply watch television to pass the time.

In his research, McClure analyzed used data from Wave III of Baylor Religion Survey, a survey of 1,714 adults nationwide ages 18 and older. Gallup Organization administered the surveys, with a variety of questions, in fall 2010.

The analysis also took into account such variables as age, race, gender, education, place of residence, and political party. While those factors had varying impact on religious beliefs, despite the differences, “the more time one spends on the Internet, the greater the odds are that that person will not be affiliated with a religion,” McClure said.

McClure noted that sociological research about the impact of the Internet is difficult for scholars because its swift changes make it a moving target.

“In the past decade, social networking sites have mushroomed, chat rooms have waned, and television and web browsing have begun to merge into one another as live streaming services have become more popular,” McClure said.

McClure admits his study has limitations as he only measured the amount of time people spent on the Internet, not what they were doing online. But the research may benefit scholars seeking to understand how technologies shape religious views.

“Whether through social media or the sheer proliferation of competing truth-claims online, the Internet is the perfect breeding ground for new ‘life-worlds’ that chip away at one’s certainty,” McClure said.

Source: PsychCentral