Since 1990, the number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion has been steadily on the rise, reaching nearly 20% today. A recent study says that one primary cause is that more people are going online.
Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at the Olin College of Engineering, culled data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been tracking religious preferences in the U.S. since 1972. After plugging the GSS numbers into statistical models that look at the correlation between religiosity and other demographic information, he concluded that the factor with the strongest effect on religious affiliation is religious upbringing: the number of people raised without religion has been increasing, from 3.3% in the 1980s to 5.0% in the 1990s and 7.7% in the 2000s.
However, that explanation accounts for only 25% of the overall drop in religious affiliation. What is causing the other 75% — 45 million Americans — to lose their religion? According to Downey, growth in Internet use accounts for at least an additional 20% of Americans who say they are unaffiliated with any religion.
What's the connection? Downey says:
It is easy to imagine at least two ways Internet use could contribute to [religious] 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.
Although correlation does not imply causation, Downey argues "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." He finds it "hard to imagine" another factor, besides the Internet, that was "rising in prevalence" during the 1990s and 2000s.
However, two other scholars have identified an alternate factor that was rising in prevalence during the 1990s and 2000s: the growing clout of the Christian Right in U.S. politics.
Professors Michael Hout (New York University) and Claude Fischer (University of California at Berkeley) noticed two things when they examined the General Social Survey: 1) Even though more people are dropping out of organized religion, the number of people who don't believe in God has decreased only slightly; 2) the group most likely to continue identifying themselves as belonging to a religion was political conservatives.
Hout and Fischer conclude that a big part of the decrease in religiosity can be attributed to "liberals and moderates declaring no religious preference as a way of rejecting the growing connection between churches and conservative politics, especially conservative cultural politics on topics such as the family, women and sex. [They] were saying, in effect, if that is what religion means, count me out."
That said, Hout and Fischer believe the single most influential factor is that, as the World War II generation passes away, they are being replaced by baby boomers, who tend to be suspicious of traditional authority, and by millennials "who have much less attachment to organized religion and organized anything else, as near as we can tell."
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