People who report their religion as ‘none’ are rising in the US. Between 1990 and 2010 the size of this group rose 10% points. Concurrent with this decline is the rise of the internet. Are these phenomena related?
Except that the relationship between internet use and religious affiliation may both be influenced by a series of other factors, such as age, sex, educational attainment, income, social class position, the religion you were raised in, and where you live. The authors try to remove the effect of these other factors and find that 20% of the observed increase in ‘None’ affiliation is due to the internet. To gauge the size of this effect, consider that the increase in college education accounts for only 5% of the rise. The internet has been 4x more influential in the rise of the religious ‘None’ than the expansion of higher education between 1980 and 2010.
Yet, the authors acknowledge that these results do not prove that the internet is the causal factor. So, what are the alternative explanations?
The most important are cohort effects. Religious affiliation is a classic example of a cohort effect and impact of replacement. If, on average, people born in the 1950s are more religious than those born in the 1970s then the cohort into which you were born affects your religiosity. As the proportion of those born in the 1950s in a particular population declines through death the relative importance of later generations (replacement) increases. The rise of the None is likely largely due to this replacement effect coinciding with the rise of the internet.
What does this mean for Mormons? Surely the availability of information regarding the Book of Abraham, the Kinderhook plates, polygamy, etc. (see any online survey regarding why Mormons leave) is somewhat influential. Maybe. One striking feature of these online communities is that they seem to be overwhelmingly dominated by people of a certain age, born in a particular period. That is, sad as it may be, their disaffection is likely part of this broader susceptibility to disaffiliation that is a feature of growing up in a particular cohort. In other words, communities like Mormon Stories merely provide a particular (and seemingly popular) narrative for disaffection among Mormons that is actually an idiosyncratic version of a broader population trend in the U.S.
The real question for debate is why are those born in the 1970s less likely to affiliate with a particular religion than those born in th 1950s. Although we have some some good ideas, I do not think we have a good handle on that question. Changes in the socio-cultural context is one plausible mechanism and secularization generally is another. While there is some ambiguity regarding what did cause the decline it is likely not the internet.