Is the Internet Changing the Way People Feel About Religion?

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Spend enough time on the internet and you may well end up becoming an ordained minister of Dudeism. The vague religion dedicated to the mellow Zen of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (fictional hero of the Coen Brothers' cult smash film "The Big Lebowski") fills no church halls, but does offer a complete worldview that combines the chillest bits of Taoism, Buddhism and turn-the-other-cheek Christianity.

It's a cobbled-together belief system that sociologists might label religious "tinkering" — essentially, the act of honing spiritual beliefs the way a blacksmith might hone a piece of bespoke armor to fit one client perfectly. And if you fancy yourself a tinkerer (Dudeist or otherwise), chances are you picked up the habit online. A new study published in the January 2018 edition of The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that the more time a person spends on the internet, the less likely he or she is to affiliate with a religious tradition, or to believe that a single religion is truer than all others. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

"Tinkering means that people feel they're no longer beholden to institutions or religious dogma," study author Paul McClure, a doctoral student in sociology at Baylor University, said in a statement. "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."

In the new study, McClure analyzed survey responses from more than 1,700 adults nationwide who participated in the Baylor Religion Survey, which was administered by Gallup Organization in 2010. The survey asked respondents questions such as how often they took part in religious activities (including attending religious services as well as social activities like prayer groups, church socials and choir practice), how many hours a day they spent using the internet, and how much they agreed on a scale of 1 to 4 with statements such as, "All of the religions in the world are equally true."

McClure compared the responses to determine whether there was a link between time spent online and time spent practicing religion, and whether time spent online resulted in a less exclusive view about which world religions were most valid. His analysis also accounted for variables including the respondent's age, ethnicity, place of residence and political affiliation.

The data showed that, generally, older participants were more likely to be religiously affiliated than younger respondents, and political conservatives were more likely to attend a church than liberals. But McClure ultimately found that, independent of the other variables, "the more time one spends on the internet, the greater the odds are that that person will not be affiliated with a religion."

Respondents who spent more time online were more likely to skip religious services, and were also more likely to take a "pluralistic" view of religion, McClure said. In other words, they were less likely to believe that only one religion was true.

Part of the reason for this may be that the internet exposes users to a huge variety of worldviews, beliefs, and ideas, which may lead individuals to challenge preconceived notions about what is important in their lives, McClure said. "The internet is the perfect breeding ground for new [ideas] that chip away at one's certainty," he said.

But another key factor in the internet-religion trade-off is simply that time spent online often displaces time that could be spent in church, McClure wrote in the study. This hypothesis echoes a common argument in the ongoing debate about whether children should have their access to screen time restricted: Potential negative effects such as anxiety and depression cannot be blamed on screens themselves, but on the displacement of positive, real-world interactions that children are likely to miss out on while immersed in devices, according to psychologists at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Whether the internet will prove a positive or negative force on the development of social and cultural beliefs cannot yet be predicted, McClure said. And if you have strong feelings either way, remember the sage words of The Dude: "That's just, like, your opinion, man."

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest,, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.