Why Americans Are Losing Their Religion at a Startling Rate
New research from a computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts shows a startling correlation between the rise of the Internet and the decline of religious affiliation in the United States.
Back in 1990 only eight percent of the U.S. population did not have a religious affiliation. In 2010, that number had risen to 18 percent, an increase of 25 million people.
Americans seem to be losing their religion, and from Downey’s research we may partly understand why. The data Downey looked at is from the General Social Survey (GSS), a sociological survey of US demographics sponsored by the University of Chicago since 1972. The GSS is unique because, unlike the decennial US census, the GSS surveys respondents on a whole host of lifestyle attitudes and behaviors, including religious affiliation.
Downey's approach was to measure the correlation between socioeconomic status, education, religious upbringing and other factors against the drop in religious affiliation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest influence on religious affiliation that Downey's research found was based on one's religious upbringing. The number of people raised in religious households has actually been dropping since 1990, but according to Downey's research, explained only 25 percent of the drop in religious affiliation over the same period.
Higher education also correlated with the drop in religiosity, as more students went on to college than in the past. But that rise from the 1980s to 2000s only went up a little under 10 percentage points (from 17.4% to 27.2% of the population). Downey determinted that this accounted for only five percent of the drop in religious affiliation over the same period.
The new and most interesting finding of Downey's research was the impact that the Internet had on religious affiliation. The Internet was in its infancy in the 1980s; but today over half of the US population regularly spends a couple of hours a week on-line. According to Downey, he estimates that this trend accounted for as much of the drop in religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing - about 25 percent.
While Downey cautions that this is only a correlation (X changes at a similar rate to a change in Y, etc.) and not a direct causation (X causes Y), Downy states “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.”