MIT Agrees: The Internet Is Disrupting Religion

I’ve been writing about religion here for years as for some reason too many marketing and tech bloggers are uncomfortable with it. But that’s silly because it is a topic highly worth exploring from a sociological perspective. If this topic makes you uncomfortable, feel free to skip today’s post (but I’d ask you to question why it does).

Religion is also fascinating as an example of the efficacy of marketing (it is 100% word of mouth marketing, after all: it’s an idea virus).

Of course, it is my opinion that religion will one day soon be a relic of the past as we take a more scientific approach to the world and shed archaic beliefs that merely separate us like lines in the sand. The world has shifted from “tell me” to “show me” and simply accepting ideas based on fairy tales is not enough. Evidence and citations are a requisite for good decision making and improving the world.

So it was great to see MIT publish a post coming to a similar conclusion we came to several years ago, that the internet is accelerating the disruption of religion:

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972:


We’re starting to see this trend move even quicker in the last few years as internet adoption has exploded, here’s some more data from PEW Research:


I also already shared my thoughts on why this was occurring: it’s due to the spotlight effect. I think it isn’t just correlation as the graph shows, but if you dig in we have causation here too. I’d encourage you to read my thinking on this in full, but the summary is this:

We are quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us, while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage (or onstage but not lit up). Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemen called this tendency “what you see is all there is.” Keeping with Kahneman’s visual metaphor, Chip & Dan Heath refer to this tendency as the Spotlight Effect (think of the way a spotlight in a theater directs our attention; what’s inside the spotlight is crisply illuminated). Of course, a spotlight only lights a spot. Everything outside it is obscured and might as well not even exist.

When exposed to religion at a young age, many in the past would just succumb to the spotlight effect and be done with it. It’s what they see, it’s their world, it’s what was told to them, it feels like the right decision to believe, so it must be true. But the sharing of information enabled by the Internet is making it too clear to ignore reality. What happens when the entire room is illuminated and we see the world is not flat? That monsters don’t exist in the dark, that the universe is governed by physics, not Ra the sun god. We are forced to adjust our beliefs. We learn to question the world (this, questioning everything, should be instilled in everyone from a young age).

The Internet has accelerated and amplified the spotlight effect for those curious enough to look. Not just in religion and myths, but anywhere you dig in deeply. This is amazing as we’re creating a new generation that has critical thinking skills ingrained in them and is taught to question everything. It makes me optimistic and excited for the future where we will hopefully have many bright young people interested in exploring science, helping the planet and understanding the universe: not being satisfied with answers in a story.