The fall of religion...

The trend has puzzled me (and plenty researchers). What can account for it? Why are so many young people today drifting away from any kind of spiritual commitment?

Now, Allen Downey, a computer scientist who teaches at Massachusetts' Olin College of Engineering, offers a clue to this mystery. He has found that there is a close correspondence between the loss of religion and the rise of the internet. Apparently, as more of us surf the web, post on Facebook, and load up YouTube videos, the less likely we are to become involved in a faith community. We become unaffiliated by default.

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A couple of caveats: it is not clear that there is a causal relationship here. Just because two things happen together does not necessarily mean one causes the other. Even if there is, what causes what? For instance, just because there is a close correspondence between rain showers and the use of umbrellas doesn't mean that carrying an umbrella makes it rain (in fact, I would argue the other way around). Moreover, even if there is a causal relationship between two phenomena, it might be a much more complex process than we might think. When I insert a key in my car and turn the ignition, the engine starts. But to suppose that all I need to start a car is a key is ludicrous. Anyone who's ever had an empty gas tank can attest to that.

Still, it is intriguing. Some have speculated that use of the internet exposes people to a variety of religious faiths and philosophies. The assumption is that the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan we are, the less likely we are to make religious commitments. Others have offered that since religion is a prescientific and primitive it withers away when exposed to an inherently scientific medium like the online community. The more you know, the less you believe.

I find those explanations to be wildly speculative and even somewhat offensive. The assumption is that religion and religious institutions are inherently anti-intellectual and thrive on cultural isolation. Go visit the University of Notre Dame or (my own alma mater) Emory University and see how far that explanation takes you. This is simply an example of the arrogance of secular modernity. Secularists today can be just as intolerant and intellectually bigoted as religious fundamentalists. The difference is that often the secularist is really clueless about her or his assumptions.

So let me offer up my own speculation: I think they key word here is not religious , but affiliation . In a nutshell, I believe that moderate to heavy use of the Internet erodes our capacity for healthy relationships. The more we live online, the less likely we are to show up in the real world. We don't have an unlimited amount of attention and focus. If we spend hours and hours posting to Facebook and Twitter, guess what? We lose time for local, warm bodied, flesh and blood relationships.

Something has to give.

The same thing might have been said of too much TV. My parents constantly warned me that too much TV would warp my personality. And who knows, maybe it did! But TV has never been pervasive as the internet. Moreover, it has never been truly interactive. While I confess to having been a couch potato as a teenager, it was usually something I did in the company of others. It was a largely social experience. I never felt tempted to substitute TV for relationships with family and friends. If fact, when I was in college, we had one 17 TV in our Student Center. I can still vividly remember 50 or 60 of us watching Saturday Night Live together(all the while squinting at the tiny screen). During the following week, the skits and jokes on SNL we're the topics of conversation all over campus.

Something else is happening with our life together on the Web. It is an altogether different experience. It is far more pervasive. Let me illustrate: Every once in a while I get to perform a service of marriage. Years ago, during one such service, a groomsman's cell phone went off during the wedding. So, these days, just before we walk into the sanctuary, I ask the wedding party to please give me their phones so I can lock them away in the sacristy during the wedding. I don't trust that they are on mute; somehow they still manage to beep, or vibrate, or ring.

Whats amazing to me is how painful an experience this is for young people. It was as though I was asking them to part with a hand or foot. Inevitably, as soon as the mother of the bride is ushered out of the sanctuary, I discover one or more groomsman at the door of the sacristy, waiting to get their hands on their smart phone. They cannot bear to be offline for even a few minutes. I fear they don't know what to do with themselves if they don't have a data connection. Yes, a data connection. They are not interested in making a phone call. They need to check their email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, etc, etc.

Granted, I am playing the part of curmudgeon here. And hypocrite too. I must confess that if I am stuck in a long checkout line at the grocery store, my first impulse is to pull out my cell phone. So much for perusing the National Inquirer! As much as I feel like I am fettered by my smart phone, I am loath to give it up. Its how I get my news. Its how I share my photos. Its where I get my music. And, obviously, you are reading this online, right?

The Internet is not evil. The Web brings a great deal of value to our world. But . . . I think it is eroding our capacity for healthy relationships. If we live online then we must because of limits of time and space not be living as much in the real world. Slowly, but surely, our lives are becoming more virtual.

Now that might be just fine for some. But it clearly erodes those things that depend upon warm, flesh and blood affiliations. Like service clubs. Like community theatres. Like neighborhoods.

Like churches. Like Christianity.

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Posted in Recreation and leisure Post Date 12/20/2020


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