Digital technology might have been slower to arrive in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques than in other areas of life, but many religious institutions are now embracing the opportunities it offers. Carmelite nuns, for instance, take prayer requests via Facebook and some pastors encourage their congregations to live-tweet sermons. In many faith communities, evangelization and outreach are as likely to occur online as off.
But the Internet's impact on religion might not be entirely positive. A recent report in MIT Technology Review suggests a correlation between increased Internet use and the decline of religious affiliation. After analyzing data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Olin College of Engineering professor Allen Downey found that the percentage of people in the U.S. population who claimed no religious affiliation increased to 18% in 2010 from 8% in 1990. That's a jump of 25 million people.
After examining education, socioeconomic status and religious upbringing, each of which contributed to the decline of affiliation, Mr. Downey was left with a great deal of the change unexplained. His hypothesis? The dramatic rise in Internet use. In the 1980s, almost no one used the Internet, but by 2010, according to the Social Survey, more than half of the population spent at least two hours online a week, and one quarter spent more than seven hours a week. Mr. Downey believes that as much as 25% of the decline in affiliation can be explained by this new habit.
Readers of the study should keep two things in mind: It measures "affiliation," that is, identification with a particular religious tradition, not belief in God. A strong majority of U.S. adults profess belief in God (although that number has also declined), but a smaller number are affiliating with institutions that promote those beliefs. Mr. Downey's study also measures correlation, not causation; he is not arguing that Internet use caused the decline, only that it occurred alongside it and might help explain it.
Despite its limitations, the study raises intriguing questions: Is religious affiliation another opportunity cost of our digital world, something that will grow obsolete, like handwritten letters? And if so, what does this mean for the future of religious institutions?
Even granting that Internet use might not be the main reason affiliation is declining (sociopolitical and economic factors unexamined by Downey might have contributed, as well as harder-to-measure variables such as increased social acceptance of people who identify as atheists), the study raises curious possibilities about the unintended consequences of Internet use.
Endless opportunities to do things online might translate into less time engaged in face-to-face activities in one's religious community, such as attending Bible study or services. Virtual communities can also provide feelings of belonging similar to those you get at church but with far greater convenience: You don't have to leave the house to feel you're part of a like-minded community. Like the increasing numbers of us who feel civically engaged after merely signing an online petition, more people might be willing to trade the convenience of online community for the challenges of in-person religious ritual.
Another possibility is that our expectations about access to information foster habits of mind that pose a challenge to religious ritual. When we want to know something, the Internet offers answers on-demand and tailored to individual needs. Whatever one's personal faith, religious practices usually cultivate the opposite of what our online world fosters: patience and deliberation, not immediacy and exposure.
For many people in the past, a sense of identity often came from affiliation with a religious institution. The access to other means of displaying status (and a global audience for them) that the Internet provides might make religious forms less appealing over time, particularly to younger people. The Organization Man of the 1950s might have measured his status in part by his church attendance, but the Digital Native of the 21st century marks his by the number of Twitter  followers.
What does this mean for the future of faith? Some people argue that declining religious affiliation is a social improvement—evidence of the clarifying tonic of rationality brought about by our global information revolution. Let's be honest: Who or what are we more likely to place our faith in on a daily basis—God or Google
But at a time when so many of our experiences have already been made digital, seamless and instantly accessible—a fact that thrills me every time I pay a bill online or send an email across the world—it is worth asking if every experience, particular those as personal as faith, should be made so. Our online experiences are convenient and remarkable, but also more homogenous and performance-oriented; and they are increasingly filtered through a small number of technological middlemen such as Facebook and Google whose concern is the profitability of our data, not the condition of our souls.
In relying on the Internet to answer questions that religious institutions used to answer—crowdsourcing faith, in other words—do we risk losing access to some of the answers data can't provide?