A common belief, especially by critics, is that Mormon retention has fallen primarily due to the rise of the internet. The argument goes that with the internet becoming ubiquitous that people encounter troubling historical facts. Those facts then undermine their testimony causing them to leave the Church. While I’m sure this has happened to many people, I’m very skeptical it’s the real issue people leave the Church in general.
Now to be clear I’m not denying the internet has an effect. I’m more disputing the size of the effect and the mechanism of the effect. This is an important point. My own view is that the internet has a small effect, but that its primary effect is due to a social peer effect. People tend to adopt the behaviors and beliefs of their peers in some degree. The internet allows people to encounter new peers not restricted geographically as in the past. As one enters into these virtual social groups, the same effect on belief and behavior takes place, often leading people to cease affiliating with prior peers.
Before I get into all my criticisms of the claim though it’s probably best to first make the claim as in a strongly defended form as possible. One well known recent paper on the relationship of religious affiliation and internet usage is Allen Downey’s “Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use.” He notes using GSS data the extremely strong correlation between internet use and disaffiliation.
Just looking at that graph it’s hard to deny there is a correlation. The question though is what the size of the effect is and the cause. While Downey gives a few speculations about the causal mechanism he notes that it accounts for only “about 20% of the observed decrease in affiliation.” (10) I’d note further than while internet usage is increasing, there’s a strange plateau of disaffiliation from the late 90’s to around 2004 in the gss data. Accounting for that plateau seems somewhat problematic. While it may be only coincidental, it’s in 2005 when the disaffiliation rise begins again that Facebook becomes popular. Of course there were other social networks around the same time.
More interesting data comes when one looks at disaffiliation in Canada as compared to the US. While US data seems to correspond to the rise of the Internet, the trend in Canada starts much earlier in the late 70’s. Canada and the United States are, in many ways, extremely similar countries. Why should we say disaffiliation in the US is due to the Internet when we can see a very similar trend in Canada?
I’ve argued many times that in at least the initial decades of the rise of disaffiliation that the effect is primarily nominalistic. That is it was mainly a change in what people call themselves rather than a significant change in behavior. People who lived in a religious community in the past would call themselves Baptist, Mormon, or a similar label even if they didn’t really attend. Now they call themselves Nones. You can see this effect in the data both in Canada and the United States. Religious attendance stabilizes after some initial drops starting in the late 80’s. (Well before widespread access to the Internet)
Now that data only goes up to 2012, but I think that’s enough to problematize the claim about the Internet.
Going back to Downey’s paper, it’s worth quoting from one critique of the data. Heidi Campbell has some critiques quite similar to mine. She notes,
…trends toward religious disaffiliation, or what some sociologist have called “belief without belonging”, has been occurring for a much longer period, arguably at least since post WWII, which is much than we have had public Internet access. In my opinion I think it is much too early to make a strong causal link between the two trends.
Later she says,
In my previous work I have argued that what the Internet does is magnify and spotlight broader religious trends already happening in culture. For example, claims that Internet use is causing a disintegration or loss of religious community are generally unfounded. Rather the internet facilitates new forms of social networks that serve in similar roles and often augment traditional religious communities (Campbell 2004). It also highlights that the ways people understand, create and function as religious communities have shifted over time from tightly-bound groups based on geographic and family ties to loose social networks based on social needs and personal preferences. Also instead of people using the internet to log on and drop out of offline religious groups or engage in religious ritual spaces, the Internet becomes a way to extend religious practices into new spheres of engagement and supplement their offline activities to expand the breadth of their religious activities (Campbell 2005).
I think that the Canadian data which shows the trend occurring more than a decade before the United States ought urge in us caution about how we make the internet/disaffiliation claim. Now to be fair what I’ve discussed in the above is disaffiliation in general and not the particular question of Latter-day Saint disaffiliation. A critic could obviously suggest that Mormon history has more problems than general Christian history. While I’m rather dubious of that argument, we should engage with it.
First off while Christian numbers have shrunk, relative to the US population, Latter-day Saint numbers have remained surprisingly consistent the past several decades. ARIS has us at around 1.4% and Pew at 1.6%. So if anything Mormons seem to have been less affected. Some point to retention numbers with worse retention of late. Typically though that appeals to rather questionable data on old (pre-ARIS) retention numbers. (See my “Mormon Youth and Retention” and “How Successful is Mormon Retention?” for more arguments along these lines) It’s not that we aren’t losing members. It’s just that I think the numbers get exaggerated somewhat. We’re still growing overall, despite recent drops in missionary effectiveness.
The second problem is just the time frame. By 2000 internet penetration had reached a critical number. Most of the change in access is from around 1995 – 2002. But in that same time frame US numbers for Latter-day Saints remain consistent relative to a growing US population. The rate of change of the population does start decreasing from the early 90’s through around 2002 but is still increasing. One could well argue that since the correlation there is so strong, that it’s the rate of new Americans rather than the rate of Internet usage that is the dominate correlate.
Now again, I don’t want to deny there being an effect from the internet on Mormon retention. I just really dispute the size and underlying causation.