If the Internet Isn't Killing Religion, What Is?

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.

He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”

It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).

The Problem with Exercise Plans and Miracle Cures

Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel /

Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel /

A post making the Facebook rounds claims that “a mix of honey and cinnamon cures most diseases.” Mix honey and cinnamon together and your arthritis pain will vanish, your lost hearing will be restored, the flu virus ravaging your body will be killed, and your eczema and ringworm will disappear!

I know I should ignore this stuff. But I can’t. Every outrageous health claim I come across online (and there are many) cuts me to the quick, because of what they say about me as a person with a disability, and about us as God’s beloved creatures.

The Internet fosters a populist environment in which regular folks’ life wisdom, assumed to be more valuable than professional or conventional wisdom, is rarely questioned, despite obvious logical fallacies. For example, while many foods, including honey and cinnamon, indeed have therapeutic potential for reducing inflammation and boosting immunity, that’s a far cry from curing arthritis or hearing loss. Yet people click and share, apparently without pausing to consider how outlandish it is to claim that two common foods can cure — not ameliorate, but cure — a long list of health problems that have affected people for all of human history.

An Ever-Flowing Stream

A scene from "Ballast," one of many independent films available to a larger audience because of internet sites such as Fandor.

At peak usage, Netflix alone now accounts for one-third of all internet traffic in the U.S.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy was recently published by Apprentice House.

Atheists Use Popular Bible App to Evangelize About Unbelief

Tom Amon, a 37-year-old atheist, opens his YouVersion app nightly to engage believers. RNS photo by Beatriz Wallace.

Like lots of college students, Lauren has a smartphone loaded with some of the most popular apps around — Facebook, Twitter, and eBay. And like a lot of unbelievers, she asked to not use her full name because her family doesn’t know about her closet atheism.

One of the apps she uses most regularly is YouVersion, a free Bible app that puts a library’s worth of translations — more than 700 — in the palm of her hand. Close to 115 million people have downloaded YouVersion, making it among the most popular apps of all time.

But Lauren, a 22-year-old chemistry major from Colorado, is not interested in the app’s mission to deepen faith and biblical literacy. A newly minted atheist, she uses her YouVersion Bible app to try to persuade people away from the Christianity she grew up in.

“I know of a lot of atheists who have come to their nonbelief by actually reading the Bible rather than just the fluffy stories they choose to tell you about in church,” she said. “Reading the full story with all its contradictions and violence and sexism, it should make you think, ‘Is this really what I believe in?’ At least it did for me.”

Lauren is not alone. No one knows how many atheists have downloaded YouVersion and other smartphone and tablet Bible apps, but it is enough that word of the phenomenon has reached the Edmond, Okla., headquarters of, the evangelical megachurch that created the app.

Moving From the Sanctuary to Social Networks

Online church illustration, S.john /

Online church illustration, S.john /

A tech writer’s obituary for PCWorld’s print magazine — part tongue-in-cheek, part nostalgia riff — reminded me that I once devoured that magazine, now kaput.

It was an early lens into the fascinating world of personal computing. Its ads and articles stoked dreams of power and speed.

I soon became part of PCWorld’s dilemma. I dropped the print mag and began seeking tech news on the Internet. It was faster and fresher, had clickable links to other sites, great art, and brevity. PCWorld itself went online.

Much of my world has switched to the Internet. I do most of my banking and bill paying online, shop online, order lunch online, learn choir music online, teach classes online, use email and text messaging extensively, and read the news online.

Nothing unusual in any of that. Such web-centered behavior has become the new normal. Any enterprise that isn’t considering ways to move its operations online is losing its future.

In my world, more and more churches are going web. Electronic newsletters replace mailed paper. Clergy use email to communicate, as do staff and volunteers. Tweets, Facebook posts, e-blasts, and text messages carry word of emergencies. Constituents make donations online.

There’s more. Classes are moving online, as are interviews with job candidates and opinion surveys. Some congregations are experimenting with worship online and small groups. Every Sunday morning, some 600,000 people a minute access Bible verses online using one app.

Privacy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Photo courtesy RNS/Wikipedia.

Confessional booth for private confessions. Photo courtesy RNS/Wikipedia.

On Slate, Emily Bazelon laments her colleagues’ lack of outrage at the revelations of the National Security Agency’s vacuuming up of data on what all of us are doing. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat explains it in terms of an internet motto: “abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.”

Privacy is soooo 20th century, no?

Yes. We now live in a world where we are constantly making choices that trade our privacy for convenience, from Easy Pass to global positioning to, of course, all the on-line services and commerce that we indulge in. No wonder the collective yawn at news that the federal government is doing what we assume Google is doing, in the (presumed) interest of public safety.

The Best (and Worst) Types of Christian Media

Media cloud, VLADGRIN /

Media cloud, VLADGRIN /

When it comes to mass communication, Christians do some things well and some things horribly. Here’s a breakdown:

1)    The Best

Public Speaking:

Christians have been publicly speaking for thousands of years — since Old Testament times. Church culture is inundated with motivational and inspirational presentations, sermons, illustrations, speeches, and teachings. Sunday schools, youth groups, small groups, church services, camps, retreats, and conventions all have a variety of public speakers.

Christians were experts at the art of speaking before TED Talks became popular or business presentations were commonplace. People working in full-time ministry often speak in front of groups at least two or three times a week — sometimes more. They can sense when audiences are engaged or bored and have the ability to whip stadium crowds into an emotional and spiritual frenzy.

Screen-Free Week and the Still Small Voice

Serene pier, Eugene Sergeev /

Serene pier, Eugene Sergeev /

“Be still and know that I am God.”  - Psalm 46:10a

From April 29 to May 5 individuals, households, and communities will celebrate Screen-Free Week by disconnecting from their screens — TV, computers, games, mobile devices — during their free time and reconnecting with relatives, neighbors, the natural world, and the quiet voices that may be drowned out by the constant barrage of electronic noise. My neighborhood celebrated early so we could offer a variety of cost-free and screen-free family activities during the school's spring break week. I organized the celebration, as I've done for the last six years. It was satisfying to see kids slow down and engage in gardening, carpentry, music making, nature exploration … 

I also observed Screen-Free Week myself. Seven days of fasting from electronic media showed me how much time I spend using then mindlessly and forced me to confront my idolatries that are fed or masked by this mindless use. I'm using Michael Schut's definition of idolatry:

"An idol is anything we put before God, a partial truth mistaken for the whole Truth, a lesser good elevated to the ultimate good. … Idols [promise] what they cannot deliver."

Virtual Vices Show Shift in American Morality

Seven deadly sins, © RTimages /

Seven deadly sins, © RTimages /

The seven deadly sins have new partners in crime.

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride still attract a lot of attention. But as the Internet and other media invade American life, our vices have also gone virtual, according to a new study.

Nearly half of Americans say they are tempted to idle the hours away on the Internet, video games and television, according to Barna Group, a California-based Christian research organization.