Chapter 6 of Jack Myers' book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World, published in June 2012 and winner of the International Book Award for Youth Issues. Hooked Up focuses on the first generation to grow up with the Internet, a generation born 1991-95 and just beginning to become the most important generation of this century.
Despite their busy lifestyles, Internet Pioneers are more spiritually-minded than earlier generations. Many college students find time to cultivate their spiritual growth.
Dena P., a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumna, learned this firsthand while volunteering at a privately owned New Age library. She was surprised at how many college students used and volunteered at the library. With her college days 15 years behind her, she wasn't sure if she'd have much rapport with these students. Yet she "came to see that these college students who were actively working on their spiritual growth were already quite close to what has been called 'spiritually awakened,' or 'spiritually enlightened.' At a time when they are focused on term papers, preparing for the 'real world' and getting good grades on exams, these young people were balancing their secular studies with meditation, devotional study and reading and learning about the lives of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and other teachers and examples of higher states of consciousness."
Study Results: Participation in Organized Religion?
My study found that only 27 percent of Internet Pioneers are involved weekly in religious/social organization activities and services while 54 percent rarely or never participate in religious/social organizations. The World Values Study, a worldwide survey of religious beliefs, reported that among U.S. youth ages 18 to 24, about 42 percent participated in a religion between 1999 and 2001––a period in which Internet access expanded into the majority of U.S. homes. By 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey found only 22 percent of youths in the United States reported participating in an organized religion.
That drop of nearly 50 percent indicates that Internet Pioneers are less involved in religion than preceding generations, and this drop corresponds exactly with the years in which the Internet became part of their daily life. Factors for the trend are discussed below.
Dogma vs. Information Access
Throughout much of the 20th century, information for young people was limited by where they lived and the adults around them. Youth in large cities had extensive access to information and exposure to greater religious diversity. Youth in rural areas often had little information beyond their community church.
Internet Natives have had an unlimited ability to learn independently––beyond the influences of their religious organizations, schools and parents. News sites report on church scandals like Catholic priest child abuse cover-ups, corrupt religious evangelists and violent Muslim fundamentalism. Social network sites facilitate sharing information and views with peers from other faiths––or those of no faith at all.
As a result, Internet Pioneers are less likely to allow their religion to shape their beliefs, political positions, or education. They are less likely to adhere to dogma or act in ways that are inconsistent with their actual beliefs––or beliefs they recognize as being out-of-step with their contemporaries. Examples include such issues as the widespread support of gay rights and women's choice, regardless of religious affiliation. As a result, Internet Pioneers, in general, are less committed to religious orthodoxy.
Current college students may be willing to listen to parental advice on dating and marriage, but they are not as eager to please religious figures. A number of religious leaders (and elected government officials) advocate abstinence before marriage and avoidance of contraceptives. This is advice that a large majority of Internet Pioneers are not willing to follow. Even most of those who voluntarily have chosen a path of celibacy do not believe it should be a requirement imposed by religious dogma. Gay rights and women's choice are also supported by a large majority of Internet Pioneers, no matter what their religious affiliation.
In fact, some have left their faith altogether because of their qualms with these issues. Nicole Anderson, a student teacher in Minnesota, claimed that Catholic doctrines on birth control convinced her to leave her religious upbringing behind.
"I simply could not be a member of a denomination with such views on marriage and family planning. I think life has gotten a lot better for women since contraceptives have become available. [Women] now have the option to wait until they are ready to start families. And when they do begin families, women can choose to have one or two kids instead of eight or nine."
Some religious leaders have believed access to "dangerous" information in schools represents a threat to religious development in youth. They restricted access by removing books from libraries and banning specific topics in schools. The 1925 Scopes trial and 1999 Kansas exclusion of evolution from state guidelines are two examples. Some states still attempt to control information access with measures that dictate how textbooks report on everything from evolution and climate change to state history.
In the home, popular television has been largely Christian-friendly, with religious characters and real-life religious leaders portrayed as wise and benevolent. Since the late 20th century, however, shows including South Park, Law and Order, and Family Guyhave painted a very different picture. From gritty story lines about abuses by religious leaders to biting satire, mainstream television is now as likely to attack religion as to defend it. (Read more on Family Guy in Chapter 11.)
New Opportunities for Exploring Religion and Spirituality
Another factor in the shifting trend away from organized religion is the formation of religious groups on the Internet: not only the Internet-based Universal Life Church but Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist sites, plus hundreds of religious sects.
Discussion boards and web pages devoted to religious education are available to all those who want to explore their faith or network with others from their faith and other faiths. Churches and evangelists who successfully used television and radio to expand their reach now use the Internet to advance and promote their messages. Internet Pioneers are open and receptive to the messages that conform to their own underlying principles of freedom and inclusiveness.
Atheist communities also exist online, in many ways mimicking the structure and tone of religious websites.
Negative attitudes toward religion are balanced, and perhaps even overwhelmed, by the constant expressions of gratitude to God by popular musical talent, Hollywood performers and athletes, along with the emphasis on Christian values by political leaders and candidates.
Toward Spirituality…and Beyond
While active involvement with organized religion may be waning among Internet Natives, a growing percentage of young people are pursuing a spiritual relationship with the divine. They share a belief in life after death and the possibility of communications with those who have passed, rather than a relationship with a faith community or organized structure.
Although the Internet provides access to the gospel of many, an underlying belief in another plane of existence and some form of life after death is spreading among a fast-growing number of Internet Pioneers.
One of the theories being embraced by some Internet Pioneers and being spread through the Internet is the concept advanced by biologist Rupert Sheldrake that all knowledge resides in very real, organized energy fields in the air all around us, or perhaps even in other dimensions that are accessible to us. According to Sheldrake, all knowledge, all ideas and areas of study have their own "morphogenetic field," or "M-field." The more human beings tap into these knowledge energy fields, the stronger these fields become.
According to Sheldrake, there seems to be an energizing effect that runs both ways between human beings and these invisible but very real fields of energy and information. While the energy fields are subtle, they are quite real and have a definite impact. They are reservoirs of data and information and the more people are connected to them, the more they can accelerate current and future learning.
Sheldrake's theory of an energy field that exists in another dimension is, to some, analogous to the Internet: a powerful energy field that connects all beings, is omniscient (has infinite knowledge), is omnipotent (unlimited power), is omnipresent (present everywhere), treats everyone equally and is available to all, and is simple to access and incorporate into your life. Share this same description with theologians and they will believe you are describing God. A logical connection can be made from the Internet to a god-like presence in people's lives.
This connection may seem sacrilegious to many, and I'm even uncomfortable including it in this book. But Internet Pioneers are embracing the concept of existential energy fields that the mind will ultimately be able to connect to and communicate with. This may be an uncomfortable reality, but nonetheless it is a truth that puts the extraordinary influence of the Internet in relevant context.
The Future of Religion
How actively will Internet Pioneers embrace traditional religion in their lives, and what role will religion have?
Factors influencing youth and religion are complex and difficult to measure. Some studies look at youth and religion. Some look at religion and the Internet. Some look at youth and the Internet. To date, no study has combined youth, religion and the Internet. However, comparing data from different studies seems to indicate a handful of trends:
Religious (and other) organizations will actively extend their congregational meetings and services via streaming video and Internet access to religious leaders, from local to global to universal. Group networking will be available through social media; fund-raising will be actively developed online; meetings will convene online; and complaints about everything and anything church-related will spread virally and immediately throughout the congregation and beyond.
Internet Pioneers will lead religion into an era of greater ecumenism, with many church organizations becoming far more proactive in reaching out to their communities and prospective members. Some organizations will probably move in the opposite direction, however, becoming more orthodox, insular and closed.
Internet Pioneers will develop and actively participate in social networks built around spirituality and religious-like beliefs, but not necessarily traditional religions. For Internet Pioneers, the Internet will serve the basic needs for community previously met by actively participating in religious organizations. However, Internet Pioneers will continue to maintain religious affiliation for family and social purposes and to fulfill their needs to attend services.
But for many, the Internet will be the first place they turn to for spiritual connectivity.
In some ways, the Internet has created a social community center traditionally provided by the church. And while the church, temple or mosque is localized, involvement in Internet-based communities has no borders or boundaries and embraces all as equals.