Why do we choose our religious beliefs? Blame social media

Despite the ubiquity of social media, we know little about how these new technologies are shaping religion. But there is growing evidence that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are changing the way people view their faith.

In the Dark Ages (any year before 1995), people had limited interactions with people outside of their physical location. And when they spoke (literally), they often communicated with others like them.

Social media can arguably make our social interactions more superficial, but it’s also much broader. A high school girl who checks Instagram can see what dozens or even hundreds of her classmates are saying and doing. Sometimes religion is part of this broadcast of their personal life.

Just yesterday I was talking to a teenager whose friends were posting pictures of their confirmations. The teenager was not Catholic and had no idea what “confirmation” meant. But he knew it had to be important in the lives of his friends and their families. What was once confined to the walls of the local parish was now on the phones of hundreds of teenagers. Today in school, no one can talk about confirmation or talk about it. But through social media, high school students have been exposed to an important part of the religious life of their Catholic friends.

What effect does this exhibition have on young people and young adults?

Paul McClure, a doctoral student at Baylor University, examined this question using data from the National Youth and Religion Study. This survey followed thousands of people from their youth through their twenties.

What’s really valuable about the National Youth and Religion Study (NSYR) is that it allows researchers to see how earlier behaviors in life affect later decisions and beliefs. In this case, McClure was able to test how the use of social networking sites in their late teens and early twenties affected their view of religion many years later.

Taking into account many other factors, McClure found that social media users were more likely to believe they could choose their beliefs. The NSYR asked if people agreed with this statement:

“Some people think it’s okay to choose religious beliefs without having to accept the teachings of their religious faith as a whole.”

Those who had used social media earlier in life were more likely to agree than those who had not. This effect held even after controlling for current religious practices, such as church attendance.

Social media users were also more likely to say it’s “OK for someone of your religion to also practice other religions” rather than that they “should only practice one”.

McClure also found a belief that was do not Affected: Social media has not changed the belief that all religions are true.

In other words, it’s not that social media leads people to believe that all religions are equally true. Instead, people see themselves as being able to choose the truth of their own and others’ faith.

The teenager I spoke to yesterday had never heard of “confirmation”. Just because he saw his friends on Snapchat and Instagram didn’t change his view of the Catholic Church. But what can happen is that he comes to see elements of truth and value in other traditions; he may question or ignore parts of his own tradition.

It’s not an all-or-nothing decision: it’s a world in which he chooses the emojis.

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Ruth R. Culp