Ex-Christian America: How social media created more “nonverts” and atheists
- Author Stephen Bullivant defines “nonverts” as people who go “from a religion to having none.”
- The internet and social media are having a subtle and widespread secularizing effect on American society.
- The biases of online echo chambers can be countered by the “net relativizing effect” of diverse opinion.
Excerpted from Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America by Stephen Bullivant. Copyright © 2022 by Stephen Bullivant and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Suppose that you are a small-town teen with religious doubts and dissatisfactions. Everyone you know, in your family, at school, and at the suite of church youth programs you’re involved with, is some kind of believing Christian. Maybe there are others you know who feel like you do. But how would you know? Sure, those weird Goth kids at school talk the talk about Marilyn Manson and Cradle of Filth — but aren’t they, like, Satanists or something? And besides, those kids are just posers; your mom knows their moms, and you know for a fact that they dress up nice for church and when Grandma comes to visit.
In any case, it’s not like you’ve worked out what you believe, or don’t — there’s just a lot of things you’re not quite sure about. The apologetics books your youth pastor recommended (you told him you had a cousin who’s stopped going to church, and you wanted to bring them back) didn’t help; in some ways, they made things worse. But it’s not like there’s anyone you can talk to about it. And that one time you raised the subject with your dad, he shut you down pretty quick.
I suspect the above scenario will feel fairly plausible to a good few nonverts of a certain vintage, raised throughout vast swathes of America. Think of it as a less extreme, mass-market analogue of the experiences of those raised in the Mormon-majority towns of Idaho and Utah. For them, the advent of the internet was “the game-changer, right? Because before, where would you go to find that? It was never out there, it was never publicly really available.” Mark, [a] now “ethnically Mormon” New York dentist, tells me over pizza how a close relative who had moved out of state, sensing in him a kindred spirit, started emailing links to all manner of LDS history websites. Pretty soon he discovered whole online communities of peers, raised just like he had been, who were now mutually encouraging each other in their nascent post-Mormon identities.
But this was by no means only an LDS phenomenon. The internet brought unabashedly nonreligious texts, ideas, and — most importantly — acquaintances and friends into millions of Christian homes. Some people, naturally, went looking for this stuff: precisely the kinds of teens, as sketched earlier, with prior reasons to go in search. And, thanks to there already being a vibrant atheist activist presence online since well before AOL brought dial-up internet to the mainstream, there was no shortage of websites, message boards, and new friends out there to be found.
For many others, however, it’s likely that “something they saw on the internet” — something, that is, they wouldn’t have seen had it not been for the internet — ended up sparking, or otherwise contributing to, a gradual path of nonversion.
Naturally, the kinds of online social dynamics we’re dealing with can work both ways. If it’s possible to find one’s tribe via Usenet’s “alt. atheism,” Reddit’s “r/ exmormon,” or Twitter’s “#EmptyThePews,” one can equally do so via one of the internet’s endless variety of pro-religious websites, groups, and YouTube channels. But here’s the thing. Prior to the internet, while Americans had a limitless supply of the latter’s offline equivalents, the vast majority of them had almost none of the former’s.
Sure, they existed alright — campus secular alliances, humanist chapters in major cities — but just think how many more, and better funded, religious competitors there were. So the growth of home internet suddenly brought new nonreligious possibilities where there had been few or none before. Remember, too, that this most affected a generation with markedly less resistance to the idea of nonreligion than their Cold Warrior parents and grandparents had.
The impact of the internet is not, we might add, only evident in those who ended up falling in with the “none” crowd. There are vastly more nonreligious Millennials and Generation Zs than could possibly have been deeply involved in one or other of these groups, no matter how prevalent they are. Obviously then, they weren’t all nonverted in this way. However, there are reasons for thinking that the internet, and social media especially, might be having a subtler but much more widespread secularizing effect on American society.
For all the attention given to online “echo chambers” deepening participants’ commitment to a shared view and collectively pushing them to ever great extremes, I suspect for most users social media has a net relativizing effect. In general, worldviews are strongest when they present themselves as “givens” and can thus be taken for granted. It’s easier to be an evangelical if everyone you know, or at least everyone whose opinions you care about, are evangelicals, too. But a person’s Facebook or Twitter feed likely includes many “friends,” or people one chooses to follow, with a whole range of positions on all manner of topics. It’s possible to police one’s network very carefully to prevent this from happening, but I’m not sure very many people are sufficiently committed to ideological purity to bother.
In the past, our social circles were much smaller (though likely deeper), and focused largely on where we lived and worked, plus a very select few people we actively kept in touch with at further distances. These were chiefly relatives, though perhaps with a couple of old school friends or college roommates in the mix too. Now it’s common to be aware, on a daily basis, of the doings and thinkings of a diverse collection of far-flung relatives, people you barely spoke to even when you were in the same room at school together, colleagues you met once at a conference, and all manner of others, many of whom you’ve never met once in person. You probably know a good deal more about what’s going on in the lives of many of them than you do about your own next-door neighbors or co-workers (unless they’re also Facebook friends).
Given how much more willing people are to talk about religion and politics online than they are in person, you’re therefore probably exposed to all manner of different viewpoints. Sometimes, maybe one of these makes you think differently about a political policy or religious doctrine — or even if not, it makes you a little less sure about it than you used to be. Given the sheer amount of time many people tend to spend on social media platforms, it’s not hard to imagine that the cumulative effect of all this might well be to chip away at lots of hitherto unexamined convictions. And that this, combined with other factors, might help nudge a good number further along the path away from religion — and to shove a few of them down one or another shortcut to Advance Directly to Go(dlessness).