by Margaux Curless and Benjamin Knoll
Has the internet changed the world for the better? One recent study connects the growing use of the internet to widespread decline in religious membership: exposure to a world of information is leading more people to adopt a secular lifestyle. Given this possibility, we might conclude that religious communities would view the internet warily, at best. Data from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS), however, suggests that the most active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. instead view the internet as a blessing rather than a curse. These results complicate the story of “the internet versus religion” and potentially provide evidence that the internet can be an effective tool for churches and other religious communities.
Googling “Mormons and the internet” creates a very divided picture. The results lack a consensus, with some articles arguing that the internet poses a threat to Mormonism (such as The Mormon Internet Crisis and Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt), while others claim the internet actually strengthens the Church (How Mormons Use the Internet to Spread the Good Word and How Mormons Are Winning the Internet).
When asked their opinions, however, the NMS shows that 58% of self-identified Mormons in the U.S. agree that “the internet has changed life for the better.” This was the case even for those who describe themselves as “very active” in their religious activity: 62% agreed that, on balance, the advent of the internet has been a positive development. (More information about the survey’s sample and methodology is available here.)
Activity levels within the LDS Church is especially relevant for one particular subgroup: Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. Controlling for standard demographic and geographical variables, the NMS shows that Baby Boomers/Silents who describe themselves as active in the Church are more likely to agree that the internet has changed life for the better than their peers who describe themselves as less active. This is not the case for Millennials and GenXers:
Baby Boomers and Silents are a crucial demographic for the LDS Church, as many in the current Church leadership come from these generations. The LDS Church utilizes lay leadership, meaning members are called upon to serve in volunteer leadership roles, with these “callings” being assigned based on a variety of factors including time available to serve, responsibility to one’s family, specific talents, etc. Baby Boomers and Silents, with children in adulthood and established careers (with some already retired), often make great candidates for congregational and regional leadership callings.
A significant recent development is that LDS Church leadership resources have largely moved online over the last several years. Potentially, active Baby Boomers may be more likely to favor the internet because they are more likely to use and benefit from these online resources in their leadership callings. Less active members, however, are likely less involved in leadership and therefore are not using the online resources as frequently.
This might also help explain why, for Baby Boomers and Silents, 66% of respondents agreed that the internet has changed life for the better, compared to only 51% of Millennials. Since Millennials have a reputation for spending copious amounts of time online, it may be somewhat surprising that Mormon Baby Boomers and Silents were, in general, more positive toward the internet than Mormon Millennials.
It may be the case that older, active Mormons are more positive toward the internet because they are more likely to take advantage of the many resources that the LDS Church offers its leaders online as well as the vast digital family history and genealogical records that it offers to members, with older members more likely to have the time to take advantage of these resources. Having lived much of their lives without these resources available to them, they may be more grateful for the opportunities that technology is offering them to aid with their religious activities.
Mormon Millennials, on the other hand, are likely using the internet more frequently and for a wider variety of purposes. They have only ever known a world where the internet is ubiquitous and thus may be more cautious and pessimistic about its overall effects on society. Of course, more data and research would be needed to confirm this hunch one way or another.
In terms of “the internet versus religion” discussion, however, these findings nuance to a debate that is frequently cast in more black or white terms. Among U.S. Mormons, the internet is generally seen as a boon among older and more active members while younger members are not quite as optimistic. Investigating how LDS Church members use the internet—if they use it largely for Church activity, or if their usage is more secular—would be a good next step in identifying how the LDS Church itself should view the internet and continue to utilize it moving forward.
Margaux Curless is an Economics and Finance major at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
[ Photo credit: LDS.org ]