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04 October 2015

Googling for God

Despite the rising popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, Google searches for churches are 15 percent lower in the first half of this decade than they were during the last half of the previous one. Searches questioning God’s existence are up. Many behaviors that he supposedly abhors have skyrocketed. Porn searches are up 83 percent. For heroin, it’s 32 percent.

How are the Ten Commandments doing? Not well. “Love thy neighbor” is the most common search with the word “neighbor” in it, but right behind at No. 2 is “neighbor porn.” The top Google search including the word “God” is “God of War,” a video game, with more than 700,000 searches per year. The No. 1 search that includes “how to” and “Walmart” is “how to steal from Walmart,” beating all questions related to coupons, price-matching or applying for a job.

Of course, we should be careful not to draw overarching conclusions about religion from what people search for on Google. Even decades-long search trends might not reflect real developments, and the composition of people making searches changes over time. Although I think it is pretty clear that various trends are pointing away from God, the best evidence is probably not the search data I started with but long-term polling data, which has consistently shown an increase in the number of people who identify as atheists or agnostics. While the usual sources are biased in favor of wholesome activities, Internet data is probably biased in favor of debauched activities.

That said, search data is illuminating. In fact, the patterns we see reflected there are much stronger than just about anybody expected when researchers first started looking into it.
If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic. Jambalaya recipes are searched mostly in Louisiana; Lakers statistics are searched mostly in Los Angeles; “Seth Stephens-Davidowitz” is searched mostly on my computer.

In a way, these examples are surprising because you might think that people who know the most would have the least reason to search. But that’s not the way it actually plays out. A high volume of searches by people who already have the most information holds true for religious searches, too. Searches related to the Bible, God, Jesus Christ, church and prayer are all highly concentrated in the Bible Belt. They rise on Sunday everywhere.

Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives. Consider this one: What questions do people have when they are questioning God?

People may not share their doubts with friends, relatives, rabbis, pastors or imams. They inevitably share them with Google. Every year, in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of pointed questions, most of them coming from the Bible Belt. 
The No. 1 question in the country is “who created God?” 
Second is why God allows suffering
This is the famous problem of evil. If God is all powerful and all good, how could he allow suffering? 
The third most-asked question is why does God hate me? 
The fourth is why God needs so much praise.
[God does not need praise, there are billions of angels doing this job, but this praise of God  by believer is indicator of his/her willing submission to God, affirmation of belief]

This struck home. Here’s a quick story from Stephens family lore to explain why. At the age of 11, my father’s father asked his rabbi, “If God is so special, why does he need so much praise?” 
Disappointed with the answer, he stood up, walked out of shul and never returned. Thus began a three-generation male Stephens tradition of making elaborate, over-the-top gestures, having these gestures quickly forgotten by the outside world, and proudly telling these stories over and over again at the dinner table, to eye-rolling girlfriends and wives.

We can correlate religious doubts to the geography of suffering. Where there is more pain and unhappiness, are people more likely to ask why God allows suffering? The answer is no. Places with lower life expectancies and more poverty are more religious and thus have more questions about religion in general. But the questions in hard-luck places are not tilted toward the problem of evil, relative to other concerns searchers have about religion. The proportions are the same. Not only is “who created God?” the top question nationally, it is also the top question in every state.
Some religious people, most famously Job, have asked why God has made their lives so difficult. Now we have evidence on what challenges elicit such questions.
What is the most common word to complete the following question: Why did God make me ___? No. 1, by far, is “ugly.” The other sad answers in the top three are “gay” and “black.”

In the United States, there is more interest in heaven than in hell, at least based on searches. There are 1.5 times more searches for “heaven” than “hell,” 2.8 times as many searches asking what heaven looks like than what hell looks like, and 2.75 times as many searches asking whether heaven is real than whether hell is real.
Things get really interesting when we look at these patterns among people closer to death.
Take the 10 cities with at least 10,000 inhabitants with the largest populations over 65. In these cities, the census tells us that an average of 65 percent of the population is over 65; Facebook tells us that an average of 30 percent of its members in these cities are over 65; and Google tells us the most common word in a search for “diapers” is “adult.” So a significant fraction of Internet searches in these places is from the elderly.
Relative to the rest of the country, for every search I looked at, retirement communities search more about hell. In retirement communities, there are a similar number of searches asking to see visuals of hell as visuals of heaven.

What happened to religious searches during the four harrowing days in Boston after the marathon bombing in April of 2013? Searches related to “prayer” went up fourfold. I found this very natural and obvious: When tragedy strikes, people turn to prayer. No surprise there, right?

One problem: Almost all these searches were of a very specific kind, “pray for Boston,” a phrase created for the occasion, and many people were curious about what this meant. Search rates for the Bible and God were slightly lower during these days.
In Boston, total searches for news went up 50 to 160 percent over these tense days. Total searches for religion dropped a bit

THIS appears to be a strikingly robust result, and is not limited to liberal cities like Boston. When very bad things happen around the world, people search for news; they do not search for prayers, the Bible, the Quran or anything related to religion.
I looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan, and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance, in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280 percent. The top religious searches, be they the “Bible,” “Quran,” “God,” “Allah” or “prayer,” tended to drop or stay about the same.

Does this mean that when tragedies strike, people focus on getting information and spend little time praying? I have to believe this is a limitation of search data, that actual prayers rise during tragedies, and that searches just do not capture this behavior. If nothing else, it is a puzzle, as everything I thought I knew about the world and search data led me to expect the opposite.

In the era before digital data, there were debates about the relative popularity of celebrities and deities, most famously when John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Lennon didn’t live long enough to compare Google search counts. Today, it is pretty clear that Jesus does not get the most attention, at least online. There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.
Even if you add searches for crosses and related topics, Ms. Kardashian is still ahead. On social media, it’s the same story. Ms. Kardashian has 26.3 million likes on Facebook; Jesus has 5.6 million; the pope, 1.7 million. This is hardly definitive proof that Kim Kardashian is more popular than Jesus or Pope Francis, or that this country now worships at the altar of the Kardashians, but the differences are nonetheless striking.

"Googling for God" by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, nytimes.com
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