Are You There God? It’s Us, Googling

Every so often, economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunches Google search data for the New York Times and comes up with some fun statistics about, say, the anxieties of pregnant women (“can pregnant women eat shrimp?” is a popular search query in the US) or the ratio of heart-related to penis-related searches (67:100 for those keeping score).

This Sunday, Stephens-Davidowitz turned his attention to God. Some of the patterns he documents are predictable, such as the steep reduction in “Google searches for churches,” yet more evidence of the increasing number of “nones,”   or that “searches related to the Bible, God, Jesus Christ, church and prayer are all highly concentrated in the Bible Belt. They rise on Sunday everywhere.” Other patterns are more jarring: “Relative to the rest of the country, for every search I looked at, retirement communities search more about hell,” he writes.

Each month, on average, 422 people in the US ask Google “Why did God make me ugly?” and 103 ask “Why did God make me black?” The most common God-related question, asked over 25,000 times per month in the US, is “Who created God?,” followed by that old Job-ian classic, “Why does God allow suffering?”

But we should be careful here; Google search data offers a skewed sliver of insight into the full range of human motivation and behavior. The population of people who ask Google about God may not be reflective of the full population of people who have divine-related questions. And while Stephens-Davidowitz engages in some discussion about the social trends that drive these search patterns, it’s mostly speculative.

The most interesting follow-up question here may not be Why do people search for these specific questions? but What do they find when they do? After all, when you search for an answer on Google, there are a whole lot of websites on the other end jockeying for a chance to get their answer into your theologically-inclined field of vision.

Google tailors search results to individual users based on past searchers and other tracking data. So when you ask Google about, say, the fundamental nature of evil, the first answer you get is determined not by centuries of hermeneutic tradition and theological reflection, but a combination of personalized algorithms and the vagaries of search engine optimization.

So, which authorities has Google ordained to answer America’s most pressing questions about God? When I ask the search engine “Who created God?” the top five results, in order, were:

  1. A short essay on Creation.com, the website of Creation Ministries International, an evangelical Christian organization devoted to “providing credible answers that affirm the reliability of the Bible.”
  2. Another article from Creation.com, asserting that the question is actually illogical.
  3. A post from GodandScience.org that, among other things, explains that Stephen Hawking’s research upholds the Genesis account of creation.
  4. A post from EveryStudent.com; the site claims to be “a safe space to explore questions about life and God”—especially, it seems, if you want someone to convince you that God is real.
  5. And an article from something called the Christian Courier, which appears to be the publication of a Stockton, CA-based ministry.

Clearly, Google’s algorithms here are favoring reassurances for the theologically shaken, rather than arguments that will deepen the doubt. They’re also pulling on fairly hardline, literalist perspectives. (Again, results may vary; judging by my recent targeted advertising, Google seems to think that I’m in my twenties and an evangelical Christian—50% correct!—and it knows that I’m searching from an IP address in East Tennessee).

Advertising comes into play here, too. When I asked Google “Why does God allow suffering?” the first hit was a sponsored result for the website of David Jeremiah, a conservative evangelical preacher in California.

Do these websites actually shape people’s responses to deep theological questions? Can search results and search engine optimization influence the beliefs of an individual confronting a difficult question?

It’s hard to tell. But as people go online for answers to religious questions, fundamentalist and fringe religious groups do have chances to dominate the search results and stake out authoritative-sounding positions, regardless of their influence offline.

You can see this, for example, in the world of online Judaica, where two organizations—Aish HaTorah and, especially, the Chabad Lubavitch movement—have developed enormous, accessible websites offering answers on everything from gefilte fish recipes to evolution.

In the context of American Judaism, both organizations are unusual: Chabad is a messianic Hasidic sect; Aish, as I’ve chronicled before, is a right-wing organization designed to draw non-Orthodox Jews into the Orthodox world. Aside from glossy websites and good search engine optimization, nothing makes them more authoritative than other, more mainstream Jewish sources.

But when you look up, say, “Are Jews okay with homosexuality?” Chabad gets to speak second, within the Google algorithm, right after Wikipedia. Ask “Can you be gay and Jewish?” and Chabad—which does not condone same-sex relationships or intimacy—gets the first two answers. (Methodological notes for the wonky: this was tested on Google Incognito, on two different computers, one with no known search history for Chabad).

Again, it’s not clear whether these quirks of search actually shape people’s beliefs. But it’s worth remembering that posing a question to a search engine is not the same as posing a question to any other kind of source. The competition for authority online is governed by a very different set of rules than in previous contests for theological legitimacy. And often, when people express doubt on the web, those most ready to answer will also be those most dogmatic in their beliefs.

Also on The Cubit: Is It OK To Use a Cellphone in Church?

3 Comments

  • bw40ny@gmail.com' Bee Wald says:

    Search engines have become a “trusted” method in which people rely on to answer interesting/confusing questions that they pose. However, people are not aware of the fact that the general public creates websites in which people base their information off of. People do not realize that everything on Internet is not necessarily a fact. Especially when it comes to searches related to religion, people do not understand that other people create religious websites that consists of their own opinions hoping to convert other people.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Wouldn’t google be better than going into a church and asking the priest or preacher? I think this would be a question that a 20 something could answer.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    Google is an unreliable vehicle for trying to discern the thoughts of people taken as a group. A good question to ask would be what percentage of the population use google searches to find the kinds of things you’re looking into and how many make the same search more than once. The algorithms for determining what comes up at the top of a search that can yield more than a million results biases what people click on which artificially influences the study. And that can and has been shown to be able to be hacked by interest groups. Atheists in groups such as Susan Gerbic’s “Guerrilla Skeptics” have pretty much destroyed anything like objectivity in Wikipedia topics they focus on, and there are similar, announced efforts for such internet “tools” as Web of Trust. And what the atheists do other groups of ideologues can do, as well. If any religious group was discovered doing what they do or if they announced they were doing what Dan Savage did with his (in)famous “Santorum” stunt all hell would break loose in condemning them.

    This kind of “research” tells you a lot more about the motives of the researcher than it does the actual, collective and mythical public mind.

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