Penn State Researchers Use Google’s Book Searching Tool to Discover Historical Religious Trends
- By Alison Lesley --
- 26 Jul 2015 --
The Ngram Viewer was used to search more than 15 million books to determine the popularity of God over the last century. The results are contrary to what the media reports.
Because the world is developing and advancing technologically and economically, the majority of people believe that God is becoming a diminishing part of everyone’s lives. But this is a theory that is difficult to prove because religious trends have never been the subject of any statistical study, unlike GDP, employment, education, crime, and other data.
God is not dead. This is the conclusion arrived at by the research conducted by sociologists Jennifer McClure of Samford University, Roger Finke, and Nathaniel Porter of Pennsylvania State University. Their study, which will become part of a book, involves the study of historical religious trends, public interest in religion, and the changes of religious terms as time goes by. Their study would have been impossible without the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer.
The Ngram Viewer is just one of Google’s long list of tools which allows users to determine the frequency of words or short sentences in a collection of more than 15 million books published from 1800 until today. To make it possible, the internet giant partnered with dozens of libraries to be able to store billions of pages in its database from books of different languages. This will give the opportunity for researchers to gain insights to almost any subject especially culture and religion.
The research team created a comprehensive dataset which include keywords or variables associated with religion from angels to Armageddon. And when they finally used Ngram Viewer to search for the term “God” and “god”, they found out that there were no significant increases or decreases in the mentions of God in publications from the 1900s until today.
The only notable change is the steep decline from 1840 to 1900. In 1840 the word “God” appeared 12 times per 10,000 words but by 1900s it dropped to an average of 4 times per 10,000 words. In short, God started appearing less by the turn of the 20th century.
But according to the researchers, the steep decline does not literally mean that belief in God or a particular religion has declined. It could be caused by several factors. First of which is the low literacy rate prior to 1900s. Before that, early book writers and novelists also tend to write on limited subjects and most revolve around religion. And from 1900s until today where most writers became well-educated, references or mentions of God become relatively stable.
The researchers have also cited that belief in God has evolved through other terms or religions like the Church of Latter-day Saints and the more recent fundamentalist movement. Based on the research results, the word fundamentalist appeared on publications 5 times out of 10 million words. But by 1990 the percentage increased by fourfold.
It is also worthy to note the from the earliest publications until today, the most popular words and phrases contained in books and other publications are those related to sex and violence.