Looking for God Online

The Secular Coalition for America in a full-page ad in the Washington Post last week congratulated Congressman Peter Stark on being “the first open ‘nontheist’ in the history of the Congress.”

Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron, promoting his cable television documentary Jesus Tomb, claimed to bring Jesus to Manhattan (literally) in the form of remains in a 2000-year-old bone box.

Despite the fact that religion is always in the news, visits to religious websites in the U.S. are declining rapidly. They dropped over 30% within the last year, down 35% the last two years, while visits to online entertainment, in the form of video sites and social networks like MySpace and Facebook, continue to soar. Does the erosion of online interest in religion translate to a major shift away from spirituality? Are we losing our religion?

In a study conducted by Gallop in 2005, 65.8% of those surveyed stated that they “had no doubts that God exists.” But can we really trust survey responses to reveal our true spiritual convictions or lack of them? Internet behavior and search patterns are far more telling.

Visits to the top 1200 religious sites in the U.S. accounted for only .18% of all Internet visits for the week ending March 10, 2007. To put that in perspective, there are over 60 visits to adult sites for every one religious website visit.

If we have in fact lost our religion, search engines would seem to be the most logical place to look for evidence. On average, religious websites receive 36% of their traffic from the likes of Google, Yahoo! Search and MSN Search. Examining the data behind the search terms shows that some denominations have embraced the Internet and search marketing as a way to reach out to those searching for answers.

Take the Mormons for example. The Church of Latter Day Saints purchases sponsored listing advertisements on Google. Searches for “bible,” “free bible,” and “Jesus Christ” display listings for LDS.org, the church’s official website.

It’s no coincidence that Internet users in the state of Utah are four times more likely to visit a religious website than the Internet population as a whole. (For those of you keeping score, Vermont ranks as the state with residents least likely to visit religious sites.)

If Internet patterns and search behavior are indicators of religious interest, maybe a better question is: what are we looking for when we search for religion? The answer depends on denomination.

Searches leading to Roman Catholic websites reveal a fascination with saints: from the generic query “saints” to the religious ties to what most of us now consider secular holidays, “St. Valentine’s Day and “St. Patrick’s Day.” Contrast that with the search terms used by seekers of Protestant and other Christian sites.

The majority of search terms concentrate on bible study (“bible,” biblical verses” and “bible online”) and evangelical personalities (“Joel Osteen” and “Joyce Meyer“).

Information seekers on the Jewish religion are different still, with a mixture of subjects such as Jewish heritage, humor and bio-ethical issues such as “cloning” and “right to die.”

What’s most telling how the nature of religious searches has evolved. If there were a decline in our spiritual conscience, surely it would show in the way religious searches have changed over time.

Over the past two years, searches to religious sites have shown no perceptible change. What has changed is the plethora of new activities and information, like MySpace and YouTube, vying for our attention. It’s not that we’re losing our religion, it’s that we’ve gained many more distractions.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Bill Tancer, TIME Magazine, Mar. 16, 2007, http://www.time.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 16, 2007.
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