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Googling for God: IT has been a bad decade for God, at least so far

IT has been a bad decade for God, at least so far. 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.

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.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is an economist and a contributing opinion writer - The New York Times