December 22nd, 2010
08:00 AM ET

Searching for sex and religion in new Google database

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

The massive Google database of some 500 billion words culled from books published between 1500 and 2008, and featured in an article published today in Science, is a treasure trove for anyone interested in how languages change. But it can also provide quantitative insights into the history of culture, via what the authors of the study are calling “culturomics.”

In my first effort at playing around with the new database, which goes by the clunky name of “Books Ngram Viewer,” I tried to see what I might be able to learn about religion. Because my scholarly focus is on religion in the United States, I focused on books published in “American English” between 1776 and today.

I found that occurrences of the word "Bible" peak as a percentage of all printed words in the 1840s, and that the steady decline in usage of this word is reversed right around 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan as president and the rise of the religious right.

I found that Jesus’ popularity (at least as a word) peaked in 1810, hit a 20th-century bottom in 1939 and has been rising pretty much ever since.

I also found that the word "yoga" first came into the lexicon of American English in the 1890s, and that the word "fundamentalist" arrived three decades later— in the 1920s.

When I charted the term "religion" against the word "sex," I learned that "religion" appeared far more often than "sex" in books in the 18th and 19th centuries—in fact in some years in Victorian America "religion" outpaced "sex" by a factor of roughly 10:1. But the two lines start to converge after the Civil War, and they cross in 1970—1971 to be exact.

When I entered the words "Judaism," "Islam," "Buddhism," and "Hinduism" to see which of these traditions was discussed most often in books in American English, I discovered to my surprise that "Islam" outpaced even "Judaism" in virtually every year since the Civil War, with the exception of a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Judaism was the most used of these terms.

Finally, and most importantly, this new Google database should be able to settle the question, raised by John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” At least when it comes to appearances of those two terms in books in American English, Jesus was at the time at least 10 times more popular than the Beatles, and he remains more popular today.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Islam • Jesus • Judaism • Opinion • United States

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Yinka Ayobolu

    A comprehensive insight into the topic could also be found in the Blank Cheque

    December 22, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  2. GSA

    I'm upset, I only clicked the link for the article because the author used the word se-x in the ti-tle to reel me in and when I opened the link.....no naked chicks, what a waste of my time!

    December 22, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  3. Justin

    I don't understand why people are criticizing this article, reading between the lines and assuming knowledge of the author's intent. The author deliberately refrains from drawing any conclusions from the data. Calling Jesus "popular" isn't a conclusion about Jesus being well-liked, it's an analytical observation of the data. The author didn't mean "popular" in terms of being well-liked, but popular in terms of a frequent choice by many individuals as a word in a written work. Apparently, some of the article's commentators can't handle reading an article in which someone calls Jesus "popular." Such folks would do well to take their own advice when they warn of divorce from context.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • Bob

      I'm not criticizing the article nor commenting on it's intent. I'm stating that it's value as information is close to nil.

      December 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • JLS639

      I agree. This is the quickest, easiest type of analysis to perform. It does say something that "Islam" has so consistently outpaced "Judaism" in terms of printed words. Using those terms (as opposed to Muslim and Jew) implies someone is writing about the religion or a society where the religion is popular. This implies that, until the 1960's, writers were more interested in Islam. This should not be surprising to folks familiar with history, really. The Barbary States, the Ottoman Empire and the (mostly Islamic) Tatars would probably interest me a lot more than anything dealing with Judaism if I lived in the 19th century.

      December 22, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  4. Spectator

    Bob and Sam, my thoughts exactly...kind of a shallow article, I agree. It peaked my interest though because I'm a Christian and I wanted to see what would be said. Thank you for sharing

    December 22, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  5. Sam

    The search engine is pretty useless, unless one is looking for something within the texts. How could anyone make conclusions based on the simple surface appearance of words, not taking into account the context for their usage? When anyone uses google's general word internet search, they look for web pages with the words and phrases they are interested in because they seek further content, and the words serve as simple directional leads. I've never seen anyone string together conclusions based on the simple frequency of a word's appearance in written paper text over time. I thought there was more to things than that? Amazingly trite and silly coming from an apparently established professor and published author on an established news site.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  6. Bob

    Usage of the word does not really denote religion use. It denotes common usage. I bet a lot more people say "Jesus Christ" these days (even I do, and I'm an atheist) when you stub your toe or something.

    This is one of those things that while looks like it may represent something at first, upon closer investigation shows that it's effectively meaningless due to the variables involved, meaning that it's weight in any sort of subjective analysis is worthless.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:32 am |
    • Sam

      Bob, excellent point. And notice how short and simpleton the article is as a result! Also surprising to see a published author take interest in this, since, again, as you conclude, it's a very shallow, meaningless surface analysis. Pop promotional/advertisement "reporting".

      December 22, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      No offense anybody, but this author appears on "Belief" from time to time for CNN and he is very shallow and has a real lack of true journalistic qualities such as getting to the root of the point he is trying to make. Ignoring the fact that as language changes our meaning behind the words or how "sacred" a word might be also changes. As you both pointed out we also have more books in general about a zillion subjects and referencing negatives using the word jesus or islam or buddism etc says nothing about those subjects other than general awareness has increased and more publications fictional or nonfictional are being published.

      December 22, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  7. vel

    well, considering that books refuting Jesus's existence have become more and more popular, claiming that any appearance in American makes Jesus "popular" in an thinly veiled attempt to claim that Christianity is valid might be a bit off.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:18 am |
    • Reality

      "Googling" and "Libraying" Jesus:

      From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.

      "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

      “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

      “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

      “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

      I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

      See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

      Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

      Part of Crossan's The Historical Jesus has been published online at books.google.com/books.

      There is also a search engine for this book on the left side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

      See also Wikipedia's review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus' reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

      From ask.com,

      "One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.

      Then there are these scriptural references:

      Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

      Were these scriptural stories embellished? Yes, but the crucifixion is the constant event.

      Added suggested readings:

      o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–
      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter
      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
      10. 7. The Gnostic Jesus
      (Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)
      by Douglas Groothuis: equip.org/free/DG040-1.htm
      11. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission
      Presented on March 18, 1994
      12. The Jesus Database- newer site:
      13. Jesus Database with the example of Supper and Eucharist:
      14. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:
      15. The Journal of Higher Criticism with links to articles on the Historical Jesus:
      16. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/
      17. Diseases in the Bible:
      18. Religion on Line (6000 articles on the history of religion, churches, theologies,
      theologians, ethics, etc.
      19. The Jesus Seminarians and their search for NT authenticity:
      20. The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT ntgateway.com/
      21. Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.
      22. The Search for the Historic Jesus by the Jesus Seminarians:
      23. Jesus Decoded by Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco (Da Vinci Code review)jesusdecoded.com/introduction.php
      24. JD Crossan's scriptural references for his book the Historical Jesus separated into time periods: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan1.rtf
      25. JD Crossan's conclusions about the authencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the conclusions of other NT exegetes in the last 200 years:
      26. Common Sayings from Thomas's Gospel and the Q Gospel: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan3.rtf
      27. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books by t-itle with the complete translated work in English :earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html
      28. Luke and Josephus- was there a connection?
      29. NT and beyond time line:
      30. St. Paul's Time line with discussion of important events:
      31. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JD Crossan's books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be found on-line at Google Books.
      32. Father Edward Schillebeeckx's words of wisdom as found in his books.
      33. The books of the following : Professors Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bishop NT Wright.
      34. Father Raymond Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY, 1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.

      December 22, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • DonB

      Very good point! The context that the word jesus makes it into a book matters too. As in "There is no jesus" is not the same as "jesus is the son of god".

      December 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • Shut up...

      @Reality – you seriously spent time to type all that...

      December 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Not to mention the increasing numbers of publications since that time.

      December 22, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  8. WWRRD

    Interesting historical analysis. Helps us understand ourseleves and the world of our recent ancestors a little better.

    December 22, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  9. LetoAtreides

    Thanks for the stats! Very interesting!

    December 22, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  10. LetoAtreides

    Thanks for the stats. Very interesting!

    December 22, 2010 at 9:49 am |
    • bailoutsos

      Didn't someone just get convicted of searching for s*x and religion with boys in Haiti?

      December 22, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      My only point as to his comparison between John Lennon's statement and his analysis is that John was refering to the whole world (they had just been on tour across asia, phillipeans etc) Lennon's reference was too the throngs of people adoring his band in countries where Jesus and Christianiy for that matter were scarcely known. If the author of this article took in to effect what was written about the Beatles as compared to the Jesus out side of his parameters of American English from 1776 to today the numbers might be a bit different.

      December 22, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
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