Religious Interest Among Young Facebook Users is Big. But Why?

Stephen Wolfram yesterday published Data Science of the Facebook World, an analysis of data from people who have allowed his website, Wolfram Alpha, access to their Facebook lives. Two charts touch on religion, and we’re not totally sure what to make of them.

The first chart is a word cloud of Facebook posts categorized as “quotes + life philosophy:”

If you can’t quite read the words, here they are:

therefore mistakes seek lemons nor
peace trust don’t freedom ourselves hearts grace
christ truth shall fear teeth strength beauty glory
life believe faith jesus it’s lies
quote wisdom joy
happiness knowledge lord others lives
god’s deny forgive religion precious greater humanity
prayer belief purpose courage darkness bible sin

Nearly all of them (except “lemons”) reflect words that Christians use when talking about their faith or when sharing quotes from the Bible. We’ll therefore use the “quotes + life philosophy” category as a proxy for religious interest–it’s not perfect, but it’s what we have.

Now let’s look at how the number of posts related to “quotes + life philosophy” (i.e., religious interest) change based on age:


Pink represents women; blue represents men. The x-axis is the age of the person posting. The y-axis indicates the popularity of posts by people of that age.

Notice the big peak around age 18 among women, a peak they don’t surpass again until age 44. By comparison, men’s religious interest remains remarkably stable from ages 18 to 40 before growing again afterward.

The interest in religion among young women is particularly striking given the recent Pew study showing 18-29-year-olds as the least-religious age group in the U.S. However, the Facebook data actually supports the Pew research–interest in religion peaks at age 18 and then drops substantially throughout women’s 20s before recovering somewhat in their 30s and 40s. Grouping everyone into the “18-29″ demographic potentially obscures religious interest among the younger members of the group.

The question this data doesn’t answer, though, is whether religious interest among women naturally drops off after age 18 or whether the current cohort of 18-year-old women represents a resurgent interest in religion that will carry over into the remainder of their lives. If Wolfram is able to follow these same women over the next few years, we’ll have our answer.

(A caveat: we’re making some pretty big inferences from two tiny charts–if “quotes + life philosophy” doesn’t actually reflect religious interest, then our conclusions are unwarranted. And even if the category does reflect religious interest, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a positive interest in religion.)

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Posted by Stephen

Filed under Statistics