Daniel Blackman is a freelance writer, photographer, and media consultant based in London, UK. He writes news, features, and interviews for print and online Catholic (and some non-Catholic) news outlets. He has a BA in theology and an MA specializing in systematic theology and ethics.
Yeah there’s some horrible stuff on social media, like the endless attacks against those who take a principled stand against same-sex marriage and abortion, or the transgender agenda rapidly marching though society. And there’s the incitement to violence by groups of young men and women who call anyone disagreeing with them ‘fascist.’
But look a little deeper, past the headlines, and you’ll see that some people are looking into what social media can tell us about ourselves the society we’re shaping.
For example, there’s some interesting new research just published, looking at the language used by religious people (mostly Christians) and non-religious people (mostly atheists and agnostics).
The study found that Christians use more positive language compared to nonreligious people. But with Christian affiliation and practice on the decline, and secularist ‘no religion’ identity on the rise, is social media only set to get worse?
‘The Language of Religious Affiliation Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Differences’ to give its full name, was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
They found that religious people were more likely to use words in the religion, positive emotion, family, social processes, and achievement language categories. Those categories include words like love, good, happy, family, mom, we, they, better, and best.
However, nonreligious individuals were more likely to use words in the anger, swear, death, and money categories. They include words like hate, lying, bad, cried, heck, die, dead, free, check, worth, and spend.
But let’s not get puffed up with pride, or rush to banish those without faith and more inclined to pessimism and trigger warnings.
How they did it
The people behind the findings are impressive range of professors across three continents, coming from the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, the State University of New York — all in the U.S. — and the University of Melbourne (Australia) and the University of Cambridge (England).
They examined language from 12,815 Facebook users in the U.S. and U.K. who indicated their religious affiliation.
87 per cent of the participants were from the U.S., and 11 per cent from the U.K. Of the total, 10,359 were considered religious, whether that was Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist, with the majority (8,913) being Christian.
The largest denomination within the Christian category were Catholics at 2,426, although those simply calling themselves ‘Christian’ came in at 4,301.The rest of the sample,2,456, were ‘nonreligious,’ which included 1,219 self-identified atheists and 1,237 agnostics.
The team conducted both a top-down and a bottom-up analysis of the words, using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to group words, and the Differential Language Analysis approach where an algorithm groups the words.
The paper argues that “Unlike self-report surveys, language posted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter offers more spontaneously generated language data potentially relevant to a person’s personality, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.”
They also cite studies to argue that language used on Facebook can be extrapolated to the wider population, along with studies on the psychological and social benefits of being religious.
The word results are included in the paper as a list of categories and words within those categories, with religious and nonreligious results for each.
A separate study of Twitter users supports the new findings
This isn’t an isolated set of results, either. A 2013 study by Dr Ryan Ritter and others, called ‘Happy Tweets’ also published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, fully supports the findings.
Ritter analyzed nearly two million tweets generated by over 16,000 users who followed a few prominent Christian and atheist personalities on Twitter, aiming to examine the differences between Christians and atheists using natural language.
They studied the tweets for their use of positive or negative words, the frequency of words related to social processes like references to family, and the frequency of words associated with an analytical thinking style.
The result? “Analyses reveal that Christians use more positive emotion words and less negative emotion words than atheists.”
They also found that a less analytical thinking style among Christians, and more frequent use of social words, was correlated with the use of words indicating positive emotions.
“These findings provide the first evidence that the relationship between religion and happiness is partially mediated by thinking style,” they concluded. Rather than head to Twitter, Ritter was snapped up by Facebook to work as a user experience researcher.
Can psychology explain ‘why’? The absence of fathers
So do Christians have some sort of social advantage? Perhaps being part of a church community helps keep them positive, and more supported? Or maybe the role of prayer, meditation, art, music and beauty help Christians think ‘with the whole person’ – head, heart, and senses, so to speak, rather than just the thought processes in our minds?
And maybe the public nature of social media and community accountability means Christians are more likely to avoid bad words and nasty rants that other Christians might see?
Quite possibly all of the above, which are discussed in the study. But there seems to be another factor not much looked at, especially in relation to why the nonreligious seem less happy and more angry.
The Register reached out to Professor Paul C. Vitz, a renowned expert in the psychology of atheism and author of Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.
For decades he taught at the University of New York, before moving to the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.
“There is evidence that on average atheists appear to have less happy interpersonal lives,” he says.
“For example, they are more prone to suicide. This was found to be the case in research carried out by Kanita Dervic and published in 2004 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, called ‘Religious affiliation and suicide attempt.’
“And of course, religion gives higher meaning and for most religions, especially Christianity, a positive higher meaning.”
But his big idea, the root cause of what these studies have found above, comes back to the family – specifically, family fragmentation, the absence of fathers. And that can lead to atheism, he argues.
“The absence of fathers in families today is very likely associated with atheism and a general absence of higher meaning in people's lives. I refer readers to an article Bruce Buff and I wrote called ‘Adolescents" in Crisis: The Need to Recover Religion.’”
In it, he writes “A far stronger case can be made for our society’s decline in religious faith as the cause of these mental pathologies in the young. The decline in religion that began in the 60s has accelerated in the past 15 years and is especially great among young people.”
He continues: “Fathers, even more than mothers, are the major parent who passes on religion. Again, for evidence, I’d say read Families and faith: How religion is passed down across generations.
“Father absence also results, on average, in more depression, anger, and criminal behaviour – there are many sources from worldwide research to support this. Even the biological health of children is affected by father absence.”
Others are making the same arguments. It’s not an attempt to use psychology as an excuse for the bad behavior of others in words or deeds, or a reason to stop debating and arguing, even strongly, on and off line in defence of the true, good and beautiful.
It is a reminder that social media is another opportunity to share our faith, in a positive way like St. Francis de Sales and St. Maximilian Kolbe – there are lots of people like Bella Dodd, Douglas Hyde, Bernard Nathanson, Leah Libresco, Holly Ordway and Roger Buck just waiting to hear it.